I came to discover Tom Kha over many years. The first time I ever had a Thai soup was a small restaurant in Port Townsend, WA that served an incredible Tom Yum. It was a tad sour and spicy, but the flavor of lime and chicken brought about a brightness that I loved. During the cold dark winter months, I would go there weekly and have a big bowl. It came with noodles, but I started asking for it without, because I just wanted to enjoy the broth.
Years later I received a Thai cooking class for Christmas and, among other staples such as pad thai, Tom Kha was on the menu. A beautiful Thai woman used a large wok to make this soup, explaining the traditional way to make it. She emphasized the importance of smashing the ingredients vs just slicing them (it lets out maximum flavor) and how to make sure the flavors of the galangal sing. I wasn’t even sure what Tom Kha was, but after cooking this simple and easy soup I was in love. This recipe is my version of the authentic recipe I learned, made in my favorite Le Creuset enameled dutch oven. Super easy and customizable to your needs!
What is Tom Kha?
Tom Kha Gai means “chicken galangal soup”. Galagal is a cousin to ginger and has a flavor you can’t get anywhere else. In most recipes I’ll let you know that you can substitute regular ginger for galangal root, but not here. Galagal is the dominant flavor so really try and get this ingredient! You can find it in any Asian grocery store, but I’ve also seen it at local PCCs or Whole Foods. If you can’t find it any of those places, you can get it dried online. Just let it soak in hot water for 1 hour before using.
You can expect this dish to also taste a bit sour from the lime leaves and galangal and fresh from the lime juice and lemongrass. The coconut milk adds a richness and creaminess that balances out the strong flavors of this dish. You can also expect it to taste a lot like chicken soup! It’s the Asian version of the classic comfort food that everyone knows and loves.
Tom Yum vs Tom Kha?
You might already be familiar with Tom Yum, so what’s the difference between the two? Tom Yum mainly does not have coconut milk. Some versions call for “nam prik” which is a spicy paste made from chiles, but typically when I’m looking for Tom Yum, I just leave out the coconut milk and up the flavor of the lime.
Making this Tom Kha Diet Friendly
This Tom Kha is great because it is already fairly inline with most healthy eating. A lot of the calories come from the coconut milk. If you leave it out, no problem! Just add more broth and lime juice and now you have Tom Yum.
This recipe is perfect for a Whole30 provided you make sure that your ingredients are compliant. Take a look at your fish sauce, it could have sugar or other ingredients that are not approved. Red Boat fish sauce is a go-to and you can find it in most stores and online! It’s a great fish sauce to stock your cabinet with and has a great saltiness to it. You also need a Whole30 chicken broth so either use your favorite or make your own! The flavor in my homemade chicken bone broth can’t be beat for a soup recipe like this.
Tom Kha is easy to make vegetarian or vegan! Change out the chicken broth for vegetable broth. Substitute firm tofu for chicken and soy sauce for fish sauce. You might need a bit extra salt depending on the soy sauce you use. And of course any other vegetables you like! Typically this soup is just mushrooms and shallots, but don’t let that stop your creative juices from flowing.
My hope is that you discover a love of Thai cuisine through trying dishes like this over others like phad thai. There are so many delicious flavors of this country that are surprising and delightful. A friend of mine came over to eat Tom Kha while I took pictures and he was really surprised by the flavor and said it was something he’d never tasted before.
Tom Kha Gai – Thai Coconut Chicken Soup
- Large pot
- 3 cups chicken broth
- 6 inch galangal root, sliced and smashed
- 1 can coconut milk
- 2 stalks lemongrass, cut into 3rds and smashed
- 5 lime leaves, smashed
- 4 shallots, sliced and smashed
- 12 oz shiitake mushrooms, sliced
- 3 Thai or Serrano chilies, sliced and smashed
- 1 rotisserie chicken, meat removed and shredded
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tbls fish sauce
- 3 tbls lime juice
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
- Prepare all the ingredients according to the instructions above. Slice the shallots and chilies before smashing them. Set all ingredients to the side and heat a large pot over medium high heat.
- Bring chicken broth to a simmer and add galangal root. Simmer for 5 minutes.
- Add coconut milk lemongrass, shallots, lime leaves, mushrooms, and chilies. Simmer for 5 minutes.
- Stir in shredded chicken, lime juice, fish sauce, and salt and simmer for 2 minutes, until chicken is warmed. Stir in cilantro and remove galangal root, lime leaves, and lemongrass stalks and serve.
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