With the weather getting cooler and the days getting shorter, it seems like all I want after a long day of work is a bowl of this warm, comforting Thai coconut milk soup.
This is a soup that makes frequent appearances on our dinner menu, especially around this time of year. In fact, it was one of the first recipes that I posted when I started this blog almost three years ago. As I’ve done with each blog anniversary, I thought it’d be nice to go back and revisit one or two of my favorite recipes over the next week or so, sharing what I’ve learned about that recipe since starting this blog… We’ll start with my version of the Thai coconut milk soup known as tom kha gai, three years in the making!
Tom kha gai is actually pretty straightforward to make, as long as you have the right ingredients. You start by infusing a broth with fresh, fragrant herbs such as kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal. The galangal is a key component of this soup and provides a sharp, earthy, somewhat citrusy flavor. It is known as “kha” in Thai and is actually what the soup is named for (tom = to boil, kha = galangal, gai = chicken).
Once your broth has picked up the wonderful aroma from these herbs, they can be strained out and the main ingredients added. Straw mushrooms and thinly sliced pieces of chicken are traditional choices, and the ones that I always come back to. Around this time of year, with all kinds of mushrooms available, I love to mix and match different varieties in this soup.
Over the years, I’ve played around with other vegetables too, from green beans and pumpkin to bamboo shoots and onion slices. The only variation that the boyfriend absolutely wouldn’t touch involved carrots, since they’re not found in many authentic Thai dishes, although I have to say I thought it was quite good :)
The soup is then seasoned with fish sauce, lime juice, Thai chilis, and a little coconut milk. When I started making this soup, I’d add the chilis at this point, barely bruised and no more than 3 at most, or it’d be more than I could handle. Now that my palate is more accustomed to the heat of Thai chilis, I prefer to add them, really smashed well, with the herbs at the beginning of the cooking process so that more spice can build throughout the soup.
The spice of the Thai chilis and the acidity of the lime juice provide a nice counterpoint to the creamy coconut milk. I’ve seen all kinds of recommendations for the amount of coconut milk you should use in this soup, from it being completely coconut milk based to only using a few spoonfuls of the stuff, and as such, have experimented with all of these variations. I’ve found that adding half a cup of coconut milk for 4 cups of soup is the perfect amount of creaminess for us. Even a spoonful more and the boyfriend will declare the soup “mun guen pai” or too greasy/fatty (มันเกินไป). Less than this and my more Americanized palate craves just a little more creaminess.
I’ve also played around with other variations, including using different concentrations of broth, adding a touch of sugar, garnishing with cilantro, etc. One variation that I do like is adding a tablespoon or so of Thai roasted chili paste (nam prik pao) for a little extra depth of flavor, although this isn’t traditional.
With all of the experimenting I’ve done with this recipe, the boyfriend is a little wary whenever I tell him I’ve made tom kha gai for him. If I use anything other than the recipe below, he’ll say, “Why can’t you just stick to what we know is good?” So, without further ado, here’s a recipe, three years in the making, for our favorite version of the warm, comforting Thai coconut milk soup with chicken and mushrooms. Hope you enjoy!