Tom Yam and Tom Kha Mixes: How and When to Use Them

tom yum tom kha tom yam tom ka mix

I’ve been getting lots of emails asking whether it’s okay to use ginger in Tom Yam or Tom Kha when galangal, fresh or frozen, cannot be found. The short, blunt answer is: no, it’s not. The more diplomatic, gosh-there-are-so-many-toes-in-this-world-and-I-don’t-want-to-step-on-any answer is: it depends.

If someone wants to make a new soup that is inspired by, and vaguely reminiscent of, these two dishes, by all means, they should be free to use ginger (or any roots and rhizomes for that matter) and have fun in the kitchen. If they and their loved ones enjoy the end result, that’s an even bigger reward right there, and they should be proud of their culinary creativity and the new soup that perhaps deserves a name of its own.

But if they want to replicate these two iconic Thai soups as they are made in contemporary Thai cuisine (there are historical documents showing that galangal wasn’t always used in Tom Yam), my opinion is that they cannot use ginger and expect to achieve their goal. This is especially true when it comes to Tom Kha for what would Tom Kha be without the kha (galangal)?

This is not food snobbery; this is me telling you that no cook worth his or her salt will ever tell you that ginger can be used in place of galangal (or vice versa) in a recipe. The two may look similar, but they don’t taste the same. To paraphrase one of my readers’ comment (thanks, Ian!) on my Facebook wall, ginger and galangal are as interchangeable as parsley and cilantro. That is to say, they are not interchangeable at all.

So what should one do in the complete and utter absence of fresh, frozen, or brined galangal?

Short of growing your own herbs, traveling to large coastal cities where fresh Asian ingredients are available 24/7, or paying a lot of money to have some online grocers overnight them to you, the remedy is commercial Tom Kha and Tom Yam pastes. They’re made for a situation like this.

The flavors of the herbs have already been incorporated into these pastes. Some brands of Tom Kha paste even have spray-dried coconut milk in them so you can just dissolve the paste into plain water and get a coconut-based soup (albeit severely anemic — I’d use coconut milk). Most brands already include fish sauce and lime juice in the paste, so you can just add the meat. More fish sauce, lime juice, or chilies can be added to taste.

If you can’t find galangal, but have some lemongrass lying around, by all means, slice some up and reinforce the lemongrass essence in the paste with fresh lemongrass. No galangal or lemongrass? Do you have some frozen kaffir lime leaves? How about bruising up a couple and throwing them into the pot? Many Thai restaurants overseas, who face the same problem as you, do this all the time (and aren’t they the places where many of you have met and fallen in love with these soups?).

Sure, these pastes come with MSG and some preservatives. So it’s up to those with zero tolerance for these things to decide what works best for them: ginger-flavored non-Tom Yam/non-Tom Kha, Tom Yam and Tom Kha made with these pastes, or no Tom Yam or Tom Kha.

As I said above: this is not food snobbery. This is about finding a solution that makes the most sense in a less-than-ideal situation. Commercial Tom Yam and Tom Kha pastes are my proposed solution.

26 Responses to Tom Yam and Tom Kha Mixes: How and When to Use Them

  1. Karla August 24, 2012 at 12:53 am #

    Actually galangal is fairly hardy so there is no need to ship it overnight (unlike Thai basil), so there is really no reason now-a-days to use ginger! 🙂

  2. tonia mees August 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    I always add a little fresh ginger and some onion on top of the regular 4, galanga, lemon grass, kaffir and chili.. It adds flavor and depth.. But I would not replace galanga entirely with ginger.. What really makes both Tom Kha and Tom Yam perfect is the Thai Knorr broth cube..

    • Jade August 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      Why do you put ginger in tom yum or tom ka? Nobody does that in Thailand. It changes the flavor entirely and ruins the familiar taste of the herb trinity. This makes no sense especially given that you have galanga. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid your comment will mislead people who don’t know Thai food into thinking that they can improve the taste of the soup by the addition of ginger. Um, no.

      Trust me. If your tom yum lacks depth, the problem isn’t because there’s no ginger.

  3. danny6114 August 24, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Can you recommend any brands and the lowest price online sites to purchase these items?

    • Leela August 24, 2012 at 12:15 pm # is a reliable online Thai grocer. I don’t know how their prices are compared to others, however (also, it’s not just the price of an item but how much a grocer charges for shipping that needs to be taken into consideration). There are also a few grocers that sell through Amazon as well, so you may want to browse there. Their prices may be higher, but with Amazon’s special programs, free shipping, etc., you may end up paying less.

      Mae Ploy and Pantainorasingh are good brands. Por Kwan and Lobo aren’t too shabby either.

  4. George Gale August 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Galangal freezes very well so far as taste and aroma are concerned; texture suffers–but then, who cares about the *texture* of galangal?! 🙂

    Just before serving my soup, I rasp some filings of galangal into the soup, using a fine microplane grater
    which really bumps up the aroma for a brief moment or two.

    • Leela August 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

      Great tip. Thank you.

  5. Janice Black August 24, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    I understand exactly how you feel, because I have run into the same issues with gumbo. In recent years it has become popular for people to print or use recipes for gumbo that leave out the okra. In my mind, this is patently ridiculous, because gumbo is nothing more or less than “okra soup.” Without okra, how can it be gumbo?

    • Jolie Blon August 26, 2012 at 10:07 pm #

      Sorry, but as a Cajun that is completely incorrect. There are many gumbos we make that do not feature okra, like file’ seafood gumbo and gumbo z’herbes. I’d be happy to teach you how to make them.

      • Jodie99 September 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm #

        I’m another Cajun/Creole New Orleanian, and I detest okra. I make incredible gumbo and love gumbo of all kinds — without okra.

        In fact, only seafood gumbo traditionally uses okra. Chicken and sausage, duck gumbo absolutely require no okra.

        Calling gumbo “okra soup” is absurd and wrong.

  6. Glennis August 24, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    I’ve fallen in love with your blog and your recipes…and I wholeheartedly agree…they simply aren’t interchangeable. Galanga can be difficult to get here, as well as Kaffir lime leaves, but I stock up when they are available. Thanks for the great tip on the soup bases…I’ll check to see if our markets carry those. Thanks to you, and your recipes and techniques, my beloved will once again eat Pad Thai!!

  7. Karla August 25, 2012 at 2:11 am #

    Before shopping at Amazon for all your needs, I suggest reading this NY Times article.

  8. Manny Alegria August 25, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

    I love Thai foods since I spent more than seven years going back and forth during the Viet Nam war. I am not familiar with galangal (kha) Can it be grown here in the Southwest (Tucson Arizona)? and how do I go about it. I used to enjoy a soup from the street vendors and have not been able to duplicate it. Please help!
    Manny Alegria

    • Leela August 25, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

      Galangal or galanga looks somewhat like ginger, except it has off-white skin as opposed to brown. (You can see what it looks like in my post on Tom Kha Gai.) I believe the weater in Tucson should allow you to grow it. But you may be able to find it quite easily at Thai (Lao, Hmong, Vietnamese, etc.) stores as well. Buy a bunch, slice them up thinly, put them in a freezer bag, and freeze them.

  9. simon @ August 26, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    I wholeheartedly agree! To create the right flavor profile, it’s paramount to use the right ingredients.

  10. tip to find galangal August 29, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Buy them when on holiday in the Netherlands! They are very easy to find as any ingredient used in Indonesian cooking. Just look for a toko (small Asian supermarkets with take away section). However I’m not sure about customs….

  11. happydemic August 30, 2012 at 11:03 am #

    I’m glad you mentioned that historically, galangal was not always used in Tom Yam.

    There are some Thai cooks I respect who don’t put galangal in Tom Yam Kung, preferring the lime leaf/lemongrass combo stand alone with the delicate seafood. Your recipe has galangal of course – which is delicious too. Needless to say, it’s only with prawns that I’ve seen galangal omitted from modern Tom Yam recipes.

    When I can’t get galangal, I make galangal-less Tom Yam Kung instead – a very light and elegant combination (no decent pastes in my part of the world). Where do you stand on this question? Do you consider a galangal-less Tom Yam Kung a dish worth preserving, or should it make way for the all mighty galangal?

    Ginger, of course, is an abomination… 🙂

    • Leela August 30, 2012 at 11:51 am #

      Yes, galangal was not always used in Tom Yam. In fact, my grandmother’s TY does not contain galangal. I’ll be writing a post on it soon. However, with the way most Thai restaurants, both in Thailand and abroad, make theirs, galangal is essential if the goal is to replicate that flavor.

  12. นกน้อย นกอ้วน September 12, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    My husband wanted ต้มข่า for dinner. I told him it’s a pain in the ass to go buy and prepare all the ingredients. Any particular bands of ต้มข่า and ต้มยำ pastes you’d recommend as tolerable? I already use Chaokoh กะทิ exclusively, although Trader Joe’s just started selling their own brand of กะทิ, and I am tempted by the convenience.

    • Leela September 12, 2012 at 6:14 pm #

      Most of them are (though the paste type is far better than the cube type, IMO). I doctor them up with whatever fresh herbs I can find plus more fish sauce and fresh lime juice to taste, anyway.

    • Leela September 12, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

      Actually, Tom Kha which is an infusion dish (as opposed to a coconut milk-based curry wherein you need coconut fat to fry the curry paste in) can accommodate inferior coconut milk better than a curry. I’d use TJ’s, if it’s more convenient. Even the low-fat kind would work, if fat is a concern.

  13. Chelsea December 13, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    I must just be really lucky, because I live in a region with TONS of Asian markets, and they have these things readily stocked.

    Unfortunately, I am also very UN-lucky… Because I accidentally bought coconut milk “beverage” instead of pure coconut milk. And then I tried the Tom Kha recipe with it. That was a big, glaring, terrible and unpalatable mistake.

    Oh well! Lots of lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal to experiment with. Better luck next time!

  14. Eileen January 15, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    i like your blog and website.. very informative and im glad you don’t encourage people to “improvise” when a certain key ingredient is not on hand. I too am very particular about that… It is also quite disappointing going to a Thai restaurant and order a “chicken lemongrass soup” when there isn’t any hint of lemongrass at all in the soup. I cook a lot of Thai food and lemon grass is a very distinct taste that can’t be hard to miss. Unless of course you haven’t tasted it yet. That is why i cook a lot at home because i always end up disappointed eating out.

  15. Zhang February 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    On the other hand, if you’re so hell bent on using ginger, you could try Tom Som. It’s what I always have at seaside restaurants.

    Here’s a basic recipe

    I must say though that as a Thai I would never use chicken stock or salmon. I usually go for white fish with bones (bone gives flavor to the broth) or pork ribs (best if you can find brisket bones). Plus the recipe is missing chili. (it normally contains the larger, less spicy chili, contrary to the one used in Tom Yum.) And I would use less or no sugar, like it that way.

  16. Miss Terry April 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm #

    I just bought my first packet of dried galangal root (of which I confess I have no idea as to whether it resembles fresh galangal root at all). I’ve seen it in so many Asian recipes I’ve wanted to try, but had a hard time finding it. And of course, every time I’d visit the Asian markets near me (I live in Cleveland), I’d forget to look for it. I happened across the dried version at a local farmers market so I took the opportunity to try it. I chewed on a tiny bit & my first thought was that it was like someone married five-spice powder & ginger! I can’t imagine using ginger as any real substitute – the galangal has so much more depth of flavors & a certain woodsy spiciness clearly lacking in ginger (which, by the way, I love on its own, for its own sake). I am going to have to look up some recipes for Tom Yum or Tom Kha, or check out the one listed here, and try them out.


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