Recipe: Tom Kha Gai (Thai coconut soup)

Tom Kha Gai

After my recipe for Tom Yam soup, I got many emails asking me for a Tom Kha soup recipe too. It’s another crowd pleaser, and in contrast to Tom Yam, is milder, creamier, and richer. In Tom Yam, the citrus flavours of lemongrass and lime leaves take the lead, but Tom Kha’s earthy flavour comes from Kha or galangal as you might know it.

What follows is the recipe I used to make Tom Kha Gai at my former restaurant. This is by no means the one true method. As with almost any well-known dish on this planet, you can make changes to suit your taste and style. I will suggest some of them in the “notes” section after the recipe. Give each a try, and you might find a new personal favourite.

Makes 2-3 bowls of soup 

Preparation time: 15-20 minutes

WHAT YOU NEED

Good quality Chinese chicken stock – 1 cup

Coconut milk – 1 cup

Fresh or frozen lemongrass – 1/2 a  stalk

Galangal – fresh – 6 slices

Kaffir Lime Leaves – 2 (hand-torn)

Thai bird’s eye chillies (or Serrano chillies) – 2-3 (big slices so you can avoid them easily)

(If you don’t have any of the above, Amazon ships a package of all the fresh ingredients you need for the soup.)

Fish sauce – 1 tbsp (The saltiness can vary a lot across brands, so start with less always.)

Lime juice – 2 tbsp

Sugar – 1/2 tsp

Coriander (cilantro for the Americans) leaves – 2 tbsp

Boneless chicken breast – 50 gm (chopped)

Straw mushrooms (or regular button mushrooms) – 4 (sliced)

HOW TO MAKE IT

For the lemongrass, use only the bottom white part (about 6 inches) and discard the woody grass part of it. With the flat side of a cleaver or a heavy object, pound and bruise the lemongrass so it releases the flavour. Cut into 2 inch segments. (Watch yourself with the cleaver, please. We only want to bruise the lemongrass, not your fingers.)

Put the stock into a pot and bring to a boil. Toss the galangal, lemongrass, sugar, and lime leaves in. Simmer for 5 minutes.

Add the coconut milk, chillies, fish sauce and simmer for another 5 minutes.

Finally, add the chicken and mushrooms and cook till the chicken is just cooked. The moment you see it turning all white on the outside, it’s 90% done.

Turn off the heat, add lime juice and garnish with coriander leaves. Test for saltiness and sourness. You should get the earthy flavour of galangal, noticeable amount of saltiness, sweetness from the coconut milk, and a fair bit of lime flavour, with a hint of chilli in the background. If required, adjust with more fish sauce (salt) and lemon juice (sour).

(Why do I add the lime juice at the end instead of adding it with everything else, you ask? Because the flavour of the lime gets mellowed when it’s cooked. You need it fresh and bursting on your tongue.)

Pretty simple, ain’t it?

CHEF’S NOTES

1) This tastes great with prawns (shrimp) or mixed seafood instead of chicken. To turn this into Tom Kha Goong (Prawns), use prawns instead of chicken but add it only in the final 1 minute of cooking. Prawns cook very fast and will continue to cook in the warm stock. Overcooking them will turn them tough and leathery. Frozen prawns (nude) suck. Don’t use them.

For a mixed seafood soup, add some fish chunks (use a mild-tasting fish) and some squid (calamari.) Add the fish to the soup a couple of minutes before the prawns, and add the squid at the same time as the prawns.

Oh, and I have not forgotten you vegetarian people either. :)  You can make a Tom Kha Hed with mushrooms instead of chicken. Add a variety of mushrooms if you can (I love Shitake mushrooms). Don’t like mushrooms? Use other veggies. Use vegetable stock instead of chicken stock. Use 1/2 tsp salt instead of the fish sauce. Add a couple of pieces of tofu if you like. There, you’re done, amigo!

2) Galangal has no real substitute. Ginger does a poor job. In this soup especially, the whole point is the galangal flavour, so ginger simply won’t do. (Tom Kha means “boiled galangal”.)

3) This recipe makes a soup that’s not as rich as you might have had at other restaurants. This is simply my personal preference because most of my customers order it as a soup course instead of something to eat with rice as Thai people have it. So I didn’t want to weigh their tummies down. If that’s the kind of soup you prefer, however, you can replace the coconut milk in this recipe with half coconut milk and half coconut cream. Reserve a tablespoon of coconut cream to stir into the soup at the end of cooking. If you’re not a fan of the lime flavour, reduce the amount of lime juice too.

4) If you’ve seen this soup with a reddish hue, it’s probably because some Nam Prik Pao (roasted chilli paste) was added instead of the regular fresh chillies. I’m not a fan of doing that, but it’s up to you. I’ve also seen versions that use dried red chilli flakes to add flavour.

5) Good chicken stock is very simple to make. Take 1 kg chicken wings, throw in a couple of drumsticks for meat, put it in a tall stock pot, cover with 2 litres cold water, and bring to a simmer. When the scum rises to the top, skim to another bowl with a shallow spoon. This should take 10-20 minutes. When the stock is clear, toss in 4 spring onions (scallions; use only the white part), 5-6 slices of ginger, and a teaspoon of black peppercorns. Let this simmer for 2-3 hours (it should only bubble). Two rules for good stock: a) do not stir and b) do not boil (or it will become cloudy instead of clear.)

After the stock has finished simmering, let it stand for 20 minutes and then using a fine mesh sieve, strain it into another bowl. Using a muslin cloth would be a good idea. Your stock is ready. If you leave it in the fridge, the fat will solidify on the top. Just remove this fat and you have de-fatted, unsalted stock ready for use. You can even reduce the liquid and make stock cubes in the freezer.

6) The strength of lemongrass and lime juice may vary in your part of the world, so use your nose and your tongue to judge proper quantities. When in doubt, use more lemongrass but less lime juice. Then adjust gradually. :)

In temperate climates, you may not get limes. If so, use lemon juice instead, and use more of it than prescribed here.

41 Comment

  1. This recipe looks great. Will try it out and let you know! :)

  2. Good to see you FINALLY posting again. The soup looks so yummy! Can’t wait to try it.

  3. Man, that looks yummy.

  4. So glad to have you back!
    You were sorely missed.

  5. I’m glad you came back… That soup looks so divine.
    Is it ok to put in a request for roti canai(malay) or roti prata (as they call in s’pore) and that yummy curry sauce that accompanies it? I’ve eaten it in many places and loved it at certain places but never been able to create it on my own.

  6. I appreciate this recipe that you shared.
    I shared them with family and friends. They just like it.
    Thank you for sharing and please keep them coming.
    I have shared with everyone here, http://www.mealigg.com :)

  7. Sounds delicious. I’ve got this one bookmarked for a nice weekend project.

  8. Tom Kha Gai is my favorite kind of soup in the world (well, except maybe for my Grandma’s matzoh ball soup…)
    This recipe sounds delicious. And I really appreciate your thoughtful explanations, e.g. why it’s important to add the ingredients in that particular order… can’t wait to try it!

  9. Hayley Godwin says:

    Welcome back! You have been missed! You know, there are numerous food blogs out there, but what sets you apart from most of them is your wonderful sense of humour. Reading your blog always makes me laugh. And you always give such excellent tips. Pleaaase keep posting!

  10. Good to see that you are back to sharing recipes again. Really missed your recipes all these days.
    The soup looks yummy and I cant wait to try it out. Thanks for the recipe. But do tell me where to find galangal roots and kaffir lime leaves in Bangalore? I have been trying in all possible place, but with no success. Can Lemon basil be used as an substitute for kaffir lime leaves?

  11. I agree. Welcome back. I always thought these soups seemed so difficult to make. I’ll definitely attempt this one.

  12. Hi Madhu!!!
    I love Tom Kha but your version is now my personal favourite!!
    It took me quite few tries to get the delicate balance of such an interesting mix of defined ingredients..
    Clever tips you give, most recipes tell you to add the lime during the cooking or to substitute galangal with ginger…..
    cheers!!

  13. Great recipe! I’m going to have to try making next week.

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  15. sounds so delicious! I’m gonna go make it right now!

  16. This is a very good, very authentic recipe, and I appreciated it. I want to add some tips.
    * To thin-slice the chicken breast (great for this soup), freeze the chicken first and cut it with a good knife, while frozen.
    * I always use mushrooms even with the chicken. Be sure, if you’re using standard store-bought button mushrooms, that you add them ONLY when serving. Same goes for the cilantro leaves.
    * I find that thinly sliced strands of onions, also added at time of serving, add to this recipe well.
    * Though galangal is crucial, be careful not to add too much. If you want to get it right without wasting soup, simmer the coconut milk ALONE with the galanagal until you can start to taste the galangal. Then remove the galangal if you like. Then add the rest of the ingredients. You need the flavor of the galangal but it should not overwhelm.
    * For vegetarians- zucchini, added late, and silken sheets of tofu, cut into 1.5″-2″ squares, can be a really great addition. If you add tofu, braise it first in flavorless oil, or chili oil, and drain well- this will keep it from falling apart in the soup. Also, consider serving on top of stiff brown rice.
    Hope these added tips are helpful! And please come visit me on MySpace!

  17. Sorry, in the vegetarian section above, I meant to say to braise tofu CUBES- you don’t have to braise tofu sheets, if you find those!
    Also I meant to add that you CANNOT substitute powdered chicken broth or bullion without jeopardizing the taste of this soup.
    And two more things- if you don’t like to pick through the “hard to eat” lemongrass, chilies, and galangal, you can wrap these if cheesecloth or place in a large tea-sphere or boil in all these flavors and strain, and then take them out of the broth and add the chicken, wait till it’s cooked, then add veggies, then mushrooms, then serve with cilantro and lime.
    If you ever really want this soup and have no lime, cilantro or chilies, you can “cheat” and add FRESH (not canned) salsa verde- it has tomatillos but tomatillos are a lot like thai eggplant (and are in the same family I think) so it doesn’t kill the authenticity or flavor of the dish. Aside from the tomatillos, a good salsa verde only has lime juice, cilantro, hot green chilies, and maybe some onion.
    Finally, sometimes I just give a half a lime a good squeeze and simply drop it into the soup while serving.

  18. oh my god , great recipe.. but please go back to the top and tell people if they want to and they are tea lovers the woody green part makes a wonderful, aromatic , good for you ,especially women, tea..
    I am from the islands and we drink lots of teas…

  19. Your Tom Yam soup sounds a like a nice delicious one that is worth trying to prepare on a free day in one’s kitchen.

  20. Looking so delicious must say …..

  21. That looks absolutely delicious.. :)
    Am waiting for the new Shiok to open..

  22. I love your recipes! Okay, I’ve never made one, because I just stumbled across your site today, but goodness! It looks amazing. And Your writing style is so engaging. Tonight- orange lemon chicken. Tomorrow- tom kha gai. Saturday- conquering the world fueled by yummy food! See, I’ve got my priorities in order.

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  24. I liked this recipe very much. I will defenitely try out this tommorow
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  25. Just made a veganized version of this tonight (subbed veg. stock, veg. chicken, veg. fish sauce and palm sugar) – turned out quite nicely.
    I’ve made other variations of this, but yours was more subtle and allowed the flavors of the galanga, lemongrass and keffir lime leaf to really emerge.
    Thank you!

  26. K Remedios says:

    Madhu, this is the perfect recipe for TKG soup! I fell in love with the soup the first time I tasted it many years ago and have since been on a mission to get the precise creamy-salty-sour flavor I like so much. Your recipe helped a great deal towards that end. Thank you!

  27. This was great! I first experiened Tom Kha Gai a couple of weeks ago and have been excited to try my hand at the recipe ever since. I did some searching, and this recipe seemed to be the most authentic around. I’m glad I made it! I tripled the recipe so that we could have leftovers and added some chooped onion, mushrooms, and tofu (in place of the chicken). It was heavenly! My partner said it was better than the restaurant version. Thanks for the wonderful recipe!

  28. Hello! I’ve just found your site and am so thrilled,being a devotee of eastern food from since my 18th birthday from the first tasting and although i’ve cooked many a Thai dish ,none or just a very very few have been worth repeating ,but now ,having stumbled on your terrific site ,i’m gunna get bang into trying your recipes Thanks very much love Alan

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  31. Hey, I just tried out this recipe and thought that I would share my own personal opinions. :)
    The recipe is absolutely delicious, thank you very much for sharing; but imo, it would be better if you put less lime juice and more coconut milk, (almost 2 cans to serve 5). This will bring out the most intense flavour of the milk.
    It is not intended to be too spicy, or it will taste like tom yam gung.

  32. mrs.robinson says:

    just finished making this soup..i love it!!! oh my gawd….mom loves it too…..and baby girl says its it the bomb…thank you for this yummy delight….do you have a good panaga recipe?….lol please and many thank yous!

  33. hey, tried out the recipe today, was wonderful and so so quick and easy to make, was thrilled to finally achieve the perfect taste of tom kha soup.
    can you also pls pls pls post a recipe for thai curry which is as simple and as heavenly :-)
    thanks thanks

  34. it was very light and wonderfully subtle i skipped any meat or veggies and just enjoyed the clear light broth which was very filling and complex on its own! great recipe i wanna know how to make nam prik pao, as it often comes up in recipes and i cant seem to find it in stores.

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  37. Thank you so much. This is an amazing recipe. Just like the restaurants.

  38. Just made it! Really good, although the stock to coconut ratio needs to be higher. Add a little more stock than it asks.

  39. ive never commented on any recipe before but after making this soup last night I just HAD to comment because it was DELICIOUS!! I’m not a cook by any means and was a little nervous the flavor wouldn’t turn out right but it did! Super easy, very tasty I want to make it everyday now! I do agree the stock to coconut ratio needs to be higher, it was a little thick for my liking. Thanks for the recipe!!

  40. I had Tom Kha soup for the first time a few months back at a restaurant and decided it was the best thing I’d ever tasted and wanted to make my own. I actually have a little galangal plantation and a kaffir lime tree out on the street corner (i live in the burbs – random!) and I grow my own lemongrass so all my ingredients were really fresh. I have to say it was absolutely phenomenal, better than the restaurant one! It’s now a staple on my menu, I love making it. Also I can no longer order this soup from Thai restaurants as so many places make it from red curry paste and it is no where near as good so I am constantly disappointed. Thanks so much for this :-)

  41. Thank you for sharing. I made the recipe for my husband and it made him so happy. He said it was the best thing I’ve ever made (!!!) Thank you for making him happy and for making me look good!

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