Tom Kha Gai : Thai Chicken Soup with Coconut Milk

by Ginny on March 13, 2011

Post image for Tom Kha Gai : Thai Chicken Soup with Coconut Milk

Welcome to Thai week on The Sunday Dinner Revival! From Sunday to Sunday you will see a selection of  DIY Thai recipes that you can put together to create a Sunday (or any day) feast menu, or make individually to enjoy on a Tuesday night.

This little corner of the Northern Rockies is just beginning to awaken from a looooooong hibernation. La Nina has been sooo good to us skiers and riders, but when winter starts in the middle of November, and doesn’t let up for four solid months…let me just say that a raging case of spring fever is going around Western Montana. Pablo has been totally ape-wire on our walks, finally able to smell the earth again. Let the sniff journeys begin!  And just the other day I was part of a highly animated conversation with some friends about a Crocus that has reportedly sprouted outside The Good Food Store. Speaking of which, each time I go there for groceries, I head straight to the place where spring artichokes show up in the produce section, as well as the first, super-skinny and tender organic asparagus…I’m waiting…I keep checking… WHERE IS IT ALREADY!!??

The meteorologists keep telling us that we’ve got more wintry road ahead, but in the meantime, the snow is melting from our yard, and never in my life have I been so happy to see brown grass.

Months and months that looked like this:

Gray Sky at Blue Mountain

Are slowly giving way to glimpses of this:


It’s a weird in-between season. Skiers call it the off-season, when there’s not enough snow to ski on, and too much mud to mountain bike on. It’s the same scene at the dinner table. We’re tired of stews, braises, and hearty roasted dishes. Give us something fresh. But the fresh hasn’t quite arrived. This, my friends, is the perfect time for Thai food. Spicy, sour, salty, sweet, tropically-inspired dishes with ingredients that can be found most months of the year. This is food to awaken the palate from a tired, brown-gravy slumber.

Tom Kha Gai uses a number of authentic Thai ingredients, which may be bad news for those of us living in landlocked little towns like Missoula, or Saginaw, or Sheridan, Wyoming. The good news is that there are substitutions for these ingredients that can be found in any grocery store. And the even better news is that I have made this soup with both authentic Thai ingredients, like Kaffir lime leaves, and with common substitutions, like lime zest, with NO compromise in flavor! That’s rare, but I really feel it’s true in this case. The key, as in many Thai recipes, lies in striking the right balance between sweet, sour, spicy, and salty flavors. That balance is one of the crowning principles of Thai cuisine.

This soup may not be much to look at– it’s kind of monochrome, like winter– but if you know Tom Kha Gai, you know that the taste is a literal rainbow of flavors: sweet and creamy with coconut milk, sour and aromatic with lime and lemongrass, spicy with fiery red chilies, all brought to harmony by the salty base note of fish sauce. This is a soup that can carry you into spring, and a lovely complement to a Thai Sunday Dinner. In fact, why not serve it as a first course to this Thai Beef Salad?

Clockwise from top right: Kaffir Lime leaves, sliced Lemongrass, sliced Galangal root

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Tom Kha Gai

This is one soup that benefits from less cooking time, and can be easily thrown together for a weeknight meal. For a heartier dish, add cooked rice noodles to the broth. Shrimp is a delicious alternative to chicken in this soup. The lime leaves, galangal, and lemon grass stalks are typically left in the soup for serving, but are not meant to be eaten.


  • 4 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 yellow onion, thinly sliced into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 cups button mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, or 3 tablespoons prepared lemongrass paste (available in the produce section, refrigerated), or zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 – 3 red thai chilies, or 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon sriracha or hot sauce
  • 4 Kaffir lime leaves, or zest of 1 lime
  • 2 roma tomatoes (optional)
  • 1 [3-inch] piece galangal or fresh ginger root, cut into coins
  • 1 can LITE coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 2 – 3 tablespoons fish sauce** (see note)
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced green onion
  • rice noodles (optional)

1. If using fresh lemon grass, finely mince the lower portion of the stalk, and chop the upper portion into 1-inch chunks.

2. In a large (5 quart) pot bring chicken broth to a boil. Add chicken breast, onion, mushrooms, lemongrass, chilies or hot sauce, and lime leaves. If substituting lemon and/or lime zest, do not add yet . Reduce heat and let simmer 5 – 7 minutes or until chicken is cooked through.

3. To peel and seed the tomatoes: use a small paring knife to core the stem from the tomatoes, and then cut an X in the skin on the opposite end of the tomatoes. Add to broth and let simmer 1 minute. Remove from broth and let rest until cool enough to handle. Remove skin– it should pull away easily. Cut in half and with your fingertips, remove and discard seeds. Dice the tomato flesh into 1/4 inch cubes, and add to soup.

4. Reduce heat to medium. Add galangal or ginger coins, coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce, and brown sugar to soup. If substituting lemon and/or lime zest, add now. Stir to combine until soup is heated through* (see note). Taste and adjust seasonings, adding more fish sauce, lime juice, brown sugar, or chilies as needed to reach the perfect salty/sour/sweet/spicy balance. Add cooked rice noodles if using. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with fresh cilantro and green onion, and serve.

Serves 4 – 6

*Do not boil the soup once coconut milk is added. A low, brief simmer is fine, but boiling can separate the coconut milk, similar to heavy cream.

** Fish sauce is commonly available in the Asian section of most grocery stores, but if you need to substitute use 1 tablespoon anchovy paste and 2 – 3 tablespoons soy sauce.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Pat March 14, 2011 at 8:09 am

At the risk of sounding like a total philistine, is there anything I could SUBSTITUTE FOR THE COCONUT MILK…(and, hopefully, still approximate the flavors)?
This recipe — as always! — sounds delicious …however, I have a real aversion (putting it politely) to anything coconut once out of the shell.
Hope all’s well, all are well.
(Aunt) Pat


Ginny March 14, 2011 at 8:56 am

Hi Aunt Pat! Oh that makes me sad because coconut milk adds so much to this soup. BUT you can substitute an equal amount milk or half and half, and I would also add a tsp. of vanilla extract to try and replicate the sweetness of coconut. Vanilla is especially good with shellfish, like shrimp, so using the milk and vanilla, and replacing the chicken with shrimp *might* actually make a decent soup.


Amanda January 21, 2013 at 9:31 am

Just made this! So good 🙂 thank you!!


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