My introduction to Tom Kah Gai was courtesy of a little Thai takeaway on La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles. I will never forget that first sip of broth which rocked my taste buds with an explosion of flavor. More than twenty-five years later, it remains my favorite soup. In Thailand, it is eaten with rice, much like a curry, but personally, I prefer slurping it all up with a spoon!

My recipe has evolved over the years, with slight variations on the real deal. As with any recipe, you can adapt it to your own liking, and one adaptation I’ve made is a substitution for fish sauce. If you’re a Tom Kah Gai fan, I can see your brow furrow… BUT, on a recent trip to the market, I happened to turn the bottle around when comparing two differently priced brands of fish sauce. In all of these years I had never bothered to look at the sodium content. I was horrified to see that both brands contained over 1300 milligrams of sodium per TABLESPOON. And I use TWO! That set me on a mission.

Just what is fish sauce anyway? As it turns out, it’s basically anchovies, water, sugar, and salt. So… Why not throw a few anchovies into the soup? Bingo! No appreciable difference in taste and only 500 milligrams of sodium!

The one substitution you CANNOT make is the galangal root. Many people omit it in favor of ginger, possibly because it’s hard to find. If there is not a Thai market near you, try ordering it online, along with the kaffir lime leaves, which can also be difficult to obtain. I add a little ginger in addition to the galangal root, simply because I like the taste.

The other thing you must not do is BOIL this soup. Coconut milk clots and curdles easily. Be very gentle with it. I like to infuse the soup with all of the magical flavors of its exotic ingredients by steeping it on low heat, then straining it back into the pot, discarding the bits you don’t actually eat.

4 cups coconut milk
3 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 onion, peeled and quartered
2 stalks lemon grass, cut into two inch lengths
6 kaffir lime leaves
1 egg-sized piece of galangal root, peeled and sliced
1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
6 Thai chiles
3 anchovies
3 large sprigs fresh Thai basil – plus more for garnish
1 bunch cilantro, chopped – save some for garnish
1 large chicken breast, thinly sliced
2 cups mushrooms (use your favorites!)
2 small carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal
2 tomatoes, seeded and roughly chopped
1/2 cup baby corn
2 1/2 tbsp coconut sugar (or brown sugar)
2 tbsp Chile Paste
6-8 tbsp fresh lime juice (use Kefir limes or key limes, if you can find them; if not, regular limes will do)
salt, to taste

Method: In a stockpot, combine the coconut milk and chicken broth and set on low heat. Add the lemon grass, onion, 3 chiles, split in half, the anchovies, ginger, galangal root, and kaffir leaves, crushed and torn in half. Steep on low heat for 1/2 hour, uncovered, then remove from heat, cover, and allow to steep for an additional half hour.

While the broth is steeping, thinly slice the chicken with a sharp knife and prepare the vegetables. Strain the broth into a soup pot and bring to a simmer. Add chile paste and sugar and stir to dissolve. Add lime juice, 2 tbsp at a time, tasting as you go. Add the chicken and vegetables with the remaining three chiles and simmer on LOW until desired doneness (approximately 30-40 minutes). Adjust seasoning, then add cilantro and basil and remove from heat. Serve with a garnish of basil.

Total Prep and Cooking Time: 2 hours

Serves: Four 12 oz bowls

Cooking Tip: To achieve easy, thin slices: Cut the chicken in half, lengthwise, and freeze for one hour before slicing.

Tom Kai Gai
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