A Taste of Thailand: Tom Kha Gai Chicken Soup
A tangy and savory tom kha gai prepared using chicken stock and chicken thighs, galangal, and coconut cream.
- For the Galangal Stock:
1 cup (240ml) of homemade or store-bought chicken stock (refer to note)
4-inch piece of fresh galangal (50g), peeled
- For the Soup:
2 2/3 cups (620ml) of homemade or store-bought chicken stock (refer to note)
4-inch piece of fresh galangal (50g), peeled and thinly sliced
3 stalks of lemongrass, using only the bottom 7 inches, discarding the outer leaves, and cutting the tender core into 2-inch lengths (about 120g)
2 shallots (40g), peeled and roughly smashed using a mortar and pestle
1/4 cup (60ml) of fish sauce, divided
1 1/2 pounds (680g) of boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
10 fresh or frozen makrut lime leaves (4g), with the middle ribs removed
5 to 9 fresh Thai red chiles (totaling 5g to 9g), stemmed and lightly smashed
1 cup (240ml) of full-fat coconut cream, such as Aroy-D (refer to note)
1/4 cup (60ml) of fresh lime juice from 2 limes
Cilantro leaves for garnish
- For the Galangal Stock: In a granite mortar and pestle, add the galangal and pound it until a coarse paste forms, which should take about 30 seconds. Set it aside.
- In a 2-quart saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a simmer over medium heat, then remove it from the heat. Pour one-third of the warmed chicken stock over the galangal in the mortar. Using the pestle, press on the galangal to extract its flavor into the stock, which should take about 1 minute. Repeat the process with the remaining chicken stock, pressing on the galangal each time to continue expressing its flavor, then set it aside to let the galangal infuse the stock.
- For the Soup: Meanwhile, in the now-empty saucepan, add chicken stock, galangal, lemongrass, shallots, and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce, and bring it to a boil over high heat. Add the chicken, return it to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a simmer. Cover and cook until the chicken is tender and thoroughly cooked, which should take about 20 minutes.
- Pour the galangal-infused stock through a fine-mesh strainer into the saucepan, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible before discarding the solids. Stir in the makrut lime leaves, fresh chiles, and coconut cream, then remove it from the heat. Finally, stir in the lime juice and the remaining fish sauce.
- To serve, divide the soup between pre-warmed soup bowls and garnish with cilantro.
- I personally prefer using homemade chicken stock made solely from chicken, without any additional flavorings. You can follow a recipe to create your own chicken stock with just chicken and water, excluding any aromatic ingredients. If you’re opting for store-bought stock, look for one that is unsalted and contains minimal added aromatics.
- It’s important to note that coconut cream has a higher fat content compared to coconut milk. When using boxed or canned coconut cream, ensure you stir it thoroughly before use, as there may be a separate layer of fat on top. If you can’t find coconut cream, you can substitute it with coconut milk, although the soup may be slightly less rich.
Tom kha gai, a Thai chicken soup with coconut and galangal, has earned its place on nearly every Thai restaurant menu in the Western world, and I’ve often wondered why. The most apparent answer is quite simple: People are drawn to its creamy, sour, and salty flavors. When you combine these elements with chicken and the distinct, almost medicinal, taste of galangal, you have the epitome of comfort food—a soup that warms both your body and your soul. However, in my experience, many renditions of this soup fall short of their potential. They often contain an excess of coconut cream, resulting in a sensation more akin to sipping a warm smoothie, and frequently lack the crucial galangal flavor. It’s essential to note that galangal is non-negotiable; after all, the soup is named “tom kha,” which translates to “boiled galangal.”
In my quest to intensify the galangal flavor in the soup, I drew inspiration from the Chinese culinary practice of preparing ginger: pounding or blending it with water and then straining to produce ginger water. (I want to stress that ginger should never be used as a substitute for galangal in this soup.) I experimented with this method using galangal, pounding it in a mortar and pestle and then pouring warm chicken stock over the paste to infuse the flavors. After about 20 minutes, I had a concentrated galangal stock with a peppery and medicinal taste, precisely what I was seeking in a tom kha.