February 2, 2005 2:09 AM | By Adam Roberts | 9 Comments

A Menu For Hope: Tom Kha Gai, Coconut Chicken Soup


All praise Pim, creator of A Menu For Hope: a foodblogging fundraiser for tsunami victims. It's such a great idea. I'm so proud to be a part of it.

Because I am the Amateur Gourmet and not, say, the Hardcore Gourmet I needed some help with a recipe. Pim was incredibly generous. She provided me with the recipe for Tom Kha Gai, Coconut Chicken Soup. This recipe is perfect because it represents one of the many regions devastated by the tsunami: Thailand.

Thai food is delicious. We all know that. And this soup is delicious. I know that. (Because I've been eating it for the past three days. (I cooked ahead)). Cooking Tom Kha Gai is a lovely way to pay tribute to the victims of the tsunami. But paying tribute isn't enough. Before we proceed, we must pay money to tsunami victims so they can have clothes, food and shelter. It's a small gesture for a wonderful recipe. Click below, donate to UNICEF, and then enjoy my soup.

Have you donated? Have you really? Julia Child's watching you on high with her rolling pin.

Now then, Tom Kha Gai. According to my research, "Tom" means boil, "Kha" means galangal or galanga (which we will get to in a moment), and "Gai" means chicken. Thus Tom Kha Gai is boiled galangal chicken. It tastes better than it translates.

Here's Pim's recipe, interspersed with my comments and pictures.

Tom Kha Gai
(Chicken in coconut soup)
serves 4

14 oz can of coconut milk
4 cups of chicken stock (cut into bite size pieces)
1 pound chicken
1 cup mushroom (sliced into thin pieces)
4 stalks lemongrass (Use only the bottom part of the
lemon grass, up until about 6 inches from the root,
cut into 2 inch pieces and smash them a bit to release
the oil.)
1 handful of lime leaves
5 limes
1 galangal root (peeled and sliced into 0.5 cm rounds)
3 heaping tablespoon Thai Roasted Chili Paste
fish sauce to taste
thai birdeye chilies to taste

Ok, so I couldn't get hold of galangal (I bought ginger instead) or lime leaves, but otherwise I did pretty well:


I loved buying fish sauce and Thai roasted chili paste because it seemed so exotic. "That's so exotic," said the check out person at Whole Foods. (Actually, she asked me about the lemongrass. "What do you use that for?" she asked. I told her I was using it for a soup. I promised to tell her how it tastes. If you're reading this: IT TASTES GOOD.)

Now then, in the above preparations, you have to cut the lemongrass into 2 inch pieces. Stupidly, I turned my dishwasher on before I began so I was left with only two knives:


These are not the knives you want to use to cut lemongrass, but I made do.


I also peeled the ginger and felt guilty because Pim wrote me the following, when I asked her what galangal was: "Galangal is sometimes called white ginger--but unfortunately you can't substitute ginger, they are quite different in taste." Hehe, well sorry Pim--Whole Foods was all out of galangal! And the ginger tasted good, I swear.


1. Cut the chicken into bite size pieces, then
marinade them in 4 tablespoon of fish sauce while you
do the stock.


2. Heat the chicken stock with the lemongrass, about
1/4 cup of galangal rounds, and a handful of lime
leaves (reserve some lemongrass, galangal, and lime
leaves for garnish later). Heat the stock, covered,
for about half and hour.




3. Add the chicken to the strained stock, add the
coconut milk,


then let simmer gently until the chicken
is nearly done, add the reserved lemongrass and
galangal, and let the chicken continue to cook until

And now we play a game. It's called: HOW DO YOU KNOW IF THE CHICKEN'S DONE?


Luckily, I found another recipe that said it takes about 12 minutes. I tasted it and didn't die so I think that recipe was right. Plus, when I cut into the pieces they were cooked through. That's a good sign that they're cooked through.

You may notice mushrooms above. I added them with the chicken 12 minutes earlier and that worked out fine. I recommend you do the same.

4. Add the rest of the lime leaves and season the
soup, begin with the juice of 2 limes and add more
lime juice or fish sauce as needed.


Finish the soup
with optional chili paste and/or birdeye chili.


(I think the chili paste is vital to the soup. It gives it that necessary kick. And if you don't like spicy, don't worry. Up to a certain point, adding this won't make you choke. Just keep tasting as you add.)

Rememer to remind your guest not to eat the
lemongrass, galangal, or lime leaves, they are there
only as aromatic garnish and not to be eaten!

My guest (read: myself) didn't have to worry because there was no galangal and no lime leaves. I added all the lemongrass at the beginning and strained it out so there was no choking risk posed. As for the finished product?


Delicious. Honestly. I keep eating it. I can't stop. Think about the flavors involved: coconut, lime, (that's like a drink you'd have on the beach), fish sauce (it's better than it sounds), chicken, mushrooms, and chili paste. Each wages battle for your attention as you slurp and it makes you glad to be a battleground.

That's the worst metaphor I've ever written.

Now donate to UNICEF and check out all the other lovely entries on the Menu For Hope! (You can click in the image below to go to each individual site. It's really cool! I swear!) Thanks again, Pim. This was a great idea.

A Menu For Hope

Click here to donate!
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Click to see recipe
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Spanish Menu
German Menu
French Menu


Hee! Could I get some advice on cutting the chicken stock into bite size pieces?

Sounds like a good soup and a great cause.

L: freeze it first, *then* cut the chicken stock into bite size pieces! :)

I'm totally unfamiliar with Thai roasted chili paste...what else does one use it for? (besides *more* tom kha gai?) Thanks!

You can get chili paste in a pretty small jar if you think you won't use it much, Rachel. But it's very versatile--you can toss tofu or chickpeas in it for a quick weeknight marinade, for instance. I bet you could make a good sauce for wings with it, too. it's common in many, many different recipes from different Asian countries, and you can use it in southwestern/Tex-Mex style dishes, too. And it keeps forever in the fridge.

Galangal can usually be found in Asian markets, either fresh, dried or frozen. If you go to a market that caters to the SE Asian community, you are sure to find galangal--it is a knobby, gnarly looking rhizome that is rock hard. Unlike ginger slices, you don't really want to be chewing on galangal.

I use it fresh or frozen, and it really does add a wonderful flavor to tom ka gai.

Dried really doesn't have a lot of flavor, so I don't bother with it.

I am sneaky and will slip some of it in my Chinese hot and sour soup when no one is looking. It is totally untraditional, but it gives the soup an undefinable zing that everyone really likes, but few can place.

You can get galangal and other wonderful Asian (south, east and mid-east) ingredients at Kalustyan's at 123 Lexington @ 28th. It was just my pita and masala source until I wanted to try Indonesian cooking. Sambal with tamarind, check; galangal, check; candlenut, check.

Plus, after, I go to Curry in a Hurry for lunch.

Was the "(cut into bite size pieces)" tip really intended for the chicken stock, or was it for the chicken (which was right below)?

It's for the chicken... Don't cut your stock!

Thanks for the recipe Adam...made it last night and it was a smashing success. I used harissa instead of chili paste because that's what I had on hand, and oh man, HOTTTT! But good hot. Also added a nest of celphane noodles to the bottom of each bowl to make it heartier. Menu for Hope is a great project.

you really shouldn't use your dishwasher to clean your knives!

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