One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.

-Luciano Pavarotti and William Wright, "Pavarotti, My Own Story"

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thailand's Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tom Kha Gai

Is there anything that tastes as good as a bowl of chicken soup when you're feeling under the weather? It's warming, homey and soothing, and the reason it instantly makes you feel better isn't just psychological, either: The minerals and collagen that leech from the chicken into homemade chicken stock really have healing properties. As chicken stock is both an economical way of using up chicken scraps and carcasses that might otherwise be thrown away, and a healthy base for a delicious meal, most cultures around the world have developed popular recipes for using it. Today I'd like to talk about Thailand's version. It is called "tom kha gai" and is a chicken stock and coconut milk base infused with some aromatic Thai ingredients. Sweat-inducing because of the hot peppers, intensely citrus-y from the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass, with a touch of the tropics from the coconut and a shot of brightness from the lime juice, tom kha gai is like an exotic vacation in a bowl. Make this recipe and you will thank me afterwards for curing your winter blues!

The only difficult part of making tom kha gai is finding the ingredients. While most can be found at the supermarket, the kaffir lime leaves and galangal might require a trip to an Asian shop or a specialty spice store. Luckily, these two ingredients can be frozen and don't lose any of their flavor after a stint in the freezer, so you only need to stock up once. Once you have all of the ingredients ready, making the soup is as easy as throwing everything in a pot and simmering for a few minutes. 

Here's an explanation of the flavoring ingredients that you will need:

Fish sauce: Thailand's answer to soy sauce, fish sauce is made from fermented anchovies. It smells to high heaven when you open the bottle but don't let that deter you. The smell won't make it into your dish; it will simply add a delicious salty depth.

Coconut milk: While a lot of people avoid coconut milk because coconut fat is mostly saturated, the type of saturated fat found in coconut is a special one called medium-chain triglyceride. MCTs have been found to have lots of health benefits such as improving liver and thyroid function, increasing metabolism and thus helping weight loss, and increasing HDL (the "good" cholesterol) You can read more about the health benefits of coconut fat here and here. Given that you see a lot less obese people in Thailand, where coconut milk is widely consumed, than you do in the Western world, I'm choosing to believe that coconut milk can't be all that bad for you! Please don't use "light" coconut milk when making tom kha gai.

Galangal: Galangal is the knobby root on the top left of the plate. It is a relative of ginger but has a much stronger, almost medicinal taste. This soup is named for galangal ("kha" in Thai) so don't substitute it with ginger or powdered galangal! You can chop the galangal up into chunks and freeze it in a ziplock bag. Slicing becomes easier after defrosting.

Limes: A good squeeze of lime juice right before serving adds tang to the soup.

Lemongrass: A subtle, citrusy grass, available in most supermarkets.

Thai chile peppers: Also called "bird's eye" chiles, these small red peppers are insanely hot. Since my heat tolerance is piss poor, I only add a slice or two to my bowl. If you like it spicy, go to town! Make sure you wear gloves when cutting them up as they can irritate your skin.

Kaffir lime leaves: The leaves of a special kind of lime tree, these have an immensely strong, almost floral citrus aroma. The ones in the picture came out of the freezer which is why they are a bit discolored. When buying them, look for ones that are bright green and without blemishes. You can freeze them in a ziplock bag. 

Not shown: Cilantro, aka the worst-tasting substance to ever grow out of God's green earth.

I kid.

No, I don't.

Tom Kha Gai
Adapted slightly from here. Serve the chopped cilantro, sliced chiles and lime wedges in separate bowls, for each diner to add to the soup according to their taste. Low-sodium canned chicken stock is OK in a pinch, but homemade chicken stock (instructions here) will make the soup a million times better. If you follow a gluten-free diet, check to make sure that your fish sauce and canned chicken stock have no gluten. Serves 4.

1 14 oz. (400 ml) can of coconut milk
2 cups (500 ml) of chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 stalks of lemongrass
6 kaffir lime leaves
6 slices of galangal, each 2 mm thick (no need to peel)
Fish sauce
8 oz (250 g) white or straw mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 lb (500 g) boneless, skinless chicken breast, thinly sliced against the grain
3-4 bird's eye chiles, thinly sliced
2 limes, cut into wedges
Cilantro leaves

1. Cut the lemongrass into a few pieces and smash these with the butt of your knife. This will expose the inner, more aromatic parts, for easier infusion.

2. Put the chicken stock in a pot. Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to medium low.

3. Add the coconut milk, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Cook at a bare simmer for 15-20 minutes. When the liquid is nicely fragrant, fish out the herbs with a slotted spoon and discard. Stir in 2 tablespoons of fish sauce and taste. Add more fish sauce until you find the soup sufficiently salty.

4. Maintaining the soup at a bare simmer (no more than a bubble every few seconds), add the mushrooms and chicken and gently cook for 3-4 minutes until the chicken is just cooked. Take off the heat.

5. Serve with cilantro, sliced chiles and lime wedges on the side. A healthy squeeze of lime juice in each bowl is essential!


  1. Sounds great! Love this soup, will be trying this recipe.

  2. As someone who goes to Vietnam a lot, I recommend everyone here to get their Vietnam visa from the visa service. They are absolutely incredible at their job.