Recipe: Coconut-Galangal Chicken Soup (Tom Kha Kai)

updated Feb 3, 2020
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Around the World in 30 Soups: This month we’re collaborating with chefs, cookbook authors, and our own Kitchn crew to share a globetrotting adventure in soups from countries and cuisines around the world. Today’s stop: Thailand.

It’s tough to pick just one soup from Thailand. Leela Punyaratabandhu creates wonderful Thai food that is both accessible and delicious. We especially appreciate the grocery advice she always adds to her recipes, like this one for the creamy, wildly popular tom kha kai.

Tom kha kai is easy to make. If you can smash things, cut things, and boil water, you can pull off this classic on the first try. The hardest part? Getting your hands on the essential fresh seasonings. Galangal (the ‘kha’ in tom kha kai), kaffir (or makrut) lime leaves, and lemongrass have come to define tom kha kai. Some people will tell you that you can substitute ginger for the galangal, but that is not the case. In fact, the two ingredients are not even close to being interchangeable in the minds of Thai cooks.

But if you cannot find the fresh galangal and kaffir lime leaves, either locally or online, you can use tom kha paste, which comes in small glass jars. Any brand from Thailand will do. Just follow the directions on the label. Most of the time, making the broth involves dissolving the paste in the coconut milk.

Coconut-Galangal Chicken Soup (Tom Kha Kai)

Serves 4

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 1 pound

    boneless, skinless chicken thighs or breasts

  • 1 stalk

    lemongrass

  • 2 cups

    sodium-free chicken stock

  • 1 1/2 cups

    coconut milk

  • 1 (2-inch) piece

    galangal, thinly sliced

  • 4

    kaffir lime leaves, torn into pieces and bruised

  • 8 ounces

    oyster or white mushrooms

  • 1/4 cup

    fish sauce

  • 1/3 cup

    freshly squeezed lime juice

  • 4 or 5

    fresh bird’s eye chiles, bruised

  • 1/2 cup

    packed fresh cilantro leaves

Instructions

  1. Cut the chicken against the grain and on the diagonal (30- to 40-degree angle) into thin, bite-size pieces. If using oyster mushrooms, separate them into individual pieces. If using white mushrooms, halve the small ones and quarter the bigger ones.

  2. Trim off and discard the leafy parts of the lemongrass stalk, remove the tough outer leaves of the bulb portion until the smooth, pale green core is exposed, and trim off the root end. Quarter the bulb portion crosswise and smash the pieces with a heavy object until they are bruised and split.

  3. In a 2-quart saucepan, combine the stock and coconut milk and bring to a boil over high heat. Immediately turn down to heat so the liquid is barely bubbling. Add the galangal, lemongrass, and lime leaves and cook for 1 minute. Add the chicken, mushrooms, and fish sauce, stir, and increase the heat slightly so the liquid is simmering gently. Once the chicken is no longer pink, after about 2 minutes, remove the pan from the heat.

  4. Add the lime juice and chiles and stir. Taste and correct the seasoning as needed. The soup should be sour and salty with natural sweetness from the coconut milk. Sprinkle the cilantro on top just before serving. Thai cooks do not usually remove the chunky herbs from food when they serve it, as it is understood that they are not to be eaten. But you can fish out the lemongrass, galangal, and lime leaves before serving, if you like.

Recipe Notes

Reprinted with permission from Simple Thai Food copyright 2014 by Leela Punyaratabandhu. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Ten Speed Press)

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