Introduction: Tom Kha Gai -- Thai Coconut Soup

Picture of Tom Kha Gai -- Thai Coconut Soup

A traditional and tasty Thai soup, this is my favorite comparison point between Thai restaurants and an excellent twist on chicken soup for cold winter days.  I'm a huge fan of coconut, chicken soup, and creamy soups in general, so it's a winner for me.

Of course, making it at home means I can customize it to my preferences.  It's surprisingly easy to make!  This recipe is loosely adapted from David Johnson's Thai Food, a brick-sized comprehensive guide to Thai cooking. 

Note that you can make a pescatarian version (fish stock, shrimp instead of chicken) or even vegetarian or vegan (veg stock, tofu for chicken, soy sauce for fish sauce) though the latter will lack some of the pungency that only comes with fish sauce.

Step 1: Tools and Ingredients

Picture of Tools and Ingredients

This recipe scales beautifully - just multiply the ingredients below.  I've included substitutions for ingredients you may not have easily at hand, but a trip by an asian grocery will turn up everything on this list handily.  I buy lots of lemongrass and galanga ahead, then chop and freeze in pre-sorted ziplok bags for future use.  They keep quite well.  You can also do this with the shallots, coriander root, and kaffir lime leaves.

1 can coconut milk
2-3 cups chicken stock (homemade is best, then the stuff in cartons; boullion cubes are a last resort.)
pinch of salt
1 teaspoon palm sugar (I usually substitute brown sugar)
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, washed and choppped in chunks (dried lemongrass is far inferior - punch it up with extra lime juice and zest at the end if you're forced to go this route)
3 red shallots, peeled and chunked (I often substitute 3 smashed cloves of garlic plus a bit of onion)
2 coriander roots, scraped (I usually substitute a pinch of whole coriander seed plus a handful of fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves)
2 chili peppers, halved (pick your favorite type, and modify number to suit your spice taste)
1.5 inch chunk of galanga root, chunked (ginger is in the same family, but tastes totally different - galanga TOTALLY makes the flavor of this dish.  If you can't get this locally, travel to a nearby city and visit the asian markets or scour the internets, buy a pound, then freeze what you can't use now.  It's a floral flavor that you'll definitely recognize if you've had tom kha gai before.)
3 kaffir lime leaves, coarsely chopped (I have a kaffir lime tree in my yard, but you can substitute lime zest if necessary.  It just won't be as fragrant and complex.)
1 teaspoon chili garlic sauce (optional, and kind of a cheat, but often good.)

1 pound boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut to 1" pieces (you can use breasts, but the thighs are moister and tastier)
1 cup chopped mushrooms (your choice - mix it up)
1-3 Tablespoons fish sauce (This stuff is pungent - if you're not familiar, add incrementally and taste before increasing.  But don't be turned off by the smell.  Definitely use some, as it's a key flavor that softens when you add it to the soup.)
1 can baby corn, drained and chopped to 1/2" chunks (optional)

1 Tablespoon lime juice (more if compensating - see notes above)
1 handful fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup grape tomatoes halved, or 2 plum tomatoes coarsely chopped (optional)


1 large pot, at least 3 qt
cutting board

Step 2: Make Broth

Picture of Make Broth

Combine all broth ingredients (coconut milk, stock, salt, sugar, shallots/garlic, coriander, galanga, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, chili sauce), bring to a low boil, and simmer for at least 15 minutes.

Step 3: Strain Broth

Picture of Strain Broth

Pour through a sieve/strainer to remove chunks, and return the broth to your big pot. You can rescue a few items from the strainer, mince them, and return them to the pot if you like - I usually don't bother. 

You can usually smoosh more tasty liquid out of the chunks if you try, so give them a stiff squeeze.

Step 4: Add Chunks

Picture of Add Chunks

Chop chicken, mushrooms, and baby corn and add to pot with broth.  Add fish sauce, and lime zest if using.  Simmer lightly until chicken is cooked.

Step 5: Finish and Serve

Picture of Finish and Serve

Add the cilantro, tomatoes, and lime juice.  Taste - the soup should be fragrant, with a rich (read: nicely fatty) taste, and a mix of sweet/sour/salty flavors in the broth.  You can tweak the latter with more sugar (sweet), lime juice (sour), or fish sauce (salty and tangy).

Serve hot.

This soup keeps beautifully, and will taste even better the next day after the flavors mingle overnight.  You may want to hit it with a bit more fresh lime after reheating, though, just to keep it zippy.


billwscott (author)2011-11-12

I made this today. First time with Tom Kha. It was nothing short of amazing. I added 1/2 can coconut milk to give it a richer flavor (1 1/2 total) and doubled the palm sugar.

canida (author)billwscott2012-07-13

Wow, this looks great!

bas_van_abel (author)2009-12-19

Fantastic recipe and great food photography! Looks so delicious. Last week we had an Instructables Restaurant try-out and your soup was served as well. The people loved it. They finished 20 liters in less than an hour!
Thanks for sharing this.

silm (author)2017-04-23

Very yummy coconut soup and good for health.

ChaseS9 (author)2016-04-06

How many servings is this?

darklotus (author)2015-07-03

I love thai food and can't wait to try this recipe - it sounds amazingly yum!

KatjeS (author)2015-02-27

You mean David Thompson, not Johnson.

Mercuria (author)2013-12-24

I tried this soup in a restaurant two years ago and fell in love! I found this recipe and bugged the produce manager at my local grocery for a month before he got me galangal. Just put the soup together today, the smell is amazing! Had to sub lime for kaffir lime leaves. Lazy - cut a lime in half and dropped it in. Too citrusy from the flesh of the lime. Used shallot and an extra clove of garlic because I simply cannot follow instructions. :P
This soup is amazing and almost exactly like I remember! It's definitely my fave. As soon as my sticky rice is done I'll be able to have dinner. Thanks for posting this recipe! :D

canida (author)Mercuria2014-11-18

Fantastic, glad to help. This is my favorite soup too. :)

Mercuria (author)canida2014-12-07

Ah, I panicked for no reason! I added another can of coconut milk, and it's now perfect! Goshdang, your recipe made me so happy! Have a great holiday :D

Mercuria (author)canida2014-12-06

I love this soup but I messed up!
First and second times were amazing, 3rd time I forgot I was cooking and the flavours got muddied and dull, 4th and 5th were good, now this time, I think I've wasted a buttload of ingredients and an expensive organic foraging chicken.
If you see this, I'll take your advice for future reference. This time the base came out BITTER. I know I let it go too long with the galanga, lime peel (we cant' get kaffir lime leaves here), cilantro, coriander seed, (we can't get coriander root here) lemongrass, and chili sauce but man, it's brownish and has a green tint, even after adding coconut milk. I know I could add another can but not sure if that's going to help the bitter undertone.
My stock was not really dark, just a nice golden yellow.

Have you had that problem? Do you know what could cause a bitter taste in this soup? Can you tell me why I turn on the stove and walk away and forget I'm cooking?

I'm just pissed at myself that a $35 pot of soup is anything less than stellar and it's because obviously screwed up your amazing recipe.

Thanks again for posting the recipe. It's awesome when I follow the instructions. :P

gdpoulton (author)2014-11-21

Oh other thing that I do. As the galanga root and lemon grass are not edible and rather unpleasant to work around when eating, I put these items in cheese cloth and remove when the soup is ready.

gdpoulton (author)2014-11-21

I make this often and usually a huge pot, just increase the ingredients. One other thing that we do is put a small compacted bowl of rice at the bottom of the soup bowl and then put the soup on top. Stretches it a bit further, but doesn't change the flavour. galanga root is 19.99 a lb where I live, if and when you can find it, so to get a supply of it in the freezer is quite expensive.. but so worth putting in the soup!! Thanks for the fabulous recipie.

OlgaAlexa (author)2010-09-28

Thank you for this beautiful recipe! How much do you get though, as in serves? Thank you!

canida (author)OlgaAlexa2014-11-18

I could probably eat it all myself, so your mileage may vary. :)

roseperson (author)2014-01-08

I opened an Instructables account just to post this comment! I made this recipe last night, after a successful pilgrimage this past weekend to a nearby Asian supermarket for galanga, kaffir lime leaves, fresh lemongrass and palm sugar. I was in Bangkok 3 months ago and had a Tom Kha Gai I've been raving/dreaming about ever since. THANK YOU for helping me recapture the taste & the joy! Once I acquired the ingredients, this recipe made it SO simple (& quick!) to prepare. My boyfriend & I loved it and wouldn't change a thing, and the leftovers for lunch today were just as great! YUM. Thank you!

canida (author)roseperson2014-11-18

Awesome! So glad to help. This is my favorite soup, and learning to make it at home was a major life achievement. :)

tigrismus (author)2014-09-22

This is such a great recipe! I make it with leftover grilled snapper and use just coconut milk(the unsweetened beverage sort, not canned), no broth. I've added long beans, bok choy, various other veggies, it's always very nice!

canida (author)tigrismus2014-11-18

Snapper sounds like an excellent idea, will have to try that sometime.

roses2 (author)2014-11-03

This is my go to "chicken soup" recipe. It's amazing. Make it immediately.

canida (author)roses22014-11-18

Awesome, thanks! It's my favorite too, especially when I'm sick.

bobbyd98682 (author)2012-01-23

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I have been looking for a good Tom Kha Gai recipe and this one is fantastic! I made a double batch last night and all but one bowl for lunch today was voraciously consumed. I was wondering, have you or anyone else made the broth beforehand and then froze it for later use? I'm going to try this but I don't want to waste this delicious ambrosia.

canida (author)bobbyd986822012-07-13

I haven't tried freezing the broth yet, as we eat it too fast. :)
If you try, please let me know how it turns out! There's no real texture to change with freezing, so my concern would be losing some of the volatile molecules that make it smell/taste particularly good. This could be probably be remedied by adding a bit of galanga/lime/lemongrass upon reheating to punch it up.

cqiu1 (author)2012-07-12

I made the vegan version replacing chicken with vegetarian chicken, fish sauce with vegetarian oyster sauce, and chicken stock with vegetable stock (which changed the color to a bit yellow), I didn't find galanga or fresh lemon grass, but the soup still came out very nicely. Look forward to improving it next time with the missing ingredients. Thanks!

cqiu1 (author)cqiu12012-07-12

Forgot the picture, here it is...vegan Tom Kha Gai

canida (author)cqiu12012-07-13

Awesome! That looks great. You'll really like it with the galanga and lemongrass - they really add to the fragrance and depth of flavor.

jpetty1 (author)2011-12-02

why is this in the vegan section???????
Lol. =:P

mostkillingest (author)2009-10-12

About how long did it take to cook the chicken? I just want to gauge average time to prepare.

I cut the chicken into thin strips and it cooked in about 5 minutes. But generally for any Thai curries I have cooked cubed chicken for about 10 minutes and it is perfect.

canida (author)mostkillingest2009-10-13

It depends on how large you cut the chicken chunks.  Mine were around 1 inch, and cooked in about 10 minutes.

toetoucher (author)2011-10-06

the restaurant that i have eaten at describes the soup with sweet tamarind-cury flavor....What is this?

pcianci (author)2011-07-16

The first time I tried attempted to try this soup, I could not even bear the "smell"! However, after trying it (years ago) I became obsessed with this soup; it is so freaking good! In fact, I judge Thai restaurants by the quality of their Tom Kha Gai soups. If they are watered down, forget it! A good soup like this must be creamy with all the ingredients/flavors bursting in your mouth that creates an outer body experience lol. I think I'll make some today!!! Great comments and suggestions here - thanks!

canida (author)pcianci2011-09-30

How did it go?

I agree, this soup is a great way to test Thai restaurants. It's my favorite, and if they get it wrong I'm unlikely to enjoy their curries either.

hamsolo (author)2011-09-29

I just made this last night... glad I found your instructable!

One thing I did that made the stock step a bit easier was to put all of the 'non-edibles' into a sachet. That made separation of the galanga, lemongrass and lime leaves possible while keeping the serranos, garlic and shallots in the soup for added texture.

Thanks so much for posting this... I'm a hero in my kitchen now, thanks to this (it's my girlfriend's favorite soup).

canida (author)hamsolo2011-09-30

Excellent! I'm glad to be of help.

I'm too lazy to tie up the non-edibles, but it's an excellent idea for the more organized/motivated cook. :)

Romado12187 (author)2009-10-10

now all you have to do is make a coconut bowl to serve it in

canida (author)Romado121872011-04-01

I approve of this idea!

pimpinyams (author)2010-05-05

I really enjoyed this version. Everything complimented each other and the aroma was just awesome. I followed everything except for the corn, tomato, and the Kaffir leaves (could not find the leaves). I grated a whole lime instead. I added a little bit more brown sugar at the end to suite my taste and sliced the chicken into very thin strips. Everyone has his or her own tastes. As a recipe untouched, I think it is well balanced. Thanks a lot for adding your own suggestions and options as many don't.

Ninzerbean (author)2009-10-09

 Oh oh oh I love this soup, thank you ever so, I can't wait to try yours - do you have favorite brand of fish sauce? Does it matter? Whenever I think I am going to get sick I order this soup, extra hot, and I don't end up getting sick.

canida (author)Ninzerbean2009-10-09

I'm not enough of a fish sauce connoisseur to tell the difference - if it smells revolting, it's probably good. ;)

Let me know how it turns out!  I'm having the rest of the leftovers for lunch.

Kwitmeh3 (author)canida2010-01-11

squid brand is a good Thai one, but not as light as the Vietnamese fish sauce

mdeblasi1 (author)canida2009-10-11

You may be interested in this comparison of fish sauces. 
its not Thai, it's Vietnamese, but I used it and found it to be perfectly good.

canida (author)mdeblasi12009-10-11

Thanks for the link!  It sounds like 3 Crabs or Golden Boy will be my pick next time we need fish sauce.  Of course, at the current rate of consumption that may be a long time from now. ;)  My current bottle was chosen at random.

tabbique (author)canida2009-12-08

In "Nourishing traditions" author Sally Fallon shows you how to make your own fish sauce, and how wonderfully good it is for you!

yerfdog123 (author)canida2009-10-13

3 crabs is the best in my opinion. i know this because, welll, my mom's thai so i have an advantage. :D

Ninzerbean (author)yerfdog1232009-10-14

I went to my local Asian market yesterday and asked the owner, who Ihave come to be pretty friendly with over the years, and she took meright over to 3 crabs and told me it was so nice you could use it plain,that the brand I have been using for years (Squid) is much more salt andmuch less fish. Thank you for your input.

Jayefuu (author)2009-10-25

That looks amazing, I love Thai food.

LittleRaisin (author)2009-10-21

double double thumbs up! :)
I made this as a demonstration in my foods class and only one snoody dumbass didn't like it heh. 

Romado12187 (author)2009-10-10


Patrik (author)2009-10-10

Ah... Tom Kha Gai, one of my favorites!

I would definitely leave out Step 3 though. Actually, the more "inedibles" (galangal, lemongrass, kaffir leaves) in the soup the better, in my opinion. I've been known to stop frequenting a thai restaurant after finding out their tom kha gai was just some watery coconut broth with a few slices of mushroom and a fleck of cilantro - ugh!

In fact, I love chewing on some of those inedible to get that last burst of flavor out of them. Fresh galangal is quite edible if sliced finely enough, just like its better known relative: ginger. Not quite as intense, but just as jummy. Lemongrass will leave you with a wad of fiber in your mouth though, but it's well worth it for the flavor.

Then again, I do like playing with my food... :-D

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Bio: I've been posting Instructables since the site's inception, and now build other things at Autodesk. Follow me for food and more!
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