How to Make Tom Kha Gai Soup (Thai Coconut Chicken Soup)

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From learning how to handle coconut milk to preparing Thai aromatics, this tom kha gai recipe will keep you on your toes. But the bright and creamy broth is worth the effort!

I’ve always seen myself as an experienced soup maker, especially in the realm of Thai cuisine. And then it struck me one day that I had never made tom kha gai in my own kitchen.

My parents owned a Thai restaurant, so I’ve made this soup in a fast-paced environment, under pressure. But I had never made a small batch made for just a few people, right at home.

First, Let’s Talk About Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is a staple in my home and many Thai homes. Be sure to use pure coconut milk and not coconut cream or cream of coconut for this broth. (Save those for making Coquito or whipped coconut cream.)

I tend to stick with Thai coconut milk brands if I can help it, which you can source from a website like Temple of Thai if you can’t find it at your local grocer. Since tom kha gai is silky and light, use boxed or fresh coconut milk since it’s more emulsified, while canned milks tend to separate. Be sure you’re choosing coconut milk that is meant for cooking and not a beverage.

More Specialty Thai Ingredients

Thai food is known for being aromatic, spicy, fragrant and earthy. Do your best sourcing these Thai ingredients or you won’t be able to taste the essence of what tom kha gai is.

Search around your city to see if there’s a Southeast Asian market or even call a Thai restaurant and ask for suggestions as to where to source these ingredients locally. And of course, we’ve come a long way with e-commerce, so you can source these items on Amazon, too.

  • Fish sauce: Fish sauce is a shelf-stable, distilled liquid made from fish or krill, so it comes out brown, clear and salty. I’m an avid user of Viêt Húóng Three Crabs and Squid fish sauce. If you want to make a vegan tom kha gai, source a vegetarian version of fish sauce.
  • Galangal: A rhizome that is super bright, yet offers a mellow spicy and woodsy flavor. If you can’t source fresh galangal, order the sliced dried root rather than a powder, as the dried slices are better for simmering in a broth. If all else is unavailable, a fresh ginger root is second best.
  • Lemongrass: This aromatic is a grass that has a citrus undertone. Its woody leaves can be tough to cut, so have a sharp knife handy. Use the bottom half of where the root would be and slice long diagonal pieces to get the most flavor.
  • Makrut: Also known as kaffir. This recipe uses the leaves, which hold a lot of the fragrance needed to really brighten up the soup. If you cannot source this fresh, makrut is often sold frozen at markets or dried. If this is something that can’t be sourced at all, a squeeze of lime juice and bit of zest will do.
  • Palm sugar: Made from palm sap, this is the predominant sweetener in Thai cooking. You can choose turbinado or brown sugar as a substitute. I wouldn’t recommend opting out of sweetener altogether because there needs to be a tender balance between the sourness and earthy notes of all the other ingredients.
  • Thai or bird’s eye chilis: While one may be small, it can pack an absurdly spicy punch. It’s an ingredient that can be substituted with another fresh chili pepper, such as jalapeno, serrano or habanero. Be careful with the amount you use and wear food-safe gloves when handling any pepper if you’re not used to the heat.

How to Make Tom Kha Gai

Tom Kha Gai IngredientsMalina Syvoravong for Taste of Home

I recommend mise en placing your ingredients before starting, which means to have all ingredients, in the right portions, ready in bowls and ramekins before the cooking begins. Keep in mind that not every Thai home, restaurant or street food vendor makes every Thai dish exactly the same. I’ve given you a range of some ingredients to make this recipe to your personal taste.

Plus, this dish should be accompanied by a side of garnishes and condiments, so every individual will end up adding their own flavors as they please.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups coconut milk, full fat, boxed or canned
  • 2 cups chicken stock or water
  • 10-12 ounces chicken breast or thigh meat, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 inch galangal piece, sliced into equal slices
  • 1 stalk lemongrass, sliced at a long diagonal
  • 1 medium onion, sliced into wedges
  • 2 bell peppers in variety of colors, stemmed, seeded and cut into ½ inch chunks or thick strips
  • 4-5 cherry tomatoes or 1 whole roma tomato, quartered
  • 1/4 pound mushrooms (I chose enoki and king oyster)
  • 1-4 Thai chilies, stemmed and quartered
  • 3-4 makrut leaves, rinsed and torn into smaller pieces
  • 1-3 ounces palm sugar
  • 2-3 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chop stems for broth, keep leaves for garnish
  • 2-3 limes, cut into wedges, reserve half for serving
  • Chili crisp or chili oil
  • Cooked jasmine rice or rice noodles

Tools You’ll Need

  • Flat vegetable knife or Asian cleaver: A flat, square knife like this is perfect for all the tough-skinned aromatics and vegetables you’ll have to chop for this.
  • Asian soup spoons: These are great for sipping on soups, especially when they have large pieces of meat or veggies in them.
  • Dutch oven: This heavy-bottomed pot is great for cooking liquids or sauces that are sensitive to heat, as it disperses heat evenly and will prevent overheating.

Directions

Step 1: Simmer the coconut milk

Simmering Coconut Milk For Tom Kha GaiMalina Syvoravong for Taste of Home

Start by simmering 1 cup of coconut milk on low heat.

Step 2: Add the lemongrass, galangal and chicken

Adding chicken to coconut milk in pot for Tom Kha Gai Malina Syvoravong for Taste of Home

Before adding your sliced lemongrass and galangal, give it a bit of a bang with a mallet or pestle, as that will release the aromatics of the ingredients. Throw it into the simmering coconut milk, add your chicken, and continue to keep it on a low simmer for about 5-6 minutes.

Step 3: Stir in more coconut milk

Stirring Tom Kha GaiMalina Syvoravong for Taste of Home

Stir in another cup of coconut milk, so as to not let the coconut milk overheat and curdle. Keep it on the same medium-low temperature.

Then add your palm sugar, cilantro stems, Thai chilies, bell peppers, tomatoes, makrut and onion.

Step 4: Add the remaining ingredients

Tom Kha Gai Ingredients In PotMalina Syvoravong for Taste of Home

Finally, after the broth has been infused with herbs and the vegetables have softened, add 1 cup chicken stock or water, fish sauce, lime juice and mushrooms. Let this final addition to the soup simmer for 5 minutes before serving.

If you’ve enjoyed making this Thai dish, I recommend checking out some other ways to dive into Thai cooking!

How to Serve Tom Kha Gai

This is served as a family meal, so it’s meant for sharing. Have your soup bowls, soup spoons and ladle ready to serve this to others. Though most Thai restaurants serve tom kha gai in a shabu dish, it’s not necessary to have when eating at home.

Traditionally, this is served over steamed jasmine rice, but you can have fun serving it over rice noodles. There’s a huge array of rice noodles, such as vermicelli or wide flat noodles. It’s the perfect option for those who don’t eat gluten.

The toppings served with tom kha gai vary, but a bundle of cilantro leaves, wedges of lime, extra fish sauce and a basic chili oil are standard options.

Also check out these 15 essential Thai ingredients you need to know.

Editor’s Tip: The large pieces of galangal, makrut and lemongrass aren’t meant to be eaten.

Tips for Making Tom Kha Gai

Do I have to make this soup with chicken?

Not at all! Treat yourself to a seafood variety by adding prawns, mussels and clams.

How can you make tom kha gai vegan?

If you are vegan or vegetarian, add tofu to your tom kha gai. Add the same amount of tofu as you would chicken. Use vegetable broth instead of chicken broth.

How do you prevent coconut milk from curdling?

Just like cow’s milk, coconut milk can curdle or be overcooked pretty easily. Always cook on a medium to low simmer, don’t let it come to a full boil. As I’ve learned, stir in one direction, and gently.

Up Next: Check out our khao soi recipe (Thai coconut curry noodle soup.)

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Malina Syvoravong
Malina is a food + prop stylist, visual artist, recipe developer and culinary producer based in Los Angeles. Her passions include producing inclusive stories in the culinary + agricultural industry, educating folks on accessibility of food and learning more about her Laotian and Isaan Thai culinary heritage. Her portfolio can be seen at msyvo.com and IG at @waterloopapi.