Tom Kha Kai (Chicken Galangal Soup/Thai Coconut Chicken Soup)

1 Comment 11 October 2013

Going back to some of the Asian flavors we love the most around here, I had a feeling this recipe was going to be just like the coconut chicken soup we get at a local Thai restaurant. And love. With a delightfully unholy relish. I almost didn’t pursue making it, though. It’s got some distinct Asian ingredients that I can’t get locally, and if I wanted to order them, I was going to pay a premium to do so.

I don’t know about you, but almost nothing turns me off a recipe more than those kinds of ingredients (the cost, the difficulty finding part). However, we’re going to explain why they’re worth getting this time if you get the chance.

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-1

So the secret to getting difficult-to-find ingredients for your recipe is to slip a friend a twenty and a list when they’re heading to the Big City to do their Asian market shopping. Boom! Secret’s out. Yooouu’re welcome. Don’t mention it.

Really, though, my friend happened to be going to the Big City to shop at their favorite Asian supermarket and they picked up some lemongrass and the galangal for me. Pretty sweet, huh? The good thing, too, is you can freeze them to save for later batches of this soup. You’re going to want to make more!

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-2

So the stuff up top that’s sliced in rounds is the galangal. I can’t tell you much more about it than the recipe originator, but it bears mentioning as they did that it’s almost like ginger…but not. Can you substitute ginger? Sure you can! Just don’t expect the results to be what we’re showing and describing here. The two really don’t taste anything alike. Their scents are similar, but for me, that was about it.

The other stuff up there is the lemongrass. It looks a lot like a hardier green onion, and it comes in long, slender-ish stalks, but it’s much stiffer, almost like bamboo. I almost stabbed myself with one, no joke. It, like the galangal are strictly for flavoring the broth.

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-3

We cut the original recipe in half. It made so much the first time I tried it, it almost overflowed my 6.45 quart dutch oven pot seen here. This is, of course, a nice amount if you’ve got a large family, but our version below reflects enough for about 6-8, or for 2-4 that like leftovers, too. And this soup is great leftover.

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-4

Into the chicken stock and coconut milk goes the lemongrass. Like green onions, it’s got lots of layers, so be aware if you split it in half as we did, you’ll be fishing out lots of pieces later. I didn’t mind this so much because I think splitting the pieces in half length-wise helped flavor the broth more. If you prefer not to fish out all those pieces, just pummel the pieces whole a few good times with the flat of a large knife, like you would garlic.

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-5

And now for the galangal. This and the lemongrass will really fill your home with wonderful smells. Although…my kidlet wasn’t a fan. No surprise there!

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-6

These little guys are dried kaffir lime leaves. I’ve come to think of them as the bay leaf of Asian cooking. I couldn’t get these locally either, so I did order some on Amazon (bulk of course), and I plan to use them in other Asian cooking as well. The original recipe seemed to use fresh ones, but, again, couldn’t get ’em.

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-7

After the broth has simmered for a bit, and the galangal, lemongrass and lime leaves removed and discarded, you’ll poach your chicken in the soup liquid for about twenty minutes. We used chicken breast tender pieces to make it easier on us and so that they would cook quickly.

After that, there’s not much left to do! This is the part, though, where you’ll need to slowly add the next ingredients a little at a time, tasting after each addition to achieve the flavor you prefer. You don’t have to go strictly in this order, and you’ll probably want to add more of one or the other afterward anyway. In first goes the fish sauce. This stuff is why there’s no additional salt in the recipe.

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-8

The one ingredient I couldn’t find at all was palm sugar. Brown sugar will work just fine as a substitute. This is either to actually sweeten the soup if you like this kind sweet, or you can add just a little to help balance out everything else.

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-9

For half a recipe, we still used the juice of about 5-6 limes. We like it tart, yessssir!

After this you add the chicken back in, plus some yummy mushrooms, let those simmer till tender and you’re done!

Thai Coconut Chicken Soup-13

So the reason you should totally search out some galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves is: they make this soup not only authentic, but awesome. It tasted, to me, exactly like the soup we get at our local Thai place, which made me such a happy cooking bunny. Praise be the recipe creator, it’s just that good. It’s a super easy soup, the most work probably being shredding the chicken. It’s tart and the broth is one of a kind thanks to those distinctive ingredients and the coconut milk. Perfect for those chilly days either already here or to come, for when you’re feeling low with a cold or just wanting something extra warm, this is a great soup. Enjoy!

Tom Kha Kai

adapted from The Quixotic Table

Prep Time: 10 minutes    Cook Time: about 1 hour 15 minutes    Level: Easy    Serves: 4-6

  • 1 quart low sodium chicken broth
  • 3 14 ounce cans full fat coconut milk
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, split lengthwise and cut into thirds
  • 8 – 12 kaffir lime leaves, fresh, or 3-4 dried
  • 3 – 4 inch piece galangal, sliced
  • a few tablespoons brown sugar, to taste
  • 12 – 16 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 – 3 boneless skinless chicken breasts
  • 1/2 – 3/4 cup fish sauce
  • juice of 5-6 limes
  • garnishes: cilantro, sambal, sriracha and chili oil to taste
  • cooked rice (optional)

In a large heavy bottomed soup pot, over medium heat, add the chicken broth, coconut milk, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal. Bring to a low simmer and maintain the simmer on low heat. Simmer for 30 minutes. After the 30 minutes, remove the leaves, lemongrass and galangal with a slotted spoon and discard.

Keeping the heat on low, add the chicken breasts and poach till fully cooked, about 15 – 20 minutes depending on size. Remove and set aside to cool. Shred or chop.

Add the crushed palm sugar, lime juice and fish sauce (if using brown sugar, add a tablespoon or so at a time till the desired flavor is achieved). Taste during this part to enure you are happy with the flavor. Add a little of them at a time, and increase them if you want a stronger flavor of any of them. Stir occasionally and continue to simmer for a few minutes, tasting still to see if you’re happy with the flavor.

Bring the heat back to medium and add the and mushrooms. Cook for 5 minutes, then add the chicken. Simmer till the chicken is warmed through. Serve over cooked rice if desired, with the cilantro, sambal, sriracha or chili oil to taste, for spice.


We went ahead and added about a half to three quarters tablespoon of the sambal to the entire soup, which is a simple-to-find chili paste, available in most Asian supermarket aisles. This was just the right amount of spice for us, but feel free to really ratchet yours up with more sambal or the other spicy condiments.

If you have a chance to get some galangal and lemongrass at an Asian market, they should be a pretty good, cheap price. I think the huge amount I got was less than $6.

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- who has written 347 posts on Full Fork Ahead.

Wife, mom, indulgent reader and Day Job Do-er, who occasionally likes to think she can cook. Sometimes she's right, sometimes she's wrong.

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1 comment

  1. Kim says:

    Easily as good or BETTER than restaurant versions! Thank you for the kaffir leaves, I will use them!

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