Tom Kha Gai, the Rustic Way

Tom Kha Gai
Yesterday afternoon, as I was hacking up a chicken with a cleaver to make this pot of Tom Kha Gai, my mind wandered off to one of my older posts on Serious Eats on chicken massaman curry and the comments it had elicited (which I find very educational). That had led to this impromptu post.

One of the biggest culture shocks I experienced during the first few months in the United States had nothing to do with differences in terms of language (though that was — still is — a challenge), the use of symbols and figures of speech (I’d learned along the way how to handle that), or etiquette.

It was the bonelessness and skinlessness of meat dishes I noticed.

After spending the first few weeks in the US wondering what was off about meat dishes at stateside Asian restaurants, I finally figured out that it was the fact that they were almost always boneless and skinless — you know, the dishes that would have come with bones and skin in Asia, the dishes that would have required some gnawing action on my part.

Then I started noticing that at potluck parties, people didn’t respond so well to my Asian meat dishes when they were prepared and presented in the way that was appetizing to me. I learned from it. When it comes to cultural differences, there’s no right or wrong — no better or worse. You don’t judge; you acknowledge.

Thai people in general are quite comfortable with whole fish with eyes looking back at us, head-on shrimp, bone-in and skin-on pieces of chicken, whole fish cut cross-wise into steaks, etc. We’re used to filleting a fried mackerel with a spoon and a fork at the table. The crispy tail ends of grilled chickens? There’s always someone in your family who would fight with you over those. Then there’s that cousin who is fond of eating the heads of deep-fried fish or sucking the juices and tomalley out of large prawns.

We also like to cook with bone-in meat. We’re comfortable with leaving the bones in. We don’t mind eating around them. We don’t mind eating the soft cartilage and even some of the bones that have been stewed until soft or fried until crunchy. (Read Kenji Lopez-Alt’s view regarding why bones are often left in Asian meat dishes.)

Herbs and spices floating in a curry or soup? We’re fine with those too. When I see a piece of dried spice in my massaman curry, I can’t resist picking it up and sucking on it, because, man, the sauce that adheres to it is so fragrant. I love it so much I sometimes forget that people from a different culture may feel differently. And even though intellectually I’m aware of this type of cultural disparity, once in a while I’m reminded by questions and comments from my readers of how I can’t assume that the way I see/do/like things must be the way others see/do/like things.

It’s all good. Part of education.

Tom Kha Gai

But for what it’s worth, what you see here is how I make Tom Kha Gai* at home.

When I help my readers recreate the dish as it’s made at their favorite Thai restaurants, I take away the skin and the bones. In my own kitchen, I cut up a whole chicken with a cleaver and bring out the flavor of the bones into the broth through long, slow cooking. There’s nothing wrong with slicing friendly boneless, skinless chicken breasts into bite-sized pieces and compensating for the lack of umami with chicken broth — there’s always more than one way to do anything; it’s just not the kind of Tom Kha Gai I grew up eating or prefer.

If you’re interested in making Tom Kha Gai this way, you can give it a try. Simply cut up a whole chicken into large chunks, put the pieces in a large pot, add just enough water to cover them plus some fish sauce to flavor the chicken while it’s cooked, and let the pot simmer for 40-50 minutes, replenishing the water along the way as necessary. Then add the bruised herbs to the pot (and mushrooms, if you’re in a fungus mood), let the whole thing continue to cook and infuse for 10 minutes, add coconut cream to it, heat it gently, and take the pot off the heat. More fish sauce, if necessary, goes in at this time along with fresh lime juice, crushed fresh chilies, and cilantro leaves. (For this to make sense, consult the post on how to make Tom Kha Gai.)

The broth is full of flavor — the kind of flavor boneless, skinless chicken breast meat will never be able to give you.

Oh, and the herbs floating about in the soup? You can remove them, if they bother you. Or you can do what most Thai people do: leave them in there and eat around them.

* RTGS: tom kha kai

41 Responses to Tom Kha Gai, the Rustic Way

  1. Riya March 12, 2013 at 11:47 am #

    สงสัยมานาน แล้วว่าต้มข่าไก่จริงๆ แล้วใส่พริกมั้ย? เราใส่ตลอด ใส่ไม่เยอะ ใส่พออร่อย เห็ดกับมะเขือเทศนี้เข้าใจว่า แม่ค้าขายข้าวราดแกงใส่ จริงๆแล้วไม่มี

  2. meaghan March 12, 2013 at 11:53 am #

    Love this post and look forward to making it the authentic way next time around. Do you have any recommendations/suggestions on a good cleaver to get?

  3. Joseph Rosenfeld March 12, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    I find this article fascinating because in my pursuit of authentic Thai cooking my preference is to cook it’s he way the Thais do it. So, I want to cook like you do, to get the entire experience.

    Ok, I’m not fond of biting into poultry cartilage. I’ve never cut a drumstick in half, but I’m willing to learn, for the sake of the general experience and the authenticity.

    So, I find this post most intriguing, and I will read it a few times until I’ve committed it to memory and am ready to attempt it just the way you did it.

  4. Ken G March 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    We used to live near a great fish store.
    The owner could never figure out why this white guy wanted the fish heads left on.
    Then one day my Chinese American wife came in with me.

  5. Tom March 12, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

    Great post, beautiful photo. I wonder what you (and/or the typical Thai cook) does with the rest of the chicken (neck, back, tail, the globs of fat around the neck).

    Would an ultra-rustic version have a head staring out of it?

    • Leela March 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

      Everything goes in. At times, you’ll also see cubes of congealed chicken blood. No chicken head. But feet pop up from time to time.

      • howdy April 12, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

        I was gonna ask “Where are the feet?”

        • howdy April 12, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

          Your website is beautiful, by the way. And your recipes inspire me to try things I’ve forgotten to make since moving here. Thank you!

  6. R. Saunders March 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    This really goes both ways.

    When I first lived in Thailand, I was taken aback by eating the whole fish intact, but I really enjoy the fish dishes that way, and I even like the dishes where you have the fish cut as steak with the bones and all.

    However, what I found interesting was when Thais prepared pork chops and steaks without the bone in, and that affected the flavor.

    I didn’t know if this was the Thai way of eating pork and steak this way or this was just the Thai way of trying please the farang.

    • Ken G March 12, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

      LOL. Our kid did a semester abroad in Thailand. The Thais will surely try to please. They left the red ants out for example.
      Now the kid will hardly eat in a US Thai restaurant. They know how it should be and it never is.

  7. Uma March 12, 2013 at 2:39 pm #

    I’m a long time reader although never commented before. Your site is such a sanctuary for me in more ways than one (I live next door to very nice people who own a “Thai-Fusion” restaurant in our small town GA, and every time someone asks me if I frequent Coconut Thai, I try my best to remain polite and refer them to your website). Anyhoo, totally not what brought me out of the lurker status though. From your precise cutting of the chicken, I don’t think the marks on the drumsticks were accidental? I used to work in a chicken plant (long story) and those are the kind of marks USDA inspectors scored on the shackled chickens to signify damages that needed to be taken off line. In short, marked parts are not meant to be left on a whole carcass. Legs are most commonly marked for bruises, which yours seem to be, severely broken bones that puncture the muscles, and sometimes signs of disease. Not trying to scare you, I promise as bruises are more of an esthetic issue than anything, but thought it should be noted for your future grocery trip.

    Thank you for teaching me how to cook like my grandmas and nanny. My girls will grow up knowing what real Thai food tastes like and will be able turn up their noses at all the fusion junk in the near future :).

    • dead_elvis March 13, 2013 at 4:52 pm #

      Uma, what marks are you talking about? I’m not sure what we’re supposed to be looking at.

      • Uma March 13, 2013 at 6:52 pm #

        If you look at the drumsticks, you would see the slice that went across the middle of both of them. From what I can tell from the coloring in the picture, both were marked because of bruising and the one on the bottom in particular might also had a broken hock that perhaps compromised the muscle tissues.

        • Leela March 13, 2013 at 6:57 pm #

          The slice that went across the middle of both drumsticks is where I cut them in half; the chicken didn’t come with marks from the store. Regardless, is that what we should look for when we buy chicken, Uma? Anything else we should watch out for? Thanks.

          • Uma March 13, 2013 at 7:38 pm #

            That is good to know! And yes, if you see those marks, don’t buy it. Plants are generally very good about not letting those go through the process, although a few can slip by as I have seen them in the stores before.

          • Uma March 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

            And sorry to cause any alarm! I can’t look at the meat case at the store without seeing defects anymore. Also, I never saw drumsticks chopped up in half before and just assumed they were marked.

          • Leela March 13, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

            No worries. Thank you for the information. I learned something I never knew before.

  8. Chris Nyles March 12, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

    Hi Leela,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge about Thai cuisine. Your site is very educational for people like me who has great passion in learning the food culture of other asian countries. You have made it easier for me to understand why certain procedures are being done or not done for certain reasons you have clearly explained. You are a very good writer and eloquent with your words and I love to read your site.

    I saw the photos you posted today and may I say I cut up my chicken the way you do yours. Sometimes I even cut a drumstick in half (with the bone) to get the size we’re looking for to cook a certain dish. It might gross some people out but I do love to eat a fish head ( my favorite part of a fish).

    Please keep up the good work of educating people like me and I’m sure there are a lot of us who sincerely appreciate what you do. More power!

    Chris Nyles

  9. Jane Steinberg March 12, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

    Leela (also my first name) – It’s part of our contemporary detachment from the real earth and our place on it that we (Americans anyway) are unable to deal with the whole animal we have sacrificed for our food. I have always believed that if you kill it to eat, then you use every edible bit of it, and that includes bones, innards, and all the roundabouts. We have lost our sense of umwelt, our real earth surroundings. Most Americans don’t have any idea where that plastic-wrapped slab of meat comes from or what it means to find only the muscle meat acceptable.

    Please don’t change your ways to accommodate anyone! Your cooking is real, it’s great, it makes us relate directly and intimately to the part of our world that we eat. And it always tastes better with the bones!

  10. Kimberly March 12, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    My mother (anglo-german indiana farm girl) always made our meals with meat on the bone. She taught me to eat chicken cartilage – and when my father gave us a face – she explained that it was an easily digested calcium supplement. Thank you for this recipe. When I make your soup, I’ll be so much happier spending 1.99 a pound for the whole bird to spending 6.99 for a breast. Mineral rich broth, thank you very much…

    • JohnMich March 12, 2013 at 8:18 pm #

      Excellent point, Kimberly. I stand amazed at the way pople pay ridiculous money for parts of a chook with bone and skin removed when for almost the same money they can buy the whole chook and get more meals out of it.

      Change of subject – this site is excellent. Leela is gradually drawing me into getting Thai dishes right. Thai food is generally delicious and is far more appropiate to our climate on the Gold Coast, Queensland than anglo dishes designed for a cold European climate.

  11. Fawn at Cowen Park Kitchen March 13, 2013 at 11:52 am #

    I love cooking with bones. So much richer in flavor! And skin, when it’s seared–better than bacon. There, I said it.

  12. Nicole March 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

    I think it springs from a couple of things – one, etiquette practice in the US makes it awkward to eat soup with bones, i.e., it’s rude to slurp, how are you supposed to eat around them with a spoon/forks or fingers aren’t really proper soup utensils (not a judgement, mind you, just an observation on what I was taught was proper etiquette when eating). And two, there isn’t much love in general for soft and/or chewy meat-flavored products (tendon, cartilage, boiled skin). For me, personally, I didn’t grow up eating it and am severely put off by that texture/flavor combination. Crispy chicken skin? Bring it on. Flabby, boiled chicken skin? Give it to the cat.

    A previous poster mentioned detachment from where our food comes from – I’m sure that’s part of it, although I have no problem hacking up a chicken for soup (but I use it for making a rich stock and then I remove the bones and skin). As you said, I think it mostly comes from what you grew up with and what you’re used to.

  13. Ken G March 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    I think any meat near the bone is good. Chicken wings, ribs, shank, oxtail. Regrettably the public seems to have figured that out. Priced oxtail of wings lately?

  14. julie March 16, 2013 at 10:25 pm #

    ah, thank you! you describe it so perfectly. i have never taken to big slabs of just meat. the knuckle is always my favorite part of the drumstick. and there’s nothing like picking at the neck or ribcage of a chicken carcass… mmm… (wow, i sound like a vulture.)

  15. Kim March 25, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    I am really enjoying your blog. I share your passion for food, photography, cultural differences, language, and particularly love Thai food and the people I meet from Thailand. It is so interesting to hear your perspective. Since you have one foot in Thailand and the other in the U.S., you can explain things to me so I understand them more completely! I also prefer using the whole chicken when I eat chicken. I think if you only buy specific parts, you’re more distanced from the production process. Buying the whole chicken forces me to think deeper about where my food comes from and at what cost.

  16. meg March 27, 2013 at 5:59 pm #

    I just took a good look at your site for the first time, and I’m completely smitten! We’re actually making your pad Thai (excellent tutorial, by the way–I love all the details) tonight, minus the salted radish. As a lover of the salty, sweet, hot, and sour flavors of Thai food, I will be back–I can’t wait to try more of your recipes!

    • Jane Steinberg March 27, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

      Meg –
      Go find Leela’s YouTube video of making padthai. If you think you’re smitten now, you aint seen nothin yet. This may not be true for you, but for me it changed how I feel standing at the stove. I bought a pair of nice bamboo spatula thingies and ever since have never rushed or flailed about over a pan of excited food. All is gentle, all is OK as it goes. And the resulting food has been better – or maybe It just tastes better because I’m So Cool.

  17. Zelda March 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    Personally, I prefer to buy and serve fish whole because it is easier to guage freshness, there is less waste, and it looks nice. A big fish will be a centre piece, with someone assigned to debone at the table, and I serve smaller fish on individual plates, with knife and fork. As for chicken, whilst I like to buy a whole bird, I tend to serve it deboned, which is not difficult. The carcass is saved for soup or congee if it hasn’t been pilfered from the fridge by my partner who LOVES gnawing the bones. At the table, though, I find chicken/duck on the bone fiddly, especially if eating with chopsticks. I don’t like getting my hands greasy, having bones in my bowl or seeing a plate of bones on the table, and I know that is just personal preference, not cultural.

  18. Cheri March 30, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    Thank you so much for this, Leela! I lived in Thailand for a year and a half as a Peace Corps volunteer and I used to eat Tom Kha Gai all the time–this way. I tried to make it from your previous post, but it wasn’t right. This, I think, may be a lot closer. I’m very excited now.

  19. Laura April 2, 2013 at 12:31 am #

    I am completely in tune with everything about how you prefer your food–except tiny chicken bones. I have issues there, maybe because I have accidentally given them to my kids (when they were little) in the past when I missed them in a braised/slow stewed dish. But otherwise, I am right there with you. I especially never remove whole spices, and it does freak some people out. Life is too short for me to fish them out! I am excited to pin this recipe because in restaurants I only order tom kha (forget the word) because I loathe the white chicken meat in the soup. The tofu of the meat world! Thanks for sharing–we’re not all brainwashed that way! 🙂

    • Laura April 2, 2013 at 12:34 am #

      Uh apparently when I stuck shrimp in brackets after tom kha it removed it lol. I only order it with shrimp.

  20. kathy November 17, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    there’s no fresh galangal in town should I substitute ginger?

  21. prof john February 13, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    Ahhh! A soul mate. I always use bones to make soups and stews! I always use chicken thighs with bone and skin for soups and noodles. I make a mean lamb stew and include the half inch rib bones and leg bones. They are great to suck on when you eat the stew. It’s also good to suck the marrow out of the round bones. I can’t wait to try the ox tail Tom yum. My mother used to make oxtail soup back home in Indiana.

  22. d January 25, 2015 at 9:22 pm #

    Thank you so much for this wonderful recipe. This is one of my favorite Thai dishes and I am beyond thrilled to be able to recreate it at home. I’m not a fan of meat on the bone, but I love the richness and depth of flavor from a broth made with the whole chicken so I do a hybrid approach. Once the chicken has cooked I strain out the broth. Then I debone it and add just the meat back to the liquid. It’s a great way to have the best of both worlds in my opinion.


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