One of my favorite soups in the world is called Tom Kha, 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.
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: lemongrass, galangal, 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
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, and don’t be afraid to try something new just for fun!
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.
A Bowlful of Heaven
A good batch of Tom Kha is rich, sour, salty and spicy all at once. Its complexity teases your palate, its 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!
Authentic Tom Kha Gai Soup
This recipe uses the traditional Tom Kha ingredients to make it taste authentic, nourishing and delicious.
- 6 cups homemade chicken stock
- 28 ounces full-fat BPA-free coconut milk
- 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)
- 1-2 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)
- Squirt of fresh lime juice
- 1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped
- Dash of chili paste or Sriracha sauce (Optional)
- Put stock and coconut milk into a soup pot and add lemongrass, galangal, shallots, 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.
- Bring to a simmer to infuse the herbs into the broth for about 10-15 minutes, or to taste. Do not boil!
- Strain broth through a fine mesh sieve or simply remove the nut milk bag.
- Add the sugar to the broth, if using, and bring to a low simmer of about 160-180 degrees. Do not boil!
- Add salt, chicken, mushrooms, corn, and other veggies, and simmer until the chicken is completely cooked and the mushrooms are tender, about 5-10 minutes.
- Once the chicken is cooked through, throw in the smashed chilies and remove the pot from heat immediately.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.
- Garnish with cilantro leaves, lime juice and hot sauce, if using.