Tom Kha Gai Recipe (ต้มข่าไก่) – A Tutorial for Beginners


thai coconut chicken soup
I’d waited two years to introduce Tom Kha Gai (RTGS: tom kha kai) (ต้มข่าไก่), one of the most loved Thai dishes of all time, on this blog because — and this probably won’t make a lot of sense — I’ve loved it so much and for so long that I didn’t know how to write about it. I still don’t. And while some dishes, e.g. Pad Thai (which is even more popular), have been left out mainly due to apathy, this one had been put on hold solely due to fear. (Um, not anymore. On November 27th, 2011, I published my Pad Thai recipe.)

Tom Kha Gai isn’t just any dish; it’s one of my top five most favorite dishes in the world, Thai or otherwise. At a risk of taking anthropomorphism of food a bit too far, I felt that if I let myself write about Tom Kha Gai with the kind of unbridled affection from the depth of my bowels, I’d bore — or scare — you. Yet, if I held back, I’d be remiss for not giving the dish the love it deserves.

Overwhelmed with affection for this soup, I’ll write in numbered points.

Sliced paper thin, tender galangal tips provide crunch and herbal aroma to this dish.

 
1. Tom Kha Gai is a soup made of chicken (Gai) cooked (Tom) in coconut milk which has been infused with galangal (Kha), lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves.
 
2. Tom Kha Gai is seasoned primarily with lime juice and fish sauce. Palm or coconut sugar is not necessary as the natural sweetness of coconut is enough for me. In fact, I find cloyingly sweet Tom Kha Gai kind of disgusting, though not as vile as Tom Kha Gai seasoned with lemon juice or vinegar.
 

Since the purpose at hand is infusion, the entire lemongrass stalk, even the fibrous part, can be used.

 
3. In our household when I was growing up, Tom Kha Gai was made with bone-in, skin-on pieces of chicken that have been cooked until tender. Coconut cream (the “head” of coconut milk or หัวกะทิ) would be added toward the end along with the fresh herbs, followed by fresh bird’s eye chilies and fresh cilantro. The broth isn’t so thick and creamy, yet it is very flavorful due to the chicken bones. Some street vendors also throw chicken innards, feet, and congealed blood into the mix. Rarely would you find that kind of Tom Kha Gai at a Thai restaurant overseas. Most of the time, you’ll get thick and creamy coconut broth with friendly boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into bite-sized pieces. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s the version I’m presenting here. You just have to employ a different cooking method to make up for the loss of savoriness in the broth.
 
tom kha gai recipe

Part of your mise en place: smashed lemongrass, torn kaffir lime leaves, sliced galangal, smashed chilies

 
4. Some restaurants have taken to adding roasted chili oil or sometimes Nam Prik Pao (Thai chili jam) to Tom Kha Gai just as they do to Tom Yam. It’s a bit strange to my eye and tongue, and I don’t recall ever seeing it made that way in Thailand growing up or even now.
 
5. Tom Kha Gai is always relegated to the “soup” category in cookbooks and on restaurant menus. Here’s an annoying, hair-splitting, philosophical question: is everything broth-y a ‘soup’? Is the “soup” designation based on its appearance or the way in which it is served and consumed? You decide. The fact is that Tom Kha Gai, like most Thai dishes — soupy or not — are almost always served with rice as an entrée, as part of the whole meal ensemble and not as a stand-alone. [That little bowl of Tom Yam or Tom Kha Gai which your local Thai restaurant serves you with a couple of mini spring rolls as part of your lunch special is a westernized practice.]
 
6. How do I eat Tom Kha Gai? (I delusionally assume you care to find out.) This freaks out pretty much every American friend who has dined with me at various Thai restaurants in the US: I usually order a serving of Tom Kha Gai from the dinner menu which usually comes with rice, dump the rice into the Tom Kha Gai bowl, give it a stir, and eat it like that. The one-bowl approach is not a sophisticated (or traditional) way of eating Tom Kha Gai, but I like it that way. Regardless, eating this dish with rice is a common practice. Tom Kha Gai is, after all, an entree — a soup entree to be eaten with rice.
 
tom khao gai recipe

Straw mushroom is my favorite, but oyster (or white button) works too. Anything but shiitake!

 
7. The recipe which I’m sharing with you is a compromise between the traditional/old-fashioned-rustic Tom Kha Gai (with bone-in and skin-on hunks of chicken and gnarly, curling chicken feet flailing about in the pot) and the kind made by dissolving some bottled Tom Kha paste in coconut milk. If you don’t like bones in your soup, don’t feel guilty. Likewise, if you absolutely cannot find fresh galangal (without which Tom Kha isn’t Tom Kha), fresh lemongrass, and fresh kaffir lime leaves, don’t feel bad about using the paste. It’s still better than using dried galangal, dried lemongrass, and dried kaffir lime leaves which, from my experience, yields probably the most disgusting Tom Kha Gai — if you can even call it that — I’ve ever had any time anywhere. Broth infused with the dried version of those herbs tastes like really bad herbal medicine.
 
8. The problem with boneless, skinless chicken breast meat is that it’s susceptible to being overcooked. Your broth could be seasoned well, but if your chicken is tough and rubbery, that takes the joy out of the whole experience. Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are much better, if you ask me. But if you use boneless, skinless chicken breasts, be sure to slice the meat against the grain (though, as you can see from the pictures, I broke my own rule …) and cook it very, very gently as if you’re poaching the chicken meat. Chef Michael Pardus shows you how to poach shrimp the right way in the video below, but the concept applies to boneless, skinless, bite-sized pieces of chicken breast meat as well.
 

 
Note: Tom kha gai is usually made with bone-in, skin-on chunks of chicken (as explained here). The bones turn the plain water-coconut milk liquid into a delicious broth in the process of long, slow cooking. The low-temperature cooking method is recommended only when you opt for boneless, skin-less chicken breast meat.
 
Start off by infusing the coconut milk-chicken stock mixture with the fresh herbs. Get the temperature of the liquid to the level ideal for poaching, then add the chicken breast meat last. If we had gone with the old-fashioned Tom Kha Gai, I would have suggested you use the same method explained in my Old-Fashioned Tom Yam post. But since we’re using bite-sized pieces of boneless, skinless chicken breast meat, we need to slightly alter the cooking method by adding the chicken meat to the liquid last and cooking it very, very gently.
 
Also, since there’s very little flavor in boneless, skinless chicken breast meat to impart to the broth (that’s why people don’t make chicken stock out of boneless, skinless chicken breasts), the concentrated chicken stock and the fish sauce will be the primary sources of umami in this light-weight version of Tom Kha Gai. Neither is optional.
 

Tom Kha with oyster mushrooms (the best vegetarian option, in my opinion) with added Nam Prik Pao

 
9. Can Tom Kha Gai be made vegetarian? Here are my thoughts:
Named as such, the dish has meat — chicken, to be precise — in it by definition which implies that it is not meant to be vegetarian. For those who abstain from meat, you can use tofu or, as I have done from time to time during my detox phases, assorted wild mushrooms which are very meaty and delicious. A friend of mine loves sliced cabbage (regular or savoy) in lieu of the gai in her Tom Kha Gai. My grandmother sometimes threw in hearts of palm, hearts of coconut, or sliced banana blossoms into the mix. None of this is traditional; yet all of these meat substitutes are delicious. I don’t like green leafy vegetables in Tom Kha, though. In fact, anything in the cruciferous family, except for green cabbage, tastes pretty bad to me when cooked this way. But that’s just an opinion.
 
10. Regardless, when gai is omitted, you can’t call it “Tom Kha Gai” just as you wouldn’t say “vegetarian barbecued pork.” Tom Kha Hed (mushroom), Tom Kha Tao-Hu (tofu), or Tom Kha Ka Lam Pli (cabbage) — whichever applies — would be more appropriate.Oh, and don’t forget to boost the flavor by using very concentrated vegetable stock and seasoning the broth with salt instead of fish sauce for the use of soy sauce would be a surest way to kill this lovely dish.
 

tom kha gai

Though anemic-looking, this coconut-y broth packs in lots of flavor from concentrated chicken stock
 

This recipe yields 2-3 servings of main dish soup (meant to accompany rice)

 

4.9 from 7 reviews
Tom Kha Gai (ต้มข่าไก่)
 
Author:
Recipe type: Entree
Cuisine: Thai
Ingredients
  • 3 cups (24 fluid ounces) sodium-free chicken stock
  • 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into bite size pieces across the grain
  • ½ lb (8ounces) fresh or canned straw mushrooms (drained)
  • One stalk lemongrass
  • 5-6 fresh bird's eye chilies (more or less depending on your heat preference)
  • 2-inch piece of fresh galangal, sliced thinly crosswise
  • 4-5 fresh kaffir lime leaves
  • 4-5 limes
  • ¼ cup fish sauce (but have more ready)
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro leaves
  • 1½ cups (12 fluid ounces) full-fat coconut milk
Instructions
  1. First, concentrate the stock. Put the chicken stock in a wide and shallow saucepan (to ensure fast evaporation), bring it to a boil, and reduce it over medium-high heat until the liquid measures half its original volume. [If you have access to very, very good chicken bouillon granules which are not all about salt and very little flavor, by all means, dilute double the amount you normally use in 1½ cups of plain water and use that in place of the concentrated chicken stock.].
  2. Halve (or quarter) the straw mushrooms into bite-sized pieces; set aside. [You can also use white button, cremini, and oyster mushrooms. Any meaty, mild-flavored mushrooms will do. Portobello mushrooms are fine flavor- and texture-wise, but even with the gills carefully scraped off they still turn the broth into an unappetizing shade of gray. Do not use shiitake; the flavor is way too strong for this. Also, I would never use any kind of dried mushrooms which will change the flavor profile of this dish quite drastically, and not in a good way.]
  3. Cut the lemongrass stalk into 1-inch pieces and smash them with the side of a large Chinese cleaver, a pestle, or any heavy object lying around in the house; set aside.
  4. Do to the chilies what you just did to the lemongrass; set aside.
  5. Remove the stems and the tough veins that run through the middle from the kaffir lime leaves, and tear them up into small pieces. You can also bruise them a little. Set aside.
  6. Juice 2 limes; set aside. (You may need more; you may not. It's better to have more than you need than not enough.)
  7. Put the coconut milk into a 4-quart pot, followed by concentrated chicken stock, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass pieces, and galangal slices.
  8. Bring the mixture slowly to between 160° and 180°F (slightly below a simmer), allowing the herbs to infuse the liquid for about a minute.
  9. Keeping the temperature steady, add the mushrooms and the chicken to the liquid; adjust the heat to maintain the temperature. The liquid should never at any point come to a rapid boil. Don’t worry; at 160°-180°F, your chicken will be thoroughly cooked.
  10. Stir gently to ensure that the chicken is evenly cooked. (If you want more liquid, add more plain water or unconcentrated broth.)
  11. Once the chicken is cooked through, throw in the smashed chilies and remove the pot from heat immediately.
  12. Add the juice of 2 limes and the fish sauce to the pot, stir, and taste. Add more lime juice and fish sauce, if necessary. The soup should be predominantly sour, followed by salty. The sweetness comes from natural sugar in the coconut milk.
  13. Stir in the cilantro leaves and serve your tom kha gai with steamed jasmine rice as an entree.
  1. Interesting Leela about the nam prik pao not being traditional–I’m pretty sure every time I’ve had the soup, it has that in it, and I just double-checked all of my Thai cookbooks (some thai and some american/english) and they all either call for nam prik pao or some combination of chiles, shallots, coriander, etc. that would resemble it. I will have to try it your way next time, while, even though I love it with the npp, I am always looking for something a little different than what I’m used to. Thanks for the info!

  2. sigh. i have a problem with finding kaffir lime leaves, tho i did do a dance jig last week when i stumbled up on galangal at the market.

    you know reading thru the instructions on how to make this, it’s almost like a dance with all the intricate steps on maintaining temp etc, which course sounds hokey but that’s how i read it as.

  3. Lydia – Adding Nam Prik Pao to Tom Kha Gai has indeed become a trend, but in the old days it wasn’t made that way, according to trusted sources. (In fact, the use of Nam Prik Pao in ways other than to flavor rice is a fairly recent development.) Same thing with Tom Yam, actually. The beautiful orange fat floating on top used to come from the heads of very fresh whole river prawns instead of Nam Prik Pao.

    In fact, I just had a very spirited discussion with some Thai food experts on how Tom Yam and Tom Kha have been “bastardized” through the use of NPP and, much worse, condensed milk. NPP is a fried paste which, to some, kills the delicate infusion of fresh herbs.

    I’ve come to like Tom Yam with NPP. But TKG …? Not yet. :)

    By the way, sometimes, TKG is made with dried chilies which gives it a reddish color even though no NPP is added.

    Angry Asian – “Hokey.” :)

  4. Like Angry Asian, kaffir lime leaves have been elusive, but soon enough, I hope to find all of the fresh ingredients to make this in our new home. I lovelovelove Tom Kha Gai but fear of mucking it up has prevented me from attempting to make it myself (outside of a few OK attempts with pastes). Armed with your instructions, I am now more than ready to try!

    • I actually went to a nursery and asked them if I could pluck some leaves from their lime tree. They let me and they actually had a Thai breed of lime tree :)

  5. Leela, I love this soup probably not to the depths that you have described here because I’m betting that I’ve had nothing close to the real thing. I’ve tried making it a few times, once or twice with pastes – always a big disappointment, and a few time from scratch but with modifications, not all fresh ingredients, galangala and kaffir leaves. Now thanks to you I am ready to be bold again, I’ve seen the fresh ingredients and know that success or failure lie entirely in my hands, because I’ll have all the components plus your instructions. I’ll report back on the success.

  6. I prefer my tom kha with shrimp (tom kha goong), but yes, best soup ever, in my opinion. I could eat it every day. Wonderful post.

    • I am the same way, preferring shrimp with heads on it to the chicken in Tom Kha, though of course it’s not Tom kha goong! What a great soup with the shrimp!

  7. Great recipe. I love how you explain every detail of the cooking process. My brother has been asking me to give him my Tom Kha recipe ever since I came back from Thailand 2 years ago, but instead I think I’ll send him yours, since it is perfection. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Side note: I received my “I love Pad Thai” tee and wore it to my favorite Thai roast chicken spot here in San Diego (Saffron).

    The owner, Su Mei Yu (author of Cracking the Coconut) spotted me in the crowd- asked me if I knew how to say it (she wrote, “chub ghin pad thai”) and the whole kitchen staff came out and had a laugh about it. Smiles all around!

    Great shirt!

  9. If regular chicken soup will cure the common cold, I am convinced that Tom Kha Gai will cure swine flu, ebola, and the winter blahs.

    Your recipe sounds better than the best I’ve eaten, and I want to try this recipe when our local market has fresh kefir lime leaves. (The weirdest Tom Ka Gai I ever ate was in Minneapolis, where the mushrooms were giant wood-ears, unchopped, and they floated in the soup like giant jelly-fish.)

  10. I love both tom kha gai and tom kai goong. Never fail to have them till my heart content whenever I am in Bangkok. I have never tried making this myself. I think I will take a step at it with you recipe. The pictures are fabulous and the step by step cooking method is excellent. Great post. Thanks for taking the time to share this wonderful recipe.

  11. Thanks, everybody for your comments.

    Deb – I have never heard of or seen wood ear mushroom in TKG. I wouldn’t like it, actually. And for it to be added whole, looking like a jellyfish …? :(

  12. For someone who isn’t very familiar with the taste of this soup, how much fish sauce and lime juice would you suggest to start? Thanks.

  13. Eric – This largely depends on the amount of salt in your concentrated chicken stock. Different brands are different; that’s why I didn’t want to specify the amounts of lime juice and fish sauce.

    Assuming you use chicken stock with no salt added, I would start off with 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and the same amount of lime juice (I like it equally salty and sour). If it tastes good, stop at that point. If it still tastes bland, keep adding more fish sauce and lime juice in equal amounts — perhaps 1 teaspoon at a time, until it tastes right to you. If you eat it as a stand-alone soup, the dish is sufficiently seasoned at this stage.

    However, if you plan to eat this with rice as a main course as I always do, you would want to go beyond the that stage. In fact, when served as an entree accompanying rice, the dish needs to be seasoned in such a way that the flavor is strong enough to compensate for the blandness of the rice (this applies to most Thai dishes, actually). I’d say, 2 more teaspoons of both lime juice and fish sauce beyond the “good-for-soup” stage. Add more, if needed.

    Make sure you have a couple of juicy limes on hand (more won’t hurt) and enough fish sauce to match the amount of the lime juice.

  14. Thank you for the recipe! On a trip to Chiang Mai, I learned how to make my favorite Thai soup, Tom Yum. Now I get to make Tom Kha Gai, my husband’s favorite!

  15. Just had this soup the other day at a party and it was the most delicious soup I’ve ever had. Sadly, I had forgotten the name but I “stumbled” onto this page and knew immediately that it was the same soup. I absolutely cannot wait to try out the recipe!!!

  16. Just made this with left over turkey from thanksgiving (I hope I’m not committing horrible cooking crime) but it came out awesome. Thank for sharing and for your beautifully written instructions.

  17. ไมค์ดีใจมากที่ลีลาอธิบายว่า ต้มข่าไก่ทำด้วยอะไร หลายปีที่แล้วไมค์ทำงานในร้านอาหารไทย มีคนเข้ามาสั่ง ต้มข่าไก่กุ้งเผ็ด ๒ ดาว นะครับ ไมค์บอกแม่ครัวว่า ต.ข.ก.ก ๒ ดาวเหมือนกัน พอเสร็จแล้ว เอา ต.ข.ก.ก ไปเสิร์ฟลูกค้า ลูกค้าดูอาหารแล้วบอกไมค์ว่า “Why is there chicken in my soup?” ไมค์ตอบเขาว่า “You ordered tom kha gai with prawns” ไง เราทั้งสองงงๆกันอยู่ สองสามวินาทีผ่านไป บุ๊ป ไมค์ก็นึกในใจว่า เขาไม่รู้ว่า ต.ข.ก. มีไก่ด้วย ไม่ไช่ซูปเท่านั็น….. เฮอ

    ไมค์อยากบอกให้ลีลาทราบว่า ลีลาเขียนบลอกโพสตเรื่องนี็ จะไค้บูญเยอมาก เพราะว่ามีไก่หลายตัวหลายพันที่พ้นตายเพราะคนจะไม่สั่ง ต.ข.ก. ผิดต่อไปนะครับ

  18. หนูMichael – Hahahahaha. That’s hilarious! Thanks for sharing. :) Reminds me of a friend of mine who, on his last trip to Thailand, placed this order at a restaurant, “Can I have Khao Pad Gai with no Gai but Mu?

  19. I worked in a (likely unauthentic) thai restaurant in college and the tom kha gai was my absolute favorite thing to eat. I was the farmer’s market the other day and (hooray!) they had lemongrass and galangal. No Kaffir lime leaves though. I read somewhere that some substitute lime zest and fresh bay leaves instead.

    Anyway – I don’t know what you’d think about such a substitution, and I certainly don’t have as discerning taste buds as you I’m sure, but I made the recipe with that substitution and am in absolute heaven right now. Thanks!

  20. Hi Leela,

    I am a cook purist and Tom Ka Gai is also one of my favourites although I am not too enamoured with Thai cuisine. I think you have got the details just right. In my experience the stock is the most important detail. I buy whole chickens or chicken legs, debone them, crack them and throw the bones in water with salt. Perfect also for Szechuan and Cantonese dishes. I freeze small portions. I actually prefer legs over whole chickens because there is no breast. Chicken breast is the least nice-tasting part of the chicken, I agree. When I use whole chicken, I drop the chicken breast in 3 minutes before the soup is done (they are marinated in lime juice and fish sauce). I don’t share your aversion to lemon juice 😉

  21. I agree with you about tom kha being a global favorite on the top 10 list. I LOVE it and always order it when I have Thai food. I am not a beginner, but I found this post very useful! Thanks.

  22. What a great recipe! This has been my favorite Thai dish since I was little, and with your help I finally felt brave enough to try it myself. It was a great success for my friends and I! Thank you!

  23. Hello – the best i could find was a lemongrass stalk and “Tom Ka Kai Instant Sour Spicy Coconut Paste” (I’m hoping this i the right thing!) How do you recommend using the paste?

    Thanks!

  24. LoraKay – If you have the paste, it’s easy. Just follow the directions on the jar. Most of these pastes, regardless of the brand, come pre-seasoned. This means you won’t need anything else other than the paste and coconut milk to create a flavorful broth. Simply cut up some chicken, put it in a pot, pour in enough coconut milk to cover it, add the paste (start out with maybe a couple of spoonfuls per each cup of coconut milk — you can always add more), and bring the whole thing to a very, very gentle boil (see instructions on how to poach delicate proteins). If you have fresh lime juice and fish sauce, season the soup with those after the chicken is fully cooked. If not, add a bit more of the paste until it tastes right to you.

    You *could* add fresh lemongrass to the soup, but I think it would only create an imbalance unless you add fresh kaffir lime leaves and fresh galangal as well. If you want to perk up the flavor and aroma of the finished soup with something fresh, I’d add a handful of cilantro leaves and crushed fresh bird’s eye chilies (to taste).

  25. Can you tell me more about the Bone-In, Skin on Chicken stock simmered in herb-infused liquid until tender. I would like to know what herbs were used.

  26. Hi Ms. Leela,

    First of all thank you SO much for posting this! I have been looking for an authentic recipe for Tom Kha Kai (my favourite food) for awhile now and I feel like this is the first one I’ve found that speaks to me.

    In terms of fish sauce, what brand would you recommend as a “good fish sauce” verses just the ok variety?

    Thank you!

    Mio

  27. Mio – Thanks.

    One of the brands that I really like is Scale. A few other brands are good too, but they’re harder to find in many area so I don’t mention them. Healthy Boy is not too shabby as well.

    Squid and Tiparos are okay.

    What you don’t want would be ones that list artificial flavorings (and coloring sometimes) on the label. Also — and this is my personal preference — I stick rigidly with fish sauce brands from Thailand. Vietnamese fish sauce is delicious, but I find it to be most suitable for what it’s made for which is Vietnamese food.

  28. My Whole Foods stopped stocking Kaffir Lime leaves. Womp. Womp.

    Allegedly, they go to waste because no one buys them. It’s a shame to think about all the instances I saw them in the produce section and said to myself, “Hmph. Perhaps another day Mr. Kaffir.”

    If anyone has any leads on a good supplier/vendor, please be in-touch.

  29. This soup ranks in my top three EVER, right behind Posole & Albondigas. (Mexican habits die hard)
    Made it again last night..sprang onto your blog and found it as I was running into the market.

    Practice makes perfect – Each pot I make is even better than the one before. And when you reach the point in your relationship with a recipe, where the instructions only serve as a hatch by which you escape only in the event of a memory lapse…that’s a good place to be.

    Pure bliss.
    And I’m enjoying a bowl of the leftovers for lunch as I type this.

    @rramirez4444

    • MamaMia,

      If you are ever in the mood to share posole and/or albondigas recipes, I’d love to try yours!
      You can email me at whippedkitchen@gmail.

      Thanks!

  30. We tried this for dinner tonight, and it was so delicious! Thank you so much for sharing the recipe. It is convenient that the chilies and cilantro go in at the very end, because my husband has stomach problems and is a real food wimp, so I was easily able to separate out a super-bland serving or two for him (which he really enjoyed!) before finishing the dish for my daughter and me.

    MamaMia, do you have a food blog, as well? I’d love to find a great recipe for posole!

  31. I feel the same way you do about Tom Kha, but I like a tofu version. I love this dish so much that I even considered doing a cross-country road trip and writing a book or article about my search for the perfect Tom Kha Tofu.

    I became addicted to this when I lived in Santa Barbara and ate at Your Place Thai restaurant. Later, I found a stunning version at Thairiffic restaurant when I lived in San Luis Obispo, Calif. I am amazed at how many restaurants don’t know how to make this. Most often it tastes like coconut beverage with a few mushrooms floating in it. Totally boring.

    After moving to New Orleans, I tried every Thai restaurant on the east side of the Mississippi River and none of them even came close to making this right.

    So, I decided to take things into my own hands. Last night I followed your recipe, sort of. Somehow I couldn’t find the lemongrass I thought I’d bought at Hong Kong Food Market, but I had the galangal root and coconut milk and a lime and vegetable broth and the Thai chiles. I added green onions and zucchini and broccoli and cilantro, and finally the tofu. OMG. It was so friggin amazing. Possibly the best Tom Kha Tofu of my life. My husband liked it too, complaining about how spicy it was while spooning up every last drop. I plan to make it again tonight, this time splitting the pot and adding chicken to his and tofu to my portion.

    Thank you, thank you. This is possibly the best dish on the planet.

  32. Having grown Kaffir Lime and West Indian Limes, I would suggest that you substitute ANY lime leaf for Kaffir Lime Leaf, the flavour is almost exactly the same.If you have trouble finding Kaffir Lime leaves, that is. Tahitian Lime Leaves also have the same flavour.

  33. Yesterday I was making some chicken stock as I had a bunch of leftover chicken bones from another meal and I wanted to use them up. I went to make the traditional french mirepois but found that I was out of celery so I decided to substitute lemongrass instead. This gave me the idea to make Tom Kha Gai. A little googling later and I found this gem of a site. Thank you so much for this blog! Cooking is a passion of mine and Thai ranks at the top of my favorite cuisines. So today I made your Tom Kha Gai recipe with the stock and it was fantastic. The best Tom Kha Gai that I have made yet. I’m still searching for a local supplier for Golden Boy fish sauce (I’ve been using Three Crabs) and Nam Prik Pao (I’m sure to try making this as well but will follow your advice to calibrate my own with a good production version). You are doing your grandmother a great service by passing down her traditions. Just think of the impact that you and she are having! Again thanks for a terrific site.

    Cheers,
    -Brad G. (Harvard, MA)

  34. This recipe turns out magnificently, even through my beginner cooking. Tom kha kai is one of my favorites too: my brother says proper thai food should embody tropical air, the magnificence of thunderclouds and the shift in temperature as rain evaporates from jungle leaves, and I feel that, of the popular thai dishes, this is most representative of that quality.

  35. THANK YOU for finally providing a recipe for a delicious homemade tom kha soup. I’ve been trying for about 2 years now and this is by far the best batch I’ve ever made! I also made a chicken panang curry following your pork and squash recipe and that too was superb. I love your site!!

  36. I used to live in Southeast Asia. In my little neighborhood there was a tiny kitchen run by a lady from Pattaya who made the most spectacular, nourishing Thai food. I now live in a small town in America and, boy, I can’t eat out at an Asian restaurant because it’s too disappointing. Since I found your blog I’ve been reading it voraciously! Thankfully we have a decent Asian grocery store nearby.

    Tried Tom Kha Gai tonight, and it was so comforting! It was also my first time doing a dish at a gentle poaching temp from start to finish, so it’s also opened a whole world of infusion cooking. The Asian grocery store didn’t have kefir lime leaves, so I tried steeping some thin slices of lime peel and one or two stalks of lemon basil, which I pulled out early (I won’t ask for your approval, but I am interested to know whether I should attempt to substitue something limey for lime leaves in the future or just not try…). Also, we love heat and found the soup itself not very spicy, though it was nice getting a bite of chili then cooling down with the coconut-broth… Would you ever add chilis earlier in the infusion to get more heat?

    • Alison, TKG is one of those gentle Central dishes the quality of which isn’t generally regarded as dependent on a high level of spiciness. But if you like the soup to be spicier, I’d simply add more crushed or chopped fresh bird’s eye chilies to it towards the end.

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  39. Thanks – I just introduced a friend to this soup, which is also one of my favorite dishes on the planet, yesterday at a Thai place (Thai Sky in Long Beach, which is also where I discovered the soup – they make a mean tom kha). She agreed it was way tasty, and said she wanted to try cooking it sometime, so I thought I would look up what goes into it. Hopefully we can find the fresh herbs somewhere!

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  45. Thanks so much for blogging. It has been wonderful reading the details you add – so much more depth than a cookbook.

    My wife and I have been in love with Tom Kha since we lived in LA, when we would go from restaurant to restaurant in search of the perfect soup. I have been making a version based on a recipe in True Thai, which uses NPP (home-made), and it’s become my wife’s constant request. I read that some people feel that adding NPP to Tom Kha is somehow inauthentic, but authenticity is not the only goal. It is wonderful, and that’s the most important thing.

    One thing I have learned is that it helps substantially to steep the kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal in the chicken broth BEFORE the coconut milk is added. If I add all the ingredients together, I never quite get the same flavor, no matter how long I steep. I put the both and herbs on low heat before I prepare ingredients for the other dishes, making sure they have 20-30 minutes of heating before I add coconut milk. When I do this, the flavors really pop.

    • Thank you very much, Seth! I’ll have to try your steeping method. It’s never occurred to me to do it that way, because when I make TKG at home, I always use bone-in chicken which is how it’s usually done in Thailand. This means no chicken broth is needed, because the chicken is cooked much longer and the bones naturally turn coconut milk into a mixture of coconut milk and broth in the process. But what you do makes a lot of sense and without having tried it, I can see that it must work. It’s like how steeping tea in plain water brings out its flavor and depth better than steeping it in milk. And this step in the making of TKG is essentially like making tea. I’ve recently had a conversation on this with a hotel chef in Thailand who has his own theory regarding how long and in what order these herbs should be steeped. Fascinating.

  46. I have been in love with this dish since my very first experience w/ Thai food (at a lovely place called Siam Thai in South Bend, IN). However, the version I tasted had shrimp, so I believe it was actually Thom Kha Goong? If I make that version, would I still use chicken broth, or can I make a shrimp broth without overcooking the shrimp? Sorry if that’s a silly a question, I’m still very new to making Thai food, but can’t wait to try! Thanks so much for your beautiful blog, it’s as lovely as the food you describe!

    • Jennifer, thank you. You can use either one. Stock is made with chicken or pork bones in Thailand (unless you really go out of your way to make something different) and this standard stock is used in a wide variety of dishes, including seafood dishes. But shrimp stock in this is fine too — maybe even better.

  47. New follower here, amazing stuff here!

    What type of chicken stock do you recommend? Homemade/store? If home made, can I ask how you prepare it, particularly for use in the Tom Kha Gai?

    Also, can you elaborate what you mean about high quality coconut milk?

    Excited to try this out. Scrounged up all the ingredients at my local asian/chinese grocery store, though the galangal and kaffir lime leaves are frozen.

    • Somehow missed the link for the coconut milk originally, but just followed it now, so you can skip that response!

    • Ideally, stock for Thai cooking should be made with nothing but chicken or pork bones and water. Sometimes, aromatics such as peppercorns, cilantro roots, and garlic are added, but for this purpose, that is not necessary (actually, not recommended even, because it will interfere with the herbs in this dish).

      Commercial stocks in the US are usually made according to the Western traditions which usually means carrots, onions, celery, etc., and some herbs — even tomato paste — are used to make them. So if you can find a commercial stock that doesn’t contain these things, that’ll be best. If not, make your own. Just boil the heck out of some chicken or pork bones and reduce it until you get a flavorful, concentrated stock then strain. That’s all you need.

        • Catherine, no. You should not/need not use roasted chicken bones to make stock for Thai cooking. Nothing but raw chicken bones and water. No onions, carrots, celery, etc.

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  50. Just want to say that this recipe is awesome. I have tried to make this soup at least 15 times in the last 5 – 10 years and this is the first time (using this recipe) I would say it actually “turned out.” Other recipes just didn’t work nearly as well as this one. You really did well explaining that the purpose was to infuse (not boil!) the galangal, lime leaves and lemongrass into the soup. I also think boiling down the stock made a big difference. Anyway, thanks so much!

  51. Great recipe, great blog.

    My lemongrass provided nice flavor but proved too tough to eat, more like lemonsticks. Next time I will leave it in big pieces to make removal easier after infusing. Is yours not tough?

    Thanks, Markus

    • The herbs are not supposed to be eaten. The Thai people don’t usually remove the herbs when they serve this dish; they just know not to eat them. But you can remove them before serving.

  52. My favorite thai cook makes his Tom Kha Gai with tomatoes. Since his recipe is the first I’ve tried, and I just kind of stuck with it (he feeds me well!) I haven’t tried other versions. So, I’m not familiar with whether this is unusual or not. I really like the tomato pieces. But I’ve recently been looking at other recipes and wanted to try my hand at a new one. I never see tomatoes in the recipe! Is it a very non-traditional addition?

    • Anne, I’ve never seen tom kha gai with tomatoes or recipes from respectable sources that call for them. I don’t consider that a traditional addition.

  53. This recipe is simple to make and delicious. The only thing I would change is to strain out the lemongrass, galangal, and lime leaves before adding the mushrooms and chicken because they are tough to eat. I first had this at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas and have been dreaming of it since. This is really close to what I remember. Thank you!

    • Nobody eats the galangal, lemongrass or kaffir lime leaves. The chilli you can if you like it spicy. The coriander definitely eaten. You can strain the herbs out if you want but it is not authentic to do so. It also shows that the cook has used fresh ingredients rather than ready made pastes. We traditionally leave it in when we serve and sometimes even suck on them and spit it out as the herbs are still quite fragrant and will soak up some of the delicious soup! It would be just like sucking the flavour out of a ice lolly! Yum yum.

  54. I can’t wait to try this, I love tom kha gai (I asked a Thai coworker for a recipe once, and he vaguely told me to go Google it. Well, take that, Thai coworker!)

    Can the soup be frozen? I’ve been enjoying making huge batches of soup and then freezing them, ensuring I have a steady supply and variety of soups.

    • Catherine, you can freeze it. Depending on the brand of the coconut milk, the broth may separate in the process of freezing and thawing. Also, the herbal scent will dissipate somewhat. But these are not major things in my book.

  55. OMG! One of my all time fave dishes and the best recipe I’ve found. Thanks for sharing this!

    xox

  56. I want to make this dish for a family get together and my Aunt is allergic to fish, is fish sauce made from fish? And if it is, is there a way to make it without it and still have it be delicious?

  57. Leela, thank you very much for the recipes – for the whole blog, actually. Have been reading here and there, and there isn’t one page where I don’t learn something. Made Tom Kha Gai tonight with broth from a whole chicken (chicken pieces, water, a little fish sauce), concentrated part of the liquid then added the rest of the ingredients and the chicken meat from the broth at the end, just to warm it up. The whole family enjoyed it very much. I took a leaf out of your book, and mixed the Tom Kha with the rice. Granny may not approve, but you get my vote.

  58. Dear Leela,

    Just made this, it was gone within minutes, even my two year old niece loved it. Thank you so much for sharing 😀

  59. I’m afraid to make this soup, Leela.

    Tom Kha Gai/Kai is my favorite soup in the entire world. Maybe there’s another soup I have not yet ventured across, but I just don’t know that yet, so Tom Kha is it.

    I can get galangal, but what if it’s not really in perfect condition, just like it appears to be in your picture? What if the lemongrass is lemongrass from the USA and is not great lemongrass? What if I screw it up?

    Will I forgive myself? I know I would, but I’d be pretty disappointed in my screw up.

    I’m going to have to attempt this recipe, though probably not until Saturday, after I visit Great Wall and come home satisfied I’ve found the very best ingredients I can in this area so close to Washington, D.C.

    We need a Thai-sector! How dare there not be a slice of Thailand in or next to D.C.? What is going on here?

    So, I’m going to do it, and I hope I don’t screw up the recipe. Thanks for making it so detailed and foolproof!

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  61. This soup addresses a deep need in my soul every time I eat it, but I’ve never tried making it at home. This will happen. Thank you!

  62. Thank you SO much for this recipe! I loved the soup. It was perfect! I subbed fresh cremini mushrooms and followed the rest of the recipe to the t. I really appreciate how detailed it was. I will definitely be trying out some of your other recipes now. Thanks again!

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  66. My guests still have problems with the “inedible” (their words) pieces of galangal, lemon grass, and kaffir leaves. Do you think I could make a sachet d’épices with them, using cheesecloth and twine? Would they still impart as much flavor? Thanks.

    • Lily – I’ve tried that and found the end result to be too insipid for me — not the best return for the money and time I spend on acquiring these fresh herbs. (Then again, I’m someone who finds galangal pleasant to eat!) What I would do in this case is to bruise a whole chunk of galangal and large pieces of lemongrass instead of slicing them. A granite pestle, a heavy rolling pin, or a hammer comes in handy. You want the galangal chunk to crack open a bit just enough so it can release the fragrance; for the lemongrass, you just want it to be bruised and frayed. That way, it’s easier to remove them before serving. As for kaffir lime leaves, they should already be pretty easy to remove.

  67. I am making this recipe right now, but I am doing it the rustic way. I made the chicken stock from scratch. In your recipe it says to use 3 cups of chicken broth but to dilute it to half of its volume, except mine is already concentrated. Do I use 3 cups of (homemade) chicken stock or 1 1/2 cups? Thank you.

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  70. I cannot tell you how much love and gratitude I have for you posting this recipe and just having this website in general. Growing up on the Canadian Prairies, I was very, very spoiled to work at a hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant who remained un-apologetic in their cooking & recipes (the family/owners were from the Mahachai area) – beautiful balance, NOTHING, especially sweetness in excess. Moving from this middle of no-where town of 35,000 people to the metropolis of Brisbane, Australia, I was excited to find what I assumed would be a plethora of restaurants at my fingertips to explore… you know, how can a city and area of 3 million+ people go wrong? How disappointed I have been. The dumping of palm sugar into so many dishes, the complete absence of meing com (miang kum) from the menu. Just disappointing.

    Tom Kha Gai is one of my most favourite dishes and for the last 4.5 years I’ve been without, trying time and time again to find a balanced dish I could literally bury my face into only to be let down by a paltry, one cup servings that doesn’t let the coconut milk just… be (for a want of a better word) in the myriad of other subtle flavours that dance together so wonderously. Tonight, I’m making my second batch since finding your website about 6 weeks ago. I’m still finding the whole process of infusing the herbs daunting; and this time around, I’m going to attempt to do the rustic version in an attempt to recreate one of my comfort dishes.

    Again, thank you, thank you, thank you so much for giving those of us who are not Thai the chance to re-create dishes like they should be made

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  72. I just want to say that this recipe has changed my life. I shit you not – after the first time I made it I ate it for a month straight. Thank you for a delightful recipe that needs no additions or subtractions…wonderful!!

  73. How many people does this recipe serve? It’s the only thing I don’t see on here! Thank you, can’t wait to try it!

    • M’y – This should serve 2 as a rice accompanying main dish (which is how it’s traditionally served). But it should be enough for 3-4 when served as a stand-alone soup course the Western way.

  74. I love your site and your recipes. Thank you so much! I have used this one before and used it again tonight. I used both bones and chicken powder (Knorr). I also added fresh coconut meat from a Thai coconut for additional flavor and texture because I drank one yesterday and split it open to get the meat out. I was going to make rendang, but since I was making this anyway I decided to throw it in. :) My sister loved it! She keeps suggesting I go the chef route. lol

    For the record, no nam prik pow in my tom kha gai or tom yum goong, ever!

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  76. “Tom Kha Gai isn’t just any dish; it’s one of my top five most favorite dishes in the world, Thai or otherwise. At a risk of taking anthropomorphism of food a bit too far, I felt that if I let myself write about Tom Kha Gai with the kind of unbridled affection from the depth of my bowels, I’d bore — or scare — you. Yet, if I held back, I’d be remiss for not giving the dish the love it deserves.”

    Oh my- you have perfectly described my feelings toward this dish except that it IS my favorite dish in the world, my comfort and soul food. Eating it in Thailand was a religious experience for me. Have tried making a few times before and it was passable, but cannot wait to try your version. Thanks for posting.

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  78. I have made Tom Kha Gai several times (and messed up horribly the first several times, for those of you who are scared to make it), and finally got as close to perfecting it as I believe I will be able to, recently. I wish I had stumbled upon this conversation about Tom Kha Gai sooner. I am still happy to have found it, however, as I am planning on making the dish today, and it is always good to know that others corroborate my feelings on this fantastic dish. I wanted to let you know that I love this commentary of the dish, and appreciate your take on your feelings about it. Because it is so beloved, it is a rather daunting dish to make. You want it to taste juuust right, and yet, if you do not have the correct ingredients (as stated above) you’re in for a rude awakening. Thank you for your post! I am surprised to learn that this ‘soup’ is eaten with rice, and excited to try it that way momentarily!

    I echo this sentiment from Rebecca above: “Again, thank you, thank you, thank you so much for giving those of us who are not Thai the chance to re-create dishes like they should be made”

    Looking forward to exploring more of your recipes :)

  79. Hi,

    Just a quick question or two 1. if I were to make this with the bone-in skin on chicken could it be made on low in like a crockpot so the broth could be homemade and have time to develop deep flavor? 2. If made this way at what point would I add the coconut milk?

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  81. Hi Leela,

    My only experience with this soup was somewhere in Berlin a long time ago, and last week when I received a solid state Tom Kha Gai croquette in a fancy restaurant. It reminded me of the lovely soup I ate in Berlin and just now I tried to make it myself after finding your recipte that looks pretty authentic.

    The soup turned out ok, the infusion of herbs (my local shop sells lime leaves frozen) gave a lovely taste. Only it became way to sour after adding just one lime (glad I added them one by one) and I do have some questions..

    – What time should the soup simmer / infuse with herbs (before adding the chicken)
    – Like another commenter we also found the chunks of herbs unpleasant to eat, will letting the soup “boil” longer make them softer, or would it be possible to sieve the soup before adding the chicken?
    – I remember that I really liked tomato in this soup when I ate it in Berlin, is this a thing somewhere (besides Berlin?)

    Looking forward to make this again and again

    • TJ –
      Re: the sourness, as stated in the post, though TKG is a soup, it’s considered a rice accompaniment by the Thai, i.e. you don’t eat it by itself as a stand-alone soup course, but with rice. The soup, when made the traditional way, is, therefore, seasoned quite generously in anticipation of the bland rice with which it is to be eaten. And for a soup that is usually predominantly sour, the flavor of the lime needs to be quite pronounced. But you did the right thing in starting out with one lime. It’s always wise to use caution when you’re not sure if you will like the dish as it’s traditionally seasoned. From my experience eating at Thai restaurants in Europe (never in Berlin, though), Thai soups are often seasoned mildly to accommodate the Western tradition of eating a soup as a stand-alone. This could be the reason why your memory of TKG is one of a creamy, mild soup. So if you plan on eating this soup the Western way, it’s probably best to underseason it.

      Re: the infusion time, I’ve modified the recipe to make things a little clearer. Thank you for bringing it up.

      Re: the herbs, as I responded to the commenter, the herbs are not supposed to be eaten; it’s understood that they’re supposed to be pushed to the side of the plate when you eat the soup (the only things you’re supposed to eat would be the meat, the coconut broth, and the soft herbs (cilantro and galangal if it’s very young — see post for my comment). Thai cooks almost always leave the herbs in the soup — something non-Thais find perplexing (and annoying). It could be because they can’t be bothered to remove them or because the presence of the herbs increases the perceived value of the dish (something made with real, fresh herbs) and makes for a nice garnish. Regardless, it’s unnecessary, because once the herbs have rendered their essential oils to infuse the broth, their presence is no longer required. You can remove them with a slotted spoon before adding the chicken or, better, before serving.

      Re: tomato – I have never seen tomatoes in TKG anywhere in Thailand. They are, however, often added to tom yam.

  82. I just ate this at our local Thai restaurant. I can honestly say that it rocketed up to my favorite food! Or, as I told my husband at the restaurant, I am in love with this soup!

    Thanks for the recipe.

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  84. Hi, Leela! Just wanted to say thanks for the great recipe. This was my first time making this and I was thrilled with it. I’m on a special diet (no sugar allowed) so I used Red Boat fish sauce. Do you know if there are any Thai fish sauces out there that don’t have sugar? I went with 2 limes and 1/4 cup fish sauce as you recommended to start. I make my own chicken broth and it’s salted, but not as salty as commercial chicken broth. Having never had this soup before, I was not sure whether or not I should add more lime and fish sauce as it tasted good to me as it was. I will definitely be making this again, so if you have any feedback about the fish sauce or how much to add, it would be appreciated!

    • KE – The good brands all contain some sugar the amount of which is, to me, negligible. In fact, I figure you’d most likely be consuming more naturally-occurring sugar and carbohydrate from the coconut milk than you would from the fish sauce. Regardless, if 1/4 cup tastes good to you, it’s best to stick with that. To avoid all sugar, you can use any brand that doesn’t contain any; you can also add salt (to taste) which is what I recommend to those who want to make this dish vegetarian/vegan.

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  86. Wow ! ! !

    I followed your recipe and it made the best Thai soup I’ve ever had! This will definitely be a dish I will make over and over, since it’s one of my favorite soups. It tasted amazing, even (only) with the mushrooms.

    Chapeau!

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