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Simple Tom Kha Gai Soup Recipe

Asian Soups

Tom Kha soup. It is without a doubt, along with Tom Yum, the most well-known Thai soup and one of the most famous Southeast Asian soup recipes. In this post, I’m gonna show you how to make the most basic, simple version of Tom Kha soup at home, known as Tom Kha Gai. The recipe is inspired directly by my travels to Thailand, where I learned to make it. But it’s so easy that you don’t have to travel to Thailand to make an authentic version in your own kitchen!

tom kha gai soup

What is Tom Kha Gai?

Tom Kha Gai is a Thai chicken coconut soup. In the Thai language, tom means to boil, kha means galangal, and gai means chicken. In case you’re wondering, galangal is sometimes referred to as Thai ginger, and while there are similarities, galangal has a different flavor, aroma, and texture (more on that below). But there’s a lot more to Tom Kha Gai than boiled chicken and galangal.

The soup features the four classic S flavors of Thai cuisine — salty, sour, sweet, and spicy. Typically though, it’s not a super spicy soup. In fact, it’s more on the mild side and that’s probably why it’s so popular in western Thai restaurants.

More Thai and Southeast Asian Soup Recipes to Try

In my opinion, the best versions of Tom Kha soup recipes balance those four flavors equally. However, as with all traditional recipes, infinite variations and interpretations abound. Some feature one or a few of those flavors more predominantly.

In my many trips to Thailand, I’ve experienced quite a variation in styles. Some were thick and more coconut milk-based, some thinner and more broth-based, some ultra sweet, some just a tad sweet, some with a lot of lime juice, some with very little, some with fish sauce, some without fish sauce, some super spicy and some not spicy at all.

What’s most important is finding a balance of flavors that YOU like. For that reason, I try to leave room in my Thai soup recipes for you to include more or less of those four classic flavors. I’ll explain how to do that below. It’s quite easy. But let’s discuss what’s NOT open to interpretation.

Key Tom Kha Gai Ingredients

key tom kha soup ingredients

Those four ingredients above — galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and bird’s eye chiles — are truly key to any Tom Kha soup recipe. Galangal is pictured on the left. Lemongrass is pictured on top. Kaffir lime leaves are on the lower right. I hope the chiles are obvious. 🙂

In my Thai cookbook, The Thai Soup Secret, I call lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal The Triple Gem (a Buddhist reference) of Thai soups. They are quintessential to not just Tom Kha but to Tom Yum and so many other Thai dishes. For example, if you’ve ever had a Thai curry paste, such as a green or red curry paste, they almost always include the triple gem of Thai soups.

All three are used to infuse Tom Kha with their highly pungent flavors and aromas. Now they’re not really meant to be eaten in soups. Typically, you either remove them before eating or just spoon around them. If you accidentally chomp into one, you’ll probably know it as they’re somewhat tough and fibrous. Just know they are edible and won’t hurt you.

As for the small red bird’s eye chiles, they’re so iconic to Thai cuisine that they’re sometimes just referred to as Thai chiles.

Let’s discuss each one of those four key ingredients separately, how to prepare them for Tom Kha, and the best places to find them.

Thai Soup Secret cover

Transform Your Health with Thailand’s #1 Superfood!

Includes 40 restorative recipes for broths, congees, and soups. All gluten and dairy-free!

Lemongrass

Lemongrass has a highly pungent citrus character. It’s not that hard to find fresh lemongrass these days. It’s frequently sold in places like Whole Foods as well as specialty health food stores. It can always be found in Asian supermarkets. You can also find fresh lemongrass on Amazon.

You’ll need three lemongrass stalks for this Tom Kha recipe.

How to Prepare Lemongrass

Lemongrass is similar to leeks in that the stockier bottom half is the part we use. Simply slice the lemongrass stalk in half and either discard it or, better yet, save the thin green upper half for soup stocks. You’ll be left with a 6- to 8-inch piece.

lemongrass stalk

Next, slice about a half inch off from the hard bottom end. Remove the fibrous outer layer, which will expose the more tender and pungent inner part.

lemongrass stalk, outer leaves removed

Very lightly bruise the lemongrass with a meat hammer or any flat, dull kitchen utensil. This will break down the cell walls and help to release the essential oils. Then slice the stalk into about 1/4-inch smaller rings, at about a 45-degree angle (in the culinary world this is called “on the bias”), which will create more surface area.

lemongrass prepared for tom kha gai

Galangal

Also used as an aromatic, galangal is a rhizome in the ginger family. While galangal resembles ginger in appearance it has a more citrus, peppery flavor. It also has a different aroma. It’s hard to describe but I think it smells like a pine forest. It also tends to be a bit woodier and thus tougher than ginger which is also why it’s ideal for use in soups.

Many people ask if ginger can be substituted for galangal. It can but it will add a sharper quality and flavor. Furthermore, it’s called Tom Kha soup for a reason. Remember, kha means galangal. So really try to find galangal for this recipe.

Galangal can be more challenging to find in supermarkets. Your best bet will be an Asian supermarket. But you can also find fresh galangal on Amazon.

How to Prepare Galangal for Tom Kha

It’s quite simple. Peel the outer skin and then slice it into small circles, about an inch in diameter and about a ¼ to ½ inch thick, like so…

galangal prepared for tom kha soup

Kaffir Lime Leaves

Kaffir lime leaves, also called makrut lime leaves, are best used fresh and give soups a hint of lime but are nothing like using actual lime juice which should not be used as a substitute. They have their own distinctive aroma and flavor which is hard to describe! They are small, dark green, somewhat shiny, and grow with two leaves connected together.

Kaffir lime leaves are also hard to find outside Asian markets. Luckily, you can easily find fresh kaffir lime leaves on Amazon.

How to Prepare Kaffir Lime Leaves for Tom Kha Soup

Even simpler than galangal, just tear each leaf into a few pieces. This will begin to release their essential oils. When you do this, you’ll smell their wonderful fragrance! Again, it’s hard to describe but if you’ve ever had Thai cuisine, you’ll immediately recognize it.

kaffir lime leaves prepared for tom kha

Thai Bird’s Eye Chiles

These small hot chiles, about 2 inches long, are really intense! They are the classic chiles used in Tom Kha soup recipes and can be found in many supermarkets, both conventional, and health food stores, and almost always in Asian markets. You can also find fresh Thai chiles on Amazon.

Be careful when using fresh bird’s eye chiles! Everyone’s tolerance for heat and spice is different. Simmering even just one bird’s eye chile in a soup can dramatically increase the heat level.

How Many Thai Chiles Should I Use?

It’s totally up to you. Again, Tom Kha is not traditionally ultra-spicy. So if you have absolutely zero tolerance for hot and spicy foods, just leave them out. No big whoop.

For a mild kick, use only one Thai chile. For a medium kick, use two. And for a really good kick, use three or more.

It should also be noted that many Tom Kha recipes include sliced Thai chiles on the side so that each person can add as much or as little as he/she wants.

Can I Substitute Other Chiles?

Classic Tom Kha Gai recipes always include Thai bird’s eye chiles. But any type of chile can be used as a substitute especially where there is an intolerance or just a dislike for spiciness.

The ones I commonly recommend in place of bird’s eye chiles are jalapenos and serranos both of which are often found in conventional supermarkets, especially jalapenos. Serranos are slightly smaller and usually a good bit hotter than jalapenos which can range from mild to moderately spicy. 

How to Prepare Thai Chiles for Tom Kha Gai

Slice the chiles lengthwise, like so…

Thai bird's eye chiles

You can also scrape out the seeds inside the chiles which will help tone down their heat.

Other Tom Kha Gai Ingredients

other tom kha gai ingredients

So we also have coconut milk, limes, an onion, tomatoes, and mushrooms. The only thing not pictured is the chicken and chicken broth. Also, cilantro and green onions, which are optional garnishes.

Also, jasmine rice is often served on the side with Tom Kha soup recipes.

My Version of Tom Kha Soup

This simple Tom Kha Gai recipe is inspired by the island of Koh Lanta in southern Thailand. The Thai family that ran the guesthouse where I stayed made the best version I had anywhere in Thailand. They even let me come into the kitchen to teach me how to make it.

What I love about it is the balance of the 4 S flavors and the ability to adjust things to your personal tastes.

I was surprised by just how simple it was to make! It all comes together in just a handful of steps. The following ingredient amounts are for a serving size of 6 people.

Tom Kha Gai Ingredients

  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 pounds of chicken breast or chicken thighs, raw or pre-cooked, chopped roughly into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 14-ounce cans of coconut milk
  • 3 stalks lemongrass
  • 1 3-inch piece of galangal
  • 8 to 10 kaffir lime leaves
  • 1 to 3 Thai bird’s eye chiles, or more
  • 1 red or white onion, sliced
  • 3 plum tomatoes, sliced into chunks
  • 8 ounces oyster or shiitake mushrooms (or any mushrooms you want), sliced
  • 2 to 4 TBSPs fish sauce, or more
  • 2 teaspoons coconut palm sugar, or more
  • 2 to 4 TBSPs of fresh lime juice, or more
  • 1 cup loosely packed cilantro, optional, for garnish
  • 2 green onions, optional, for garnish

How to Make Tom Kha Gai

Step 1: Prepare the lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves

Have everything peeled, chopped, and ready to go, as shown in the pictures above. You can also dice and prepare the veggies too.

Step 2. Bring the chicken broth to a simmer

preparing tom kha soup on the stovetop

If you’re using raw, uncooked chicken, add the chicken to the broth, and simmer it for about 5 minutes. If your chicken is already cooked, we’ll add it in step 4 below.

Step 3: Add the coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai chiles

infusing tom kha soup with Thai herbs and chiles

Raise the heat to a gentle simmer. Make sure to not boil the coconut milk which can easily curdle. Simmer everything gently for about 10 minutes to let the herbs infuse the soup.

Remember, be careful with Thai bird’s eye chiles. Add only one for a very mild dose of heat. Add two for a medium dose, and three or more for a more spicy version. You can also chop up some raw Thai chiles and add them at the end.

Step 4: Add the veggies (and cooked chicken)

adding veggies to tom kha soup

Let the veggies cook for about 5 minutes. This will keep them from turning overly soft and mushy. Cook it a little longer if you like them more fully cooked.

If you’re using pre-cooked chicken, add it with the veggies.

Step 5: Seasoning, to taste (the most important step!)

If you’re cooking for a group of people, it’s always better to be cautious with the seasonings and allow each person to season their individual servings to taste.

Now, add 2 TBSPs of fish sauce, 2 teaspoons of coconut palm sugar (granulated or block form), and 2 TBSPs of freshly squeezed lime juice. Gently stir them in.

Taste. Ask yourself what flavor you’d like more of. Keep in mind those starting amounts are fairly conservative. Personally, I would add a bit more lime juice and fish sauce. In particular, I would add at least another 2 TBSPs each of fish sauce and lime juice. Coconut milk is fairly sweet so I don’t think much more sugar is needed.

As for the chiles, I like things moderately spicy so I would’ve added 2 Thai chiles back in step 2. But if you’re craving a little more kick, add in more chiles right here. Or, just add fresh chiles to your individual serving.

Finally, add some cilantro and/or green onions and stir them in.

That’s really all there is to it!

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Tom Kha and Tom Yum?

The main difference is that Tom Kha includes coconut milk and Tom Yum does not. Both feature similar ingredients including the three herbs and Thai chiles. The most common version of Tom Kha is Tom Kha Gai and The most common version of Tom Yum is Tom Yum Goong (goong means shrimp in Thai).

Can I choose a different protein?

Of course! Tom Kha soup recipes often include shrimp, in which case it would be called Tom Kha Goong (goong means shrimp in Thai). But you could use almost any protein you want including combinations of proteins. It’s not unusual to find Tom Kha soup recipes with both chicken and shrimp. Vegetarian versions are pretty popular too.

What to serve with Tom Kha Gai?

Jasmine rice! It’s the ideal complement and side dish. In Thailand, Tom Kha is always served with rice on the side. But if you want to vary it up any type of salad would work just fine.

Can I use other vegetables?

Yes, pretty much any type of vegetable is fine. Most traditional Tom Kha soup recipes include some combination of onions or shallots, tomatoes, or mushrooms.

Why does Tom Kha taste better the next day?

Because the lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves will continue to infuse the soup. You should notice a heightened flavor the day after. It’s called aging or curing. It’s very common in many types of soups, including chowders.

Can I freeze lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, or Thai chiles?

Yes, they all freeze very well. You will often have to purchase more of each than you’ll need so freezing them will preserve them for your next Tom Kha or other Thai recipe.

Tom Kha Gai Printable Recipe

Simple Tom Kha Gai Recipe

This recipe for a Tom Kha Gai, the classic Thai coconut chicken soup, is easy to adjust to your personal taste, especially if you don’t like spicy!
Print Recipe Pin Recipe
CourseMain Course, Soup
CuisineThai
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Total Time45 minutes
Servings2 servings
Calories1589kcal
AuthorCraig Fear
Cost$20

Ingredients

  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 pounds Chicken breast or chicken thighs, cooked or raw, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 3 cans coconut milk
  • 3 stalks lemongrass top half removed, outer leaves removes, sliced into rounds
  • 8 to 10 kaffir lime leaves ripped into smaller pieces
  • 2 to 3 inch piece galangal  sliced into rounds
  • 1 to 3 Thai chiles or more! (also called bird's eye chiles)
  • 1 medium onion sliced
  • 3 plum tomatoes roughly chopped
  • 8 ounces mushrooms oyster, shiitake, or straw mushrooms, roughly chopped
  • 2 tsps coconut palm sugar or more!
  • 2 to 4 TBSPs lime juice freshly squeezed, or more!
  • 2 to 4 TBSPs fish sauce or more!
  • 1 bunch cilantro chopped, optional
  • 3 to 4 scallions top half only, chopped, optional

Instructions

  • Bring the chicken broth to a simmer. If you're chicken is raw, add it here and cook for about 5 minutes.
  • Add the coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai chiles. Raise the heat to a gentle simmer. Make sure to not boil the coconut milk which can easily curdle. Simmer everything gently for about 10 minutes to let the herbs infuse the soup.
  • Add the veggies. Let the veggies cook for about 5 minutes. This will keep them from turning overly soft and mushy. Cook it a little longer if you like them more fully cooked. If your chicken is pre-cooked, add it here.
  • Add 2 teaspoons of coconut sugar, 2 TBSPs of lime juice, and 2 TBSPs of fish sauce. Taste. Add more of each, to taste. Add cilantro and green onions, optional.

Nutrition

Serving: 2cups (1 bowl) | Calories: 1589kcal | Carbohydrates: 52g | Protein: 78g | Fat: 130g | Saturated Fat: 110g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g | Monounsaturated Fat: 8g | Trans Fat: 0.04g | Cholesterol: 178mg | Sodium: 4477mg | Potassium: 3445mg | Fiber: 4g | Sugar: 14g | Vitamin A: 1287IU | Vitamin C: 38mg | Calcium: 208mg | Iron: 24mg
Fearless Eating may receive commissions from purchases made through links in this article. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. More info here.
Simple Tom Kha Gai Soup Recipe
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About the Author

Craig Fear is the creator of Fearless Eating and the author of three books, The 30-Day Heartburn Solution, Fearless Broths and Soups and The Thai Soup Secret. After years helping clients with digestive issues, Craig decided to pursue writing full-time. He intends to write many more books on broths and soups from around the world! Click here to learn more about Craig.

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