This is by far the most comforting Thai dish I know, a warm and completely delicious soup that cooks up in next to no time.


Slice chicken thinly and set aside. Chop the chiles finely (remove the seeds for less heat), cut the lemongrass into 1/2-inch lengths, tear the lime leaves into pieces, and cut the galangal into 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick slices; set all of these aside.

Combine coconut milk and water in a large pot. Warm over medium heat, stirring, but do not allow to boil. (A little bubbling is okay, but a rolling boil will kill the flavour.) Add the chiles, lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal and cook for 2 minutes, stirring once or twice. Add the chicken and mushrooms and cook for 3 minutes or until chicken is cooked through. (If you've sliced it thinly enough, it shouldn't take this long.) Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, and chili oil and cook for 1 minute. If desired, add chili paste to taste.

Serve immediately. Do not eat the lemongrass, lime leaves, or galangal, but they should be left in the soup even after serving to continue to add flavour.


Vegans may omit the chicken and substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce.

Lemongrass, Thai chiles, lime leaves, and galangal may be difficult to find if you don't have a half-decent Asian grocery nearby. If necessary, substitute 2 tablespoons of lemon juice for the lemongrass, 3-4 serrano chiles for the Thai chiles, 1 tablespoon of lime juice for the lime leaves, and 1 inch of ginger for the galangal.

If allergies or salt intake are a problem, replace the fish sauce with an equal amount of reduced-sodium soy sauce.

Thailand has two really famous soups: tom yam (or tom yum) and tom kha gai (or tom kha kai). Both are complex and delicious, filled with exotic aromas and flavours. Such is the genius of Thai cuisine that although the two soups contain many of the same ingredients, their characters are completely distinct: tom yam takes on a fiery heat and slight sourness from the addition of tamarind chili sauce (nam prik phao), while tom kha gai is silky smooth because of the inclusion of sweet and mellow coconut milk. I love them both, but this one is my favourite. The recipe above is pretty good, but not mine is a little different (and more authentic in both ingredients and method.

A note on the name: tom means boil or boiled in Thai, kha is galangal or galanga, and gai or kai is chicken, so this is something like "boiled galangal chicken"; elsewhere on e2 this soup has been referred to as galanga curry. More usually on menus in Thai restaurants it's something like coconut chicken soup. Yam, by the way, means mix, so tom yam is "boiled mixed", hardly a good translation of what is more generally referred to as spicy sour soup.

What you'll need

What to do

Note: We all know that homemade stock will give the best results, but in this soup, plain water will do in a pinch. That's because of the aromatics - lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, coriander roots - which impart amazing aroma and flavour. Note that they are not meant to be eaten; Thai people know this, and so just push these sticks and leaves to the side when they encounter them in their soup. If it bothers you to have inedible chunks in your soup, put them in a cloth bag or piece of cheesecloth so they won't be floating about in the finished product.

On to the soup. Bring the stock to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pot and add the aromatics, free or bound in a bag. Then turn the heat down and simmer (don't boil), uncovered, for 10 minutes or so to bring out their flavour. Things should start to smell good.

Add the fish sauce and coconut milk and increase the heat slightly, but don't let it boil or the coconut milk will curdle. That's the only tricky thing about this recipe.

Add the chicken and cook for about 5 minutes, till the flesh is mostly cooked, then add the mushrooms and cook till they soften, perhaps 3 or 4 minutes.

Now the soup is almost ready. Stir in the lime juice and sugar. Whack the chilis once or twice with a chef's knife or pestle to release their oils, and plunge them into the soup. I recommend leaving them in for up to 1 minute and then removing them; it will only take one eaten by mistake to convince you that this removal is a good idea. These babies are hot. Also, if you've put your aromatics in a bag, remove them too.

Garnish the soup with chopped coriander and scallion and eat.

In Thailand this soup is served in a large doughnut-shaped pot with a flame burning underneath; the intent is to keep the soup warm as you proceed through your meal. Nice touch, but who has such a thing here? I serve the soup in a large bowl, and give each diner a small bowl and one of those flat-bottomed Chinese soup spoons and ladle a little out for each person, explaining about the twigs and leaves you're not supposed to eat.

As with most Thai dishes, this soup is not a separate course, but one of the many dishes that grace the dinner table, to be eaten with jasmine rice and whatever other wonderful dishes strike your fancy, such as a stir fry or two or a curry. I personally wouldn't serve this with a curry that contains coconut milk - too much of a good thing - but any other Thai dish will help round out this soup and make an amazing meal that will wow yourself and your guests.

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