Tom kha, without a doubt, is one of my favorite dishes in the world. I love it- it seems as though I’m always craving a bowl. No matter the time of year, a bowl of this slightly sweet, slightly salty, slightly spicy coconut soup brings me and my belly joy. It’s the perfect balance of all things I love, together, in one little happy bowl.
I’ve been making this soup the same way for years… with modifications here and there as I learn new tips and tricks. (See my stove-top version HERE– it’s just veggies, no chicken, though you could easily change that if you wanted.) Some traditional tom kha ingredients can prove tough to find, so I’ve come up with substitutions that work well when needed.
For example, galangal, which is what “kha” means in Thai actually, is a root in the ginger family, so if you can’t find galangal root, use ginger instead. Kaffir lime leaves can be tricky too… they’re usually in a little rectangular box hanging in the fresh herbs section of the store, if the store has them that is. Some may have a frozen paste or some dried version of sorts, but I’d skip those personally and stick to all things fresh. Instead, I use lime zest when I can’t find leaves. It’s not entirely the same, but it works. Thai chiles, particularly Bird’s Eye, can be a toughy too, so I use the dried ones (usually kept in bags near other dried chiles), or often, just a chopped fresh Serrano pepper when I can’t find any Thai chiles. These may not be traditional choices, but sometimes, we just gotta do what we gotta do. When in Rome. 😉
I went to Thailand a couple of months ago for my honeymoon- it had been a dream of mine for nearly a decade, so it was pretty exciting for this little Thai food lover! I fell in love with the place just as much, if not more, than I’d expected… my only disappointment was not getting to stay longer (which we tried by the way, damn those crazy ticket change fees!). And wouldn’t you know it, tom kha was one of the first things I ran to upon my arrival. I was dying to know if what I’d loved my whole life at home was anything like the real thing.
I was stunned. I would even go as far as to say I was feeling proud of the United States Thai restaurant scene… we tend to botch the classics from other cultures pretty severely. But the Thai, this was different! I honestly felt like the Thai food I knew from home- the pad thai, the curries, the tom kha… was actually pretty close to what I had over there. Awesome job, U.S., you’re killing it on the Thai!
So yes, I got some tom kha as soon as I landed… and my heart happily pattered. It was scrum-diddly-umptious, as always, to quote Ned Flanders.
So this is my Natalie-version, but made in the Crock Pot- same style I’ve always done, but with the added knowledge and love recently gained on my ventures in Thailand. Hope you enjoy.
Want to switch things up? No prob- that’s the beauty of soups. You can add in whatever you crave! “Gai” means chicken, which is why this is a tom kha gai, but you could make it with shrimp, just veggies, or with whatever else you like too. Just make sure you get that base of lemongrass, galangal, coconut, and lime in there!
makes approx 6 servings
2 cans coconut milk (28 oz total, not light)
1 qt chicken stock (homemade or good quality store-bought)
approx 1.5 lbs thinly sliced chicken breasts (see note below)
4 dried bird’s eye chiles (or one fresh, or a chopped Serrano if easier to find)
2 limes, juiced, plus 1 lime cut into wedges for garnish
4 kaffir lime leaves (or lime zest, see note below)
1 lemongrass stalk
4 slices fresh galangal or ginger, about 1/2 inch thick
2 tsp fish sauce (or salt if preferred), plus more as desired
1 large handful baby shiitake mushrooms, approx 15-20 (oyster or straw work well, too)
1 small sweet pepper, thinly sliced- optional- cook in soup or use as garnish
1 cup water chestnuts
1 cup snap peas
1/2 cup chopped green onions
handful chopped cilantro, plus more for garnish
to garnish: fresh basil (preferably Thai), cilantro, lime wedges, crushed red pepper or sriracha (for some spice), and some sliced pepper or a whole chile if desired for presentation
*for chicken- use boneless/skinless to get even thin pieces- preferable aesthetically. Some people prefer bone-in though, as it adds more flavor- in that case, add in the whole piece, then once done, pull apart the meat and remove the skin and bones from the soup.
*there’s no perfect substitution for kaffir leaves, but they can be tricky to find… if you can’t get your hands on lime leaves, use 1 tbsp of lime zest instead, about two limes worth. (You can use the zest and juice from the same limes.)
*for variations, try adding in bamboo shoots, rice, shrimp, mini corn… or get creative!
Prep and chop all ingredients…
A note about lemongrass: I have always smashed the stalk with the flat side of a knife,
removed any tough outer layers, then chopped it into thirds or quarters- this helps
make it easy to remove once cooked- flavors are in, lemongrass isn’t
Then I went to Thailand…
There, the lemongrass was chopped into teeny bits, as seen above, so I tried this at home
My personal opinion: while it adds flavor to chop it up more, the little pieces are very tough
to chew and tough to remove, so the larger pieces that can be easily removed are preferred instead
Add the coconut milk, chicken broth, lime, galangal/ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves,
fish sauce, chiles, lime juice, chicken, mushrooms, and sweet pepper (is using) to the pot
Cook on high for approx 3 hours or on low for 5 to 7 hours
Add the water chestnuts, green onions, and a small handful of fresh cilantro leaves
If adding anything extra, such as bamboo, mini corn, etc, add them now
Let it all cook in there for approx 10-15 minutes more, to let the recent additions settle in
Taste and season as desired- add crushed red pepper or sriracha for an extra kick 🙂
(Especially with Crock Pot soups, it can be tricky to know how things will turn out once cooked, so it’s always best to start on the safe side, then add more in the end as needed. Since chicken broths vary in salt levels, chiles range in heat, etc, better to be safe than sorry… this may need some sprucing up depending on those various factors. You may want more fish sauce, more spice, or maybe even some sweet- some people like to add honey in to sweeten their tom kha up. Do what you need to make you happy!)
Before serving, remove lemongrass stalks, lime leaves, any whole chiles and ginger chunks
Alternatively, you can ladle it up as is and let people pick things out as they wish
Add in the peas just before serving
Ladle soup into bowls, then top with fresh basil (it really is so good in this!), cilantro,
more crushed red pepper or sriracha, and some sliced red pepper if desired