I’ve cooked tom kha gai before. But it was only after the cooking class in Chiang Mai did I realize that there’s a huge difference between good and great Thai chicken coconut soup.
The tricks come in many ways. The correct herbs and spices, the seasonings to make a good balance of flavors and the patience to create a good spice base. And when we talk about “correct herbs and spices”, we must understand the nature of each ingredient to know which can withstand substitutions and which you simply have to use or not cook the dish at all.
Let’s start with galangal. It looks a bit like ginger but the flavor is simply not the same. I used to think it was okay to use ginger if I couldn’t find galangal. Fresh galangal is not widely available in the Philippines, I used to make do with crushed galangal in jars and when even the latter was inaccessible, I simply substituted ginger.
Huge mistake especially when cooking Thai dishes like tom kha gai. After all, the name of the dish translates to chicken (gai) cooked (tom) with galangal (kha). Without galangal, the dish would be tom gai, not tom kha gai.
If we could, we would have bought fresh galangal in Chiang Mai and replanted it at home. But we weren’t sure what airline rules are about fresh spices. So we bought dried galangal instead. We simply soak what we need in hot water to rehydrate then use as though it were fresh.
In the collage above, the dried galangal is on the top left. The other herbs and spices that you simply cannot ditch or insist on finding substitutes for are lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chili and cilantro. I wouldn’t even recommend substituting a portion of a large onion for the shallots because large onions are simply too bland.
If there are ingredients you cannot subsitute with others, there is a step too that you cannot take short cuts with. You need to grind the spices to release the natural oils which will give the cooked dish a deeper flavor.
If the ingredients and spice grinding has not scared you and you’re still reading this, know that the rest of the cooking procedure for tom kha gai is simple enough.
The spices are and chicken broth are heated until boiling, then the solid ingredients are added and simmered.
When the chicken and mushrooms are half done, coconut cream is stirred in and everything is cooked, uncovered, until the soup reduces a bit. Seasonings are adjusted, lime juice is squeezed in and tom kha gai is ready to serve.
Tom Kha Gai
For the spice base
- 4 slices galangal (rehydrated if using dried)
- ¼ cup sliced lemongrass (lower portion of the stalk only)
- 2 pairs kaffir lime leaves ribs removed
- 2 shallots peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 bird's eye chili (use more for more heat)
- 2 tablespoons coriander roots and stems
- 2 slices ginger
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon coconut sugar dissolved in a teaspoon of water to make a paste
To make the soup
To finish the dish
- ¼ cup lime juice
Make the spice base
- Grind all the solid ingredients in the spice base list. You don't need to make a paste. You just want to pound everything to small pieces.
Cook the soup
- Pour the chicken bone broth into a pot and add the spice base. Bring to the boil.
- Stir in the chicken, mushrooms, tomato, lemongrass, scallions and a tablespoon of fish sauce.
- When the broth starts to boil, lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Pour in the coconut cream. Over medium heat and with the pot uncovered, continue cooking the soup over a gentle boil until the chicken and mushrooms are cooked through.
- Taste the soup. Add more fish sauce if too bland.
- Off the heat, stir in the lime juice.
- Taste and adjust the amount of fish sauce and lime juice, if needed.
Serve the tom kha gai
- Ladle the soup into bowls. Sprinkle with torn cilantro and serve.
- If using freshly grated coconut (should be mature, of course), squeeze the coconut without adding water to get pure coconut cream.
- If using canned coconut milk, chill unopened in the fridge for a few hours. Open the can and scoop out the thick cream that floats on top. Use that and discard the liquid underneath.
- If using powdered, dissolve in the least amount of water to make coconut cream.
If you cooked this dish and you want to share your masterpiece, please use your own photos and write the cooking steps in your own words.