Thai Chicken Soup For The Soul: Tom Kha Gai

Some foods are comforting because they remind us of our childhoods.

They remind us of home, mother, milk, and the warmth of grandmother’s kitchen. They take us back to when life was good, and simple and food was something that came to you without effort. As children, we asked, and then, did receive.

Other foods are comforting because of what they are.

For me, Thai tom kha gai is comforting just because of what it is: a silky, velvety-smooth coconut-milk based soup filled with the flavors of lemongrass, galangal, lime, and chile, enlivened by small pieces of just-cooked chicken and slippery-sweet mushrooms. From the first time I tasted this soup, years ago in a Thai restaurant in Cleveland, I have longed for it, and every time I eat it since, from the first taste, I feel like I am coming home.

It doesn’t remind me of my childhood at all, or at least not the childhood I remember consciously of this life. It cannot–it is a soup born of a place of where yards are fillled with trees bearing tropical fruits, and kitchens exist in a room separate from the main house. It is born of a place where rice is the staple food, grown in emerald terraces, where gilt Buddhist temples rise from the trees, and where strong flavors are the rule of the day.

I was not born into such a world, but every time I taste tom kha gai, my heart is made at peace, my stomach is made happy, and I cannot help but smile, resting in the comfort of the flavors that envelop my senses.

Yesterday, I cooked up a Thai dinner: tom kha gai, nam sod and panang neur with steamed jasmine rice. In part, it was because I wanted to make a nice dinner to celebrate the holiday, and. in part, because I was on a mission of mercy. A friend of a friend is suffering post-surgical appetite loss, and it turns out that she is partial to Thai food. So, I promised to make up some Thai food to send over to her, in the hopes of kick-starting her appetite, as there is no place any closer than Columbus to get take out Thai. My hopes are that the healing powers of chicken galangal soup will assist in healing someone who is having trouble eating, and if it does, and she eats well, I promised to make some more Thai goodies to keep her eating, so that her body can do its work to repair itself.

The second word in tom kha gai, “kha,” means, “galangal,” and it is the backbone of the soup. Coconut milk is the vehicle that carries the flavor, but it is not the basis of the soup. It is all about galangal.

Galangal is the tougher, larger, more complex-flavored cousin to ginger. Also a rhizome, galangal is best used fresh or failing that, frozen; I have tried to use dried chips of it to make tom kha gai in the past and have failed miserably. Most of the sharp, medicinal tang of the flavor is dissipated when it is dried, so the complexity of galangal is lost, leaving on a whisper of mustiness behind.

When fresh or frozen, however, the full impact of galangal is ready to be absorbed into the coconut milk-based soup. To infuse the broth with the galangal flavor, I buck tradition and simmer it very slowly over at least a two hour period of time. I leave the stalks of lemongrass and the lime zest or leaves in for the full time as well, allowing their fresh, floral flavors to fully invade the succulent coconut milk and chicken broth base along with the galangal. I also slip a tablespoon or so of red curry paste into the soup at this time to add a further note of complexity to the flavor.

Galangal is often found fresh at Asian markets that cater to southeast-Asian populations; it can even more often be found in plastic packages frozen. The rhizomes are simply cleaned up, and cut into big chunks, then packed in clear plastic and frozen, and I have found little difference in quality between fresh or frozen galangal. One thing I will note–these very tough, hard rhizomes are easier to cut once they have been frozen and thawed–they are like rocks otherwise. That is why I always use my heaviest cleaver to cut them when they are fresh.

When the soup base is fully flavored by these aromatics, I fish them out with my wire skimmer, and discard them; neither galangal slices nor bruised lemongrass stalks (to bruise them, I cut the stalks as directed in the recipe, and then tap them heavily with the back edge of a cleaver–one can smash them with the flat of the cleaver as well, but one risks having them fall apart and leave shards of fibrous material in the soup if one completely mashes the stalks) are particularly edible unless they are cut very finely or pounded into a puree.

After the basic flavors are in the broth and the stalks, rhizomes and zest are discarded, I then add a lot of fish sauce to the broth, to add a deep, satisfying salty tang. Do not skimp on the fish sauce, no matter what you might think of what it smells like. With fish sauce, more is better. After I have tasted the soup, I then add the sliced mushrooms and the chicken bits, allowing them to simmer gently until just done; I do not like the chicken to become overcooked and tough. It should be as tender and silken as the broth.

Finally, a kiss of lime juice, a sprinkling of herbs and scallion tops, and out the soup goes to the table, accompanied by a bowl of sliced Thai chiles so diners can add as little or as much heat as they would like. (I like it very, very hot, personally, and find that there is no other soup in the world that can cure me of a cold faster than supremely spicy tom kha gai. It also gives my cheeks an attractive rosey glow, I am told.)

It is a simple soup to make, and it really is comforting. I hesitate to claim healing powers for it, but I do know that after eating last night, everyone’s sinuses cleared right up, including Heather’s, and she has been having a horrible time with allergies this week.



Tom Kha Gai

Ingredients:

2 19 ounce cans of coconut milk (I prefer Mae Ploy brand, but Cha Khao is also good)
1 quart chicken broth or stock
5 1/4″ thick quarter-sized to half-dollar sized slices of fresh or frozen galangal root
3 stalks lemongrass–bottom 1/3 only, bottom of stalks trimmed, and outer layers stripped away–cut into three equal pieces and bruise with the back of the cleaver
5 kaffir lime leaves, or the zest of two regular limes (I just cut the zest off in big pieces with a peeler to make it easier to fish out when all the flavor is gone from it)
2 tablespoons red curry paste, or to taste (recipe here, or you can use Mae Ploy brand–it is good)
fish sauce to taste
6 fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems removed and sliced thinly
1 whole boneless skinless chicken breast, trimmed and cut into 1/2″ cubes
juice of two limes or to taste
1/2 cup fresh cilantro leaves, stems removed
3 scallion tops, thinly sliced
red and green Thai bird chiles, sliced thinly as a garnish

Method:

Combine coconut milk, chicken broth, galangal, lemongrass, lime leaves, zest or oil, and curry paste in a heavy-bottomed pot. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and simmer. Season to taste with fish sauce. Turn down heat and allow to simmer for at least one half hour, forty minutes is better.

Fish out galangal and lemongrass. Add mushrooms and chicken. Simmer until chicken is done. Fish out lime leaves, add lime juice to taste, and garnish with cilantro leaves, scallion tops and sliced chilis.

The flavor should be a balance of spicy, refreshingly sweet and herbal and sour, with a musky note from the galangal.

30 Comments

RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. I first tasted this about 15 years ago and I felt like it was the perfect combination of tastes. Since then, I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve eaten it, just as you have described. Thanks so much for the recipe.

    Comment by kalyn — July 6, 2006 #

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. The first time I tasted tom kha gai (from a take-out Thai place in Columbus, I believe), I was in love. I love that combination of coconut milk and spicy chiles.

    Comment by Bomboniera — July 6, 2006 #

  3. Thank you so much for this recipe! Tom kha gai is my favorite soup – I would eat it until I burst if I could. I’ve looked up other recipes online, but the instructions were either unclear or too daunting. I know I can trust yours. Thank you!

    Comment by Rose — July 6, 2006 #

  4. I love Thai cooking with cocnut milk but I hear its just about as healthy for you as bacon. Something I only enjoy once in a blue moon. I will have to try this recipe the next blue moon.

    Comment by Fritz — July 6, 2006 #

  5. I love making boiled galangal :) soup at home almost as much as ordering it from a place that knows what they’re doing: I’m generally not one for “baseline dishes” but if the kitchen screws up tom kha kai(or even worse doesn’t include the correct ingredients) then I know to stay away in the future.
    There’s some awful tom kha kai to be found.

    I don’t do the curry paste addition(tho’ it’s a common occurence in online recipes) and I always use makrut…never lime zest…I’m afraid regular lime zest would make the broth bitter.

    I also find that the flavor balance isn’t right unless I
    add liberal amounts of lime/lemon juice; the tart citrus/umami nam pla/unctuous coconut milk combo. And dried red peppers(or fresh/frozen thai bird chiles) are a must, as well. I like picking them out of my bowl and munching on them along with the soup. I’m in total agreement as per silky chicken texture. Usually I par-poach breasts in a court bouillon of lemongrass, a tetch light soy, cilantro root/or stems, and black peppercorns. Chop them, shred them, and add them to the soup at the very last minute…right before I take it off the heat. This keeps the meat from getting tough and squeaky as well as not mucking up the broth with impurities/granular chicken.

    I’ve actually been intending to cook up a batch of chicken broth for the express purpose of finishing off my depleted stock of frozen SE Asian produce. All the sooner to go Thai shopping.

    Oh…and a pet peeve is any (typically online)tom kha kai recipe calling for ginger as a galangal substitution…this soup is just one of those things where if you can’t get ahold of the correct ingredients it’s just not worth making.

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — July 6, 2006 #

  6. …and, yep, frozen galangal works super fine…it’s not much to look at when it’s water-logged and weepy(and it doesn’t keep forever), but it gets the job done and I don’t feel like I’m going to chop off a finger trying to dismember a fresh rhizome.

    The dried is just way too medicinal in my experience…it tastes like something from a sketchy herbalist’s shop…nothing like the fresh/frozen vs.

    I believe dried galangal is more found in some Middle Eastern cuisines, anyway.

    Comment by Christopher Gordon — July 6, 2006 #

  7. I am curious if you might be willing to provide a recipe for a tofu or otherwise vegetarian version of this soup as well. I love tom kha gai but can’t have it since I no longer eat chicken. I have had two pretty good tofu versions at different restaurants (one of them requested though it wasn’t on the menu, and one inexplicably called tom kha J), but I wasn’t sure how to reproduce them.

    Comment by Alexis — July 6, 2006 #

  8. The frozen galangal is great for soups, curries etc. I’ve been told it is more aromatic than our domestic galangal. The fresh galangal is a must for salads, etc, but for soup just fine to use the frozen.

    I make this essentially the same way but with water base not chicken broth.

    Lots of studies lately have shown that coconut is actually quite good for you – high in linoleic acid and relatively easily absorbed. I don’t eat it every day, but probably at least once a week.

    Comment by Diane — July 6, 2006 #

  9. I hear what you are saying about restorative! Before I learned how to make this, I ALWAYS picked this up from the local Thai takout joint when I had a cold or flu…It always made me feel better.

    Comment by Diane — July 6, 2006 #

  10. You gave me a great idea to spice up the curry recipe I usually use. Thank you for so artfully describing this for us all. It was truly a pleasure to read!

    Comment by Garrett — July 7, 2006 #

  11. My favorite Thai place, run by a lovely Thai family, up and closed the day before I went “raw”. Which made it possible for me to stay raw. Their Tom Kha was my main diet staple, along with beautiful Jasmine Rice steamed just right.

    Knowing that we were vegan they added white cabbage, carrots, and tomatoes and fresh tofu. Man, I miss that soup!

    I make a raw version, using the kafir lime leaf, galangal, and lemon grass with young coconut milk that I make by hand..but it’ll never be the same.

    Thank you for the memory! :)

    Comment by starrrie — July 7, 2006 #

  12. Thank you for a great idea to spice up the curry recipe..Really I thank you heartly..
    I am searching this from past 2 weeks…

    Comment by swetha — September 15, 2006 #

  13. “Chicken Soup for the Soul” is a legally registered TRADEMARK and cannot be casually used without written permission of the owners. It might be a good idea to check with them or to edit this page!

    Comment by Freddy Bendell — October 6, 2006 #

  14. And if the owners of the trademark complain, Freddy, I will change it. Until then, no, I have other things to do besides worry about that.

    Comment by Barbara — October 7, 2006 #

  15. [...] At some point, by the way, I do want to continue my gender and sexuality post. I think I’m coming down with a cold, though, so right now it’s time for sleep. Speaking of my cold, though, Tom Kha is about the best soup invented by humanity, and this recipe (with a few modifications, e.g. tofu instead of chicken) resulted in a wonderful version thereof, making me a very happy panda. Listen to Barbara when she says that galangal is the heart of the soup, and that it’s not worth making if you don’t have it fresh or frozen. I first discovered the divine fragrance that is galangal in Tzadikim Nistarim, still one of my favorite BPAL perfume oils, and it’s got a heady, unique scent that I wish was more utilized in the West. Published in: [...]

    Pingback by The thirty-six righteous ones « Consubstantial Paneity — November 1, 2006 #

  16. woah!!

    lot o’ emotion for a sublime soup

    Comment by Gianetta — February 17, 2007 #

  17. This soup is the closest you’ll come to the restaurant version. Honestly the best recipe online. Take it from someone who has been trying for years, this is the best. Thanks Barbara.

    Comment by Charlie — June 4, 2007 #

  18. I loved they way you wrote so loving about this soup! I am making it tonight for the first time~ wish me luck! I have to use ginger instead though we have a .000001% asain influence and i cannot find galangal root, I couldn’t find lemon grass either but I did find a chilled lemon grass paste. I am off to the kitchen!

    Comment by amanda — August 6, 2007 #

  19. Thank you so much for posting this… I had very bad Tom Kha Gai at a restaurant a few days back and have been itching to have some good hearty stuff ever since… I made some changes, using straw mushrooms (it’s what all the Thai restaurants I’ve been to use, and they come in nifty bags with water so they cook right up in a heartbeat, added last minute) and dried (since I had no fresh or frozen, as I wasn’t “planning” on this) galangal, which worked quite well in this instance-then again, most all of my ingredients save the lemongrass and lime are imported from Thailand or Vietnam, so the galangal is pretty close to frozen once reconstituted in this brand’s case. Anyway, my only other change was in quantities of this and that-I had 2 whole (so 4 split) chicken breasts, nearly a pound of mushrooms, and a diff brand of red curry paste (that worked very well; I only buy msg-free things with very pure ingredient lists that tell exact %s of what’s in it)… all that to say… this is wonderfully presented, right down to bruising of the lemongrass, which I did with… well, a potato masher :) Thanks for such great illustrations throughout the site-I have started browsing the rest!

    Comment by Laura — August 21, 2007 #

  20. Charlie–thank you for the endorsement!

    Amanda–try Thaigrocer.com for lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal. They send them to you fresh, and I have always gotten them in good shape when I ordered from them. What you don’t use, you can freeze to keep for later, and it is well worth it just to make great Thai recipes like this soup.

    Laura–I am glad you loved the recipe so much, and I am glad you started to look over the rest of the site. I really have fun with this little labor of love that is my blog and I am always happy to hear from readers who cook from my recipes with great success.

    I like the potato masher idea! That is awesome!

    Comment by Barbara — August 23, 2007 #

  21. Thanks for the deightful & comforting food notes. Sounds like a yummy soup & similar to the Filipino foods I grew up with. I’ve been making the vegetarian version of a similar dish using tofu or gluten. My friends just love it! My sister and I love Thai people and their food. Keep sharing your food comfort-ing insights. Good job!

    Comment by Maritess — November 29, 2007 #

  22. i love tom kha soup, and finally mde it myself after reading this recipe. i assumed the soup was made with ginger, and had not even heard of galangal. i found it in frozen slices at my local asian market.

    i must say that when i tasted the soup after adding the fish sauce i thought it was awful. i was kinda bummed, but then i added the lime juice and everything came together and it tasted better than most restaurants’ soup i’ve tried.

    i am making it again tonight for my wife who is coming down with a cold or flu or something. she IMed me, pleading that i make it. of course i will!

    Comment by dave — January 17, 2008 #

  23. Dave–you learned a valuable lesson in making tom kha gai–while fish sauce is in itself not tasty–when it is properly balanced with other ingredients–such as lime juice–it is what makes Thai food Thai.

    Never leave out the fish sauce, but always taste your Thai soups and curries for balance between hot, sour, salty and sweet. It should be a perfect balance between all of those with a strong umami shot from the fish sauce–which is also the main source of the salty taste.

    Comment by Barbara — January 17, 2008 #

  24. [...] Anyway, it helps that Dave loves Tom Ka himself, and also that he had recently perfected the recipe. We’ve tried off and on with recipes of varying levels of authenticity. I had basically settled for this tasty, but slightly soul-less version from Eating Well, but then Dave found a nice legit version on Tigers & Strawberries, where Barbara really knows her Thai food. We can get all the ingredients here in SD, and last night we did. [...]

    Pingback by Lola’s Kitchen » Blog Archive » Tom Ka Yummmmmmmm — January 18, 2008 #

  25. I’m so glad I found this recipe! I had Tom Kha for the first time last night at a local Thai restaurant I’d been wanting to try. It was the most amazing blend of taste and texture I could hardly stop eating it. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to spicy but this was heavenly. Thanks for sharing!

    Comment by Weedemnreap — February 15, 2008 #

  26. I made this last night and it was delicious! I’m pregnant and have been craving Tom Kah Gai, but I don’t eat meat from the industrial food system, and our local place doesn’t make a vegetarian version. I substituted vegetable stock and tofu for the chicken stock and chicken, and added carrots, cabbage, and diced tomato like the poster above suggested. Delicious!

    Comment by momaste — February 28, 2008 #

  27. momaste, i would REALLY like to know what recipe or brand you used for your vegetable stock. thanks!

    Comment by netgirl — April 2, 2008 #

  28. I make my own stock and freeze it in quart sized freezer bags. :)

    Comment by momaste — April 28, 2008 #

  29. [...] obligation vs. deprivation, moving from bitter to approachable, driving two hours (each way) for tom kha gai, how to get in the high school color guard instructor’s inner circle, homophobia, sexism, [...]

    Pingback by I Try Not To Whine « Small Town Oblivion — April 4, 2011 #

  30. Fantastic recipe – oh how I miss a big hot pot of this soup. One of the best is this hole in the wall in Santa Barbara called “Your Place” – the service sucks – it’s like Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi – but the soup is to die for so everyone just puts up with it. I could seriously bathe in this soup!

    Comment by Jules — June 3, 2012 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.