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Tom Kha is a much-loved classic Thai dish, famous for its spicy, sweet and sour and silky coconut soup. It is light but creamy and bursting with layer upon layer of fantastic flavor.
Tom Kha is also one of the easiest, quickest, yet most flavorful soups you can prepare for your Thai meal night.
‘Tom’ in Thai means ‘to boil’ and ‘Kha’ means galangal, Tom Kha literally means ‘boiling galangal soup’ which gives a clear direction and ingredient which gives the dish its name. This soup has an amazing taste of sweet and sour and savory umami and citrusy aroma from galangal, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and lime juices.
Tom Kha is similar to Tom Yam, in terms of base ingredients for the broth - lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, chilies, lime juice, sugar and fish sauce. The difference is using coconut milk to make Tom Kha so the texture is thicker and creamier than Tom Yam and most soups. The thick broth version of Tom Yam, that includes evaporated milk or coconut cream is still different from Tom Kha because Tom Yam usually adds chili paste and/or shrimp paste, giving the broth an orange or red color. On the other hand, Tom Kha soup keeps the creamy white color of coconut milk.
Compared to curry, Tom Kha has thinner consistency and less creamy and oily. Also the cooking method is different. To cook the curry, add coconut milk from the beginning and simmer the coconut broth until you get a thick texture and a thin layer of oil on top of the curry - this makes your curry taste better.
However, to make Tom Kha, coconut milk is usually added after all the meats and spices are cooked and a thin layer of oil is something you don’t want in the soup.
Packed with herbs and spices, Tom Kha Kai is highly nutritious with great medicinal properties. For example, the soup can reduce fever symptoms, relieve the cough and ability to soothe the gastro-intestinal tract.
The vegetables and fiber content of the soup can help improve the intestinal bowel movement and digestion system. Tom Kha also rich in vitamin C that can help in increasing the body immune system.
The soup is lean, low fat, gluten free, and dairy free. It also can easily be made vegan and vegetarian, just replace the chicken with tofu or plant-based meat and soy sauce with fish sauce.
In Thailand, besides the ingredients for broth mentioned above, Tom Kha recipes typically include coriander, button mushrooms (or oyster mushrooms), shallots and a protein like chicken, pork, seafood or tofu. But the most popular choice is chicken which makes the famous version ‘Tom Kha Kai’.
As the name suggests, fresh galangal is a fundamental ingredient in Tom Kha recipes, and for the authentic taste, it should never be missing. Galangal's peppery, pungent, slightly sour and floral flavors provides an interesting contrast to the creaminess of coconut milk, creating a wonderfully aromatic dish in the process. A common mistake when cooking Tom Kha Kai outside Thailand is to use ginger instead of galangal.
Although galangal is a member of the ginger family, but in Thailand, the two tubers cannot be used interchangeably. Their taste and smell are not similar: galangal has a sharp, strong aroma and hot, clean taste with citrusy, piney, earthy aroma, while ginger is fresh, pungently spicy, and barely sweet. To use ginger to replace galangal will cause significantly different results. If it is not possible to find fresh galangal, galangal paste may be used instead.
Or you can opt for a more convenient way by using Tom Kha paste for an authentic taste that saves you a lot of time to cook.
To make the soup, smash lemongrass, shallots then cut the lemongrass into 10 cm pieces. Peel galangal and slice into thin disks. Bring the chicken stock, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, shallots and a few of Thai chilies to the boil in a sauce pan on high heat. Add the chicken in and let it simmer gently for 20 minutes or until chicken is fork tender (reduce to medium heat). Then add mushrooms and cook for 1-2 minutes or until cooked through. Then add coconut milk and simmer for 3-5 minutes to infuse, season with coconut sugar and fish sauce. Turn off the heat and add lime juice as the last step. The preparation of Tom Kha Gai is very easy, you can have a bowl of aromatic chicken soup within less than 20 minutes.However, there are a few tips that can make your Tom Kha Kai taste even better.
Tom Kha Kai is traditionally served with steamed Jasmine rice on the side and garnished with coriander leaves.
And one thing to remember when serving the soup to your guests is remind them ‘not to eat the aromatics.’ The aromatic items in the soup such as galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass are essential to flavor the broth, but they are not meant to be eaten.
Therefore, they are added to the saucepan in large pieces so you can remove them before serving or leave them at the bottom of the soup bowl. If you want an easier option to cook the soup, you can see our deSiam version of Tom Kha Kai.
Not sure where to find all the ingredients?
You can try our ready-to-make Tom Kha paste , coconut milk and other ingredients from our online store for an authentic Thai taste.