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where’s the cake?

Recipe: thai chicken coconut soup (tom kah kai)

People have been asking me all day who is baking the cake. They mean my birthday cake. Um… no one. I don’t have time for cake let alone a birthday because I’m hitting the road tomorrow and I have a to do list long enough to beat out a double roll of Charmin. Jeremy and I have birthdays fairly close together such that we agree to celebrate at a later, more convenient date. Probably in October. September is just insane for both of us. We’re cool with it.

pretty sure kaweah would have liked some cake

I do want to thank all of you for your sweet birthday tweets and Facebookings. It was a special day, because every day is special! So I’ll just share some of what made it all so nice:

not a full double rainbow, but i’ll take it!

grilled ono for dinner

new member of my apple family

The weather has turned from summer to autumn here. Today. Like a switch. I love it! In between all of the frantic work piling up, I spied fresh snow on the local mountains, I got to see my friend Kath, the UPS delivery dude arrived EARLY instead of the typical 5:00 pm (now THAT is a birthday present on a signature-required package), and the very best part of the day? Getting an impromptu ice cream cone with Jeremy. So you see, a very good day – birthday or no. Cake can wait and yeah, *I’ll* be the one baking it :)

Remember that little cold I caught in Seattle? There’s nothing like being sick to make you appreciate being healthy. I kicked that one pretty handily, but being well again seems to heighten my appreciation for the fall colors, the change in the weather, the crisp chill on the air. I’m giddy with excitement just thinking about snow. Okay, but back to being sick… As soon as I got home from Seattle, I bought an organic chicken and made some homemade chicken broth. I swear by it. My mom used to make it for me whenever I got sick as a kid and it made me feel so good. This time, I recovered quickly enough that I still had some chicken broth left and found myself in the mood for some spicy, tangy, luscious soup to jettison that last bit of crud in my chest.

homemade chicken broth, fish sauce, coconut milk

chicken, straw mushrooms, cilantro, lime, kaffir lime leaves, galanga, thai bird chiles, lemon grass

Yes yes yes. Tom kah kai – Thai chicken coconut soup. I was just about to type that it is one of my favorite soups, but I actually love all manner of soups – especially with the cooldown in the weather. As long as you can find the ingredients, it is ridiculously simple to prepare. Kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and lemon grass are probably the toughest ones to find. You can always make substitutions like ginger for galangal, but the difference is striking. Galangal is more floral, delicate.

pour the broth and coconut milk in with the aromatics

As for the Thai bird chiles, I prefer to slit them open rather than slice them up because those seeds can be hot. I don’t mind the hot, but other people in this house (there’s only one other person) suffer quite a bit if food is too spicy. Slitting the chiles gives a nice bite to the soup without burning your lips off.

when the soup is boiling, add the chicken and mushrooms

When I normally make this soup, I omit the chicken. The chicken doesn’t really do much for me, but if I were to entertain guests, I’d include the chicken. I’ve used sliced shitake mushrooms (fresh or rehydrated dried ones) in place of the straw mushrooms too, but I like how cute the straw mushrooms look.

when the chicken is cooked, the soup is ready

You have spicy, sour, pungent, floral, citrus, herbal, tropical, earthy, creamy highlights throughout each spoonful. Visually it is equally stunning. There is so much STUFF in this soup (not all of it edible, mind you). My favorite part is the soup itself. Just sipping that broth full of those flavors is enough to send any cold or flu packing its bags. Hasta, suckers.

garnish with cilantro

Thai Chicken Coconut Soup (Tom Kah Kai)
[print recipe]
slightly modified from Thai Cooking Made Easy by Sukhum Kittivech

12 oz. coconut milk
1 cup chicken broth (the original recipe uses 1/2 cup water)
1/2 stalk of lemon grass, cut into 1-inch long pieces
4 kaffir lime leaves
4 slices galanga (you can sub ginger if you can’t get galanga, but it’s not the same)
6 Thai bird chiles, sliced or slit depending on how much heat you want (sliced is hotter)
1/3 lb. boneless chicken, cut into thin, wide strips
14 oz. can of straw mushrooms
2 tbsps fish sauce
2 tbsps lime juice
cilantro as desired

Place the coconut milk, chicken broth (or water, but I think it tastes much better with homemade chicken broth), lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galanga, and chiles in a medium saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil. Add the chicken, mushrooms, fish sauce, and lime juice and cook until the meat is done (shouldn’t take more than a few minutes). Sprinkle cilantro on top and serve hot!

42 nibbles at “where’s the cake?”

  1. Wei-Wei says:

    So true – like a SWITCH. It was literally blazing hot on Tuesday, and now it’s quite chilly. Perfect time for soup!

  2. Kath says:

    So happy I got to see you and Jeremy today!! You seriously made my day, Sweetheart!

    Hope you had a WONDERFUL birthday :-)

    Safe & happy travels xoxo <3

  3. Debbie Cunningham says:

    Love Tom Kah soup!! Won’t make it though as I have an awesome Thai restaurant a few blocks away who makes a fabulous version! I’d surely be disappointed in my own. ;) Happy Fall to you!!

  4. Rosa says:

    That is one beautiful soup! I adore Tom Kah Gai!



  5. Sally - My Custard Pie says:

    Beautiful pictures of this classic recipe….and what a rainbow.

  6. Nate @ House of Annie says:

    Thank you for highlighting the difference between ginger and galangal. I just wish it were more readily available.

    Do you leave the chiles in the individual soup bowl when serving, or did you just put them there for the photo?

  7. Kitt says:

    Oh nice. I always order that from our office go-to Thai place. They strain out the inedibles and add in sliced chicken, mushrooms and big fat purple onion slices. It’s so incredibly soothing. I’ll have to try your recipe.

  8. Kathy says:

    I love that rainbow.
    Happy Birthday Jen!

  9. Trolleira says:

    Yep, definitley my favorit thai-soup, too!
    Happy Birthday!

  10. Hande says:

    Finally a reliable recipe for one of my favorite soups – though I will have to sub ginger since I have never seen any galangal here in Rome.
    PS: I can be the only one with a sick mind here, but that picture of the Ipad shocked me a bit at first sight….

  11. says:

    This is one of my favorite soups too! Unfortunately, not my husband’s. But soup weather approaches. Here’s it’s still too warm for soup — I’m disappointed. Tomorrow a cool down. I’m ready.

    Happy Birthday!

  12. Phoo-D says:

    This and Tom Yum Gai are my two favorite Thai soups. Tom Yum Gai is my go-to soup for any cold (especially because we actually have a great place to get it via takeout). There’s nothing like a spicy chicken broth to kick the crud away! Happy Birthday!

  13. audra says:

    oh wow, thank you!! this is my boyfriend’s and my favorite soup! in fact, he introduced me to it– every time he ordered it at our nearby Thai place, i liked it so much i would end up eating almost half of his. poor guy. =) as if you weren’t already one of my favorite people (as in, a potentially creepy, look-how-cool-this-girl-online-is type of favorite), when i saw this last night i got so excited when i realized how simple it is. i’m actually not a big fan of soups, as i prefer thicker stews with meat, but i truly love this one and often crave it.

    thanks again and happy birthday!!

  14. Janet says:

    If I could only have one soup for the rest of my life, I would chose this one. I love it that much.
    I’ve never made it myself, and I’m wondering where in Boulder you find the galanga, fresh lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves. Asian Seafood Market? My lovely husband does not appreciate coconut (go figure) but he is traveling a lot in the next few weeks, so I can subsist on this and roasted beets (which make him cry, he dislikes them so much).
    And Happy Birthday to you! If you decide you don’t want to bake your own cake, I heartily recommend Shamane’s Bake Shop, where they do awesome cakes. I had them make one for my 50th last year, and it was memorable.

  15. TheKitchenWitch says:

    I have to have either Tom Yum Gai or Pho when I am sick; I’m going to add this one to the arsenal, too. Looks awesome.

    Happy Birthday, sweetie!

  16. Kathy says:

    Belated happy birthday wishes to you, Jen!
    Beautiful photos, as always…. (-:

  17. Bridget says:

    Jeremy can’t handle the heat?! I thought he was a New Mexican?!

    I kid. I’m not exactly Ms. Spicy Food myself.

    In fact, when I make tom kha gai (a less authentic version, as I most definitely will not be finding kaffir lime leaves and galangal in Carlsbad), I keep it very mild with just a bit of serrano pepper. Serving the soup over rice is one of my favorite meals. Maybe I can make it soon now that our high temperatures are dipping below 85 degrees occasionally!

  18. heather says:

    okay, i have a question. this is one of my favorite soups, so i order it often, and on menus at various places it appears both as tom kah KAI and tom kah GAI. is there a difference, or is it a dialect/regional difference? yours looks pitch perfect!

    cheers and crud-be-gone,


  19. heather says:

    p.s. you couldn’t have chosen a better birthday soup! happy, happy day.

  20. Laura B. says:

    Happy Birthday!!!

    I can’t wait for fall. I’m already piling up lists of recipes for my beloved butternut squash! Soups, galettes, risottos, oh my!

  21. Pheng says:

    love all your recipes:O) I’m thai/chinese. we add a hint of sugar in our thom kha gai. your dessert recipes are the bomb. happy belated birthday!!!

  22. Lucie says:

    Happy belated birthday :) I love the depth of thai soups, and this one sounds perfect!

  23. Jenn Sutherland says:

    So glad to see you post on this – I make a similar soup, and am always interested to see how other people are doing it – and you’re right, this soup is comforting and sends the cold away! I love the tip for slitting the thai chiles…seems like I always end up with just a tad more heat than I like, and then just think what a good job its doing to clear out my sinuses!

  24. Sil says:

    Feliz cumpleaños, Jen!!

    Best birthday wishes for you.


  25. Ann says:

    Wow, that is one rich soup, looks smashing. Happy Birthday!

  26. Ruth Ann says:

    I love Tom Kah Kai although I am spoiled in that we live near a great thai restaurant and so I’ve never thought of making it myself. Looks really yummy. I like the colors of the ingredients on your cutting board.
    Hope your birthday was grand. iPad? Nice! Let us know how you like it. I guess that Scoble really thinks that flipboard is great for the iPad.

  27. Lisa says:

    I “was” going to make Steamy Kitchen’s Chicken Pho today, but this is going to replace it! Yum!

    Happy Birthday.

  28. Kathryn says:

    I love this time of year- it’s the perfect soup weather! I recently made tortellini sausage soup, but your soup looks WAY better!

  29. Melissa says:

    Yeah the broth is really all I’m after when I eat this. I still want to try my own, especially since I have the benefit of having ingredients nearby.

    I can’t believe I missed your birthday. I’m glad you have a good day, friend, and I wish for you a lovely celebration when you guys are able to enjoy it. xo

  30. Melissa says:

    Have? Had. Blugh.

  31. sarah says:

    Oh my gosh! I have been looking everywhere for this recipe and am so glad to have found one from you!!! I can’t wait to try it out.

    Only one question: The tom kha kai at the thai place in town is more “red” and spicy looking…do you know what it is that may be doing that?

  32. Cookin Canuck says:

    Soup never gets old for me. There are so many flavor possibilities that I am sure that I could eat a bowl everyday for the rest of my life and never tire of it. This pretty soup of yours is full of all the flavors I adore.

  33. Diana says:

    Belated birthday wishes Jen! Love the rainbow!

  34. Roz says:

    After living 2 summers in Thailand, I adore Tom Gha Kai and am on a mission to find the perfect recipe….yours sounds like it my be ‘the one’…..i love the step by step photos too! Thanks!

  35. Carol says:

    I just found your nicely done blog and plan on wandering around for a while :) Tom Kah Kai is one of our favorites and I prefer to make mine without chicken (or shrimp in my case) as well. My original recipe has shrimp and/or chicken and was hand written by me in the mid-1970’s while watching a Taiwanese friend of mine in the process of making it. Your recipe is very close to hers with the exception that she used a stock made from the shrimp shells. We live in a very rural area of Wisconsin and it is hard to find galanga and lemon grass, and lime leaves. I try to purchase fresh galanga and lemon grass whenever we visit a big city and have found they freeze quite well for future use. I do rely on the dried lime leave because I have never been able to find the fresh ones. You are correct that the substitution of regular ginger for galanga is just not the same. Also, I have had tremendous luck purchasing lemon grass at Asian grocery stores and rooting it outside in pots for the summer to freeze in the fall.

  36. Alyson @ Dates & Quinces says:

    Mmm. That looks fantastic. I’m freezing my butt off in my apartment right now, and some soup would be just the thing to warm me up!

  37. Melanie says:

    Yes, I think that Kaweah WOULD like some cake! Happy b-day. Getting ready for the October holidays here. Have fun with the Ipad. Now, I think I am going to make some soup :)

  38. jenyu says:

    Everyone: I believe you can find dried galangal slices in Asian stores – probably more easily than finding fresh. Never used it though (the fresh smells heavenly). And thanks for the bday wishes!! :)

    Kath – thanks sweetheart! What a treat for me to see YOU on my bday :) xoxo

    Nate – I leave them in. Uh, I know some people who would EAT them…

    Hande – get your mind out of the gutter, woman! ;)

    Janet – most of these can be found at ASM

    Bridget – I think most New Mexicans like local spicy, but Asian spicy is a whole ‘nuther beast…

    Heather – it’s just how white people translate from Thai to English. If you say it out loud “gai” or “kai” sound similar. Same thing. It’s chicken.

    Lisa – Jaden’s Pho is pretty sweet too, I love it.

    Melissa – awww xoxo

    Sarah – it’s possible instead of using chiles, they use a chili garlic or chili paste that turns the soup red (I’ve done that before).

    Carol – nice tip on the lemon grass. Thanks.

  39. GIna says:

    Good one. Thanks for posting.

  40. Susan says:

    Gorgeous, Jen!
    Happy Birthday.
    I can’t wait to try this.
    Is there a way to print the text of the recipe that I’m missing?

  41. Kung Pao Chicken Recipe says:

    […] Use Real Butter – Tom Kah Kai […]

  42. Stacey says:

    I just made this recipe last week! It was great! I couldn’t find any fresh kaffir lime leaves though, so it was a shame that it had to go without, but otherwise it was good and my boyfriend enjoyed it as well! Out of the 3 recipes of yours that we’ve tried, we’ve loved them all! You really are amazing! Thank you so much! Without you, I don’t think I would have been able to expand my recipe collection with great Asian recipes so easily!

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