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Authentic Tom Kha Gai (Thai Coconut Chicken Soup)

Authentic Tom Kha Gai (Thai Coconut Chicken Soup)

One of my favorite soups in the world is called Tom Kha Gai, a spicy, coconut-milk based soup usually served with chicken or shrimp. But because it is a traditional dish from Thailand, and my cooking skills are pretty basic, I’ve always been afraid to make it myself.

Silly me… 

After perusing a bunch of Americanized recipes for Tom Kha soup, I realized I just wouldn’t be happy with my soup without the authentic Thai ingredients to make it taste right.

There are four main ingredients that distinguish Americanized Tom Kha from the Real McCoy: lemongrassgalangal, kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce. Tom Kha Gai just isn’t a traditional Thai dish (and doesn’t taste as good) without them.

So, off to the Asian supermarket I went for an adventure.

If you live near a larger city, or have Thai restaurants in your town, you probably have a decent Asian market too, and will be able to find everything you need to make Tom Kha the traditional way.

If you don’t have an Asian market near you, you can get many of the authentic ingredients at Whole Foods or online from Amazon.com.

A Word About Asian Markets

Dragonfruit - So pretty and delicious!

Dragonfruit – So pretty and delicious!

Asian markets are always an adventure, mostly because they have so many sights, smells and flavors that Americans are unfamiliar with.

First, when you walk in, the smell of fresh butchered fish may assault your senses. This is because fresh seafood is usually sold live out of large tanks in the store, and cut to order right before your eyes. If you love seafood, a good Asian market is probably the freshest place in town to get it, but it does mean that part of the store smells like a fisherman’s wharf!

At a good Asian market, you will also find lots of fruits and vegetables you may have never seen before, and tons of brightly colored packages full of mystery items you will have no idea how to use. Ask for help; there is usually at least one person in the store (customer or staff) who is eager to help a lost American find her ingredients. So have fun and explore!

Don’t be afraid to try something new just for fun! Every time I go to the Asian supermarket, I try to get one new fruit or vegetable that I’ve never had before. While shopping for soup ingredients this weekend, I brought home a dragonfruit for my family to try. Yum!

While it’s important to have a sense of adventure and openness when exploring new cuisines and cultures, do also be careful while shopping at Asian markets. As at any market, always check ingredient labels and expiration dates carefully before you buy.

Asian packaged foods tend to come either with tons of chemical flavor enhancers and preservatives like MSG and sodium benzoate (much like American packaged foods!), or they are made with very clean, simple and traditional ingredients. You will need to look harder for the clean products, but they are there. All the links below are for MSG and additive free brands.

Authentic Tom Kha Gai Soup

tom kha gai ingredients

Lemongrass, shallots, limes, galangal, bird’s eye chilies and kaffir lime leaves

A good batch of Tom Kha is rich, sour, salty and spicy all at once. It’s complexity teases your palate, it’s traditional, nutrient dense ingredients warm your belly, and the gentle, spicy heat seems to burn colds,  viruses and melancholy right out of you.

Tom Kha is a staple in Thai cuisine, and a favorite of most Americans who like Thai food. Make some yourself and you’ll quickly see why!

Makes about 2 quarts

Tools

  • 3-5 quart pot
  • Nut milk bag or fine sieve to strain the broth
  • Very sharp knife or cleaver
  • Cooking thermometer

Ingredients

Broth

  • 6 cups homemade chicken stock
  • 28 ounces full-fat coconut milk (where to find coconut milk without additives or BPA online)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 4 stalks fresh lemongrass, lower white part chopped into 1-inch chunks, then smashed with knife (Get lemongrass online or at Whole Foods or an Asian market. Chop and freeze what you can’t use now.)
  • 6 red shallots, peeled and chunked (Sub: 3 smashed cloves of garlic plus a bit of red onion)
  • 1 cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 4-5 fresh red bird’s eye chili peppers (to heat preference), smashed with knife
  • 3 inch chunk of fresh galangal root, sliced (Sub: ginger, but galangal is really what makes the flavor of this dish authentic.) (Get fresh galangal online or at an Asian market. Chop up and freeze what you can’t use now.)
  • 8-10 fresh kaffir lime leaves, remove stems and tear and bruise by hand (Sub: zest of one lime, but really won’t be as complex.) (Get kaffir lime leaves online or at an Asian market; they freeze well.)
  • 2 teaspoons coconut palm sugar (Optional. Sub: Rapadura or brown sugar) (where to find coconut sugar online)

Soup

  • 2 pounds boneless chicken thighs, cut to 1″ pieces (or use meat leftover from making broth or stock)
  • 2 cups sliced mushrooms (button, straw, or oyster)
  • 1/4 cup Thai fish sauce (This is an essential, authentic ingredient. Get Thai fish sauce online or at Whole Foods or Asian markets.)
  • 6-8 fresh limes
  • 2 cans baby corn, drained and chopped (Optional)
  • Sweet red pepper rings, cherry tomato halves, or carrot slices (Optional)

Garnish

  • Squirt of fresh lime juice
  • 1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped
  • Dash of chili paste or Sriracha sauce (Optional)

Directions

  1. Put stock and coconut milk into a soup pot and add lemongrass, galangal, scallions, cilantro, and lime leaf. When making a large batch, put all the seasonings into a nut milk bag and “steep” it in the broth like a huge tea bag, so you don’t have to strain a huge, heavy pot later.
  2. Bring to a simmer to infuse the herbs into the broth. Do not boil!
  3. Strain broth through a fine mesh sieve or simply remove the nut milk bag.
  4. Add the sugar to the broth, if using, and bring to a low simmer of about 160-180 degrees. Do not boil!
  5. Add chicken, mushrooms, corn, and other veggies, and simmer until the chicken is completely cooked and the mushrooms are tender, about 5-10 minutes.
  6. Once the chicken is cooked through, throw in the smashed chilies and remove the pot from heat immediately.
  7. Add the juice of 2 limes and the fish sauce, stir, and taste. Add more lime juice and fish sauce, if necessary. The soup should be predominantly sour, followed by salty/umami.
  8. Garnish with cilantro leaves, lime juice and hot sauce, if using.
  9. Enjoy!

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MEDICAL DISCLOSURE: Your health is between you and your health care practitioner. Nothing in this blog is intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations is at the choice and risk of the reader.




31 Comments

  1. I just made this about an hour ago and oh my gosh am I full. I went out for Thai today and had a super mild version of this soup that was missing all the veggies and heat that I was expecting, so I decided to try my hand at making it myself. I couldn’t find kaffir lime leaves or the glanagal at the ranch 99 by my house, so I had to substitute lime zest and ginger, but oh goodness did it come out delicious. I used both button and straw mushroom, added Thai basil, cabbage and bamboo, and used tofu instead of chicken.

    Thanks for this delicious and easy to follow recipe!

    • You’re welcome!

    • This recipe is great! Had tom kha from a local restaurant last night and loved it so much my bf and I wanted to make it on our own. I read that you should not sub galangal for ginger but it did well, I also opted for crushed garlic instead of shallots, lime zest instead or Thai basil! Even used a chicken cube instead of broth! (Low on time and in a small town) thanks for this recipe, definitely bookmarked it!

      • Chili paste and spicy sesame oil was also used! The dimension of flavor… Food for the soul!

  2. If you can find galangal in a store with intact shoots, you can grow galangal at home! It looks a lot like ginger, and can either be dug up and stored inside after the first frost and replanted in spring, or grown in a large pot. Then you can have tom kha gai any time you want it.

  3. Thank you for your recipe, there are many available on the web and I settled on yours because your tutorial style was clear and easy to follow. I made the soup a couple of times and suggest a couple additions/changes: you are careful to tell us not to boil the soup, and through my own inattentiveness I can say why…you will cook the coconut milk solids and the curdled results will float to the top. These can be skimmed off but heres a suggestion that worked for me, I didnt add the coconut milk, the fish sauce or the lime juice until right before heating it up for serving. This allowed me to make the stock (broth, galangal, lime leaves etc) before hand, strain out the bits then throw in all my veggies/shrimp and not worry so much about overcooking the coconut.
    Great soup, thanks!

  4. One think you missed for “authentic” tom kha gai: chili paste in soybean oil. It’s what gives real tom kha gui soup the reddish oily hue. It adds such a great dimension to the soup.

    • That is good stuff, but since we are allergic to soy, and Babyzilla won’t eat spicy food, we had to leave that off. I like it with an occasional dash of Sriracha myself!

  5. Thank you for your submission on Nourishing Treasures’ Make Your Own! Monday link-up.

    Check back tomorrow when the new link-up is running to see if you were one of the top 3 featured posts! :)

  6. I’ve never heard of this soup before, but I’ve also never eaten Thai food. It has an interesting combination of ingredients. I’ll have to try it some time at a Thai restaurant or have my friend who’s Thai make it sometime. Hope you’ll come back and join us this week for Get Real Frugal Friday! http://realfoodrealfrugal.com/2013/01/24/focus-on-the-food-cauliflower-get-real-frugal-friday-3/

  7. One of my favorite soups, but I have to admit mine isn’t as authentic as yours, which is probably why mine never tastes as good as the one from the restaurant. Thanks for the great tutorial on making it the right way. I’m sharing this with the Keep It Real community tomorrow. Thank you for contributing.

  8. Dawn , I was planning to make a chicken soup this week, but will now endeavour to make this, it looks so good! Have to hunt down some galangal now! Thanks so much for sharing at Wednesday’s Seasonal Celebration! Rebecca@ Natural Mothers Network x

    • My pleasure! I think you’ll love the soup!!

  9. Delicious Thai coconut soup, I love it. I am highlighting this recipe on this weeks Hearth and Soul Blog hop.

  10. Such a beautiful dish, the ingredients are SO colorful!! Thanks for linking up at our Gluten Free Fridays party! I have tweeted and pinned your entry to our Gluten Free Fridays board on Pinterest! :)

    Thanks for linking back to the Gluten Free Fridays post!

    See you at the link up this week!

    Cindy from vegetarianmamma.com

  11. This looks delicious! I love that I can make a creamy soup without using dairy. Thanks for sharing your recipe with the hearth and Soul Hop. I’ve pinned it to my soup board and my dairy-free board on Pinterest.

  12. Tom Kha Gai is one of the most rampant and well-sought soups in Thailand. It’s always present in every restaurant menu. Thanks for sharing the recipe! Which Asian store did you go to?

    • You’re welcome! I got most everything at World Market in City Heights. For the kaffir lime leaves, I had to go to Rancho 99, where I got them off a tree there.

  13. My favorite thai soup is the seafood po tak, although this coconut milk variety is SO’s cup of tea. I grow the dragon fruits, and had three this year so far. It’s a tiny stalk.

  14. Chicken Soup is always a big hit here, we will just love this. Hope you are having a great weekend and thank you so much for sharing your awesome recipe with Full Plate Thursday.
    Come Back Soon!
    Miz Helen

  15. This sounds wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing on Wildcrafting Wednesday and The HomeAcre Hop!

  16. Great minds think alike, I’ve also been blogging about the world’s best soup. Great post! I love all the details about the market.

  17. Now I want to have a Tom Kha Gai off. I have my favorite recipe that I think tastes like it’s straight out of a restaurant. Don’t you love those flavors? Jodi @ http://www.meaningfulmama.com

  18. Wow! My husband is Thai, I have lived in Thailand, and I make Thai food almost every day. When I saw your word “authentic” I thought, yeah right, because people tend to throw that word around so much with ethnic foods. But I eagerly read the recipe and have to say, yes, this is the real deal and guaranteed to be delicious! My recipe is similar. The homemade broth is key as well as the fresh herbs and fresh lime juice. I would counsel all your readers to try this recipe exactly as written!

    • Thanks for your kind words and seal of approval! It is a really yummy soup!

  19. This is my favorite soup – thank you for the recipe – I am absolutely making it this weekend!

  20. I saw someone else’s recipe for this soup (before I saw yours) and made a foray to a local Asian market this weekend to buy lemon grass. What an adventure! The store was so crowded with stuff it was hard to walk sideways! The vegetables were particularly impressive–I’ve never seen vegetables look so fresh. Most prices were not marked, so I threw caution to the wind and filled up my shopping basket anyway. I got lemon grass, ginger, a huge bunch of cilantro, two beautiful Japanese eggplants (long ones), frozen coconut milk, frozen coconut meat, and a silly treat of salted plums–a childhood favorite. To my surprise and delight all came to less than $8–I don’t think I’ve walked out of a conventional grocery store with a full bag of groceries for less than $8 since the 1970′s! Where has this been all my life????

    My soup was OK, but the recipe was not quite as authentic as yours. So–darn–I’ll have to go back, after I study up on what glanagal and Kaffir lime leaves look like so I know what I’m looking for. ;o)

    • What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing it!

  21. Sounds really good. I love a simple version of this soup that I found, but have always wondered if I could make a more authentic version myself. I will have to give this a try.

  22. I can’t wait to try this recipe. I love all things thai and am slowly introducing the kids to eating it too.
    Thanks for such a detailed recipe and post.
    I also pinned this to my recipe board on pinterest :)

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