Unfussy Fare

Thai Chicken and Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Gai)


This one goes out to everyone who ever brought food when the chips were down. I may have forgotten to write a note, given everything. I’m sure you were busy. It took forethought. You had to find that recipe, get groceries, and cook. Then you had to transport it all, which can be messy. You probably wondered if you’d ever get your Tupperware back. It was good of you.

Years ago, when my mother was dying, people brought food. There were casseroles and brownies, homegrown tomatoes and pots of soup. I was mystified. Did they really think we could eat, at a time like that? Well, yes. They knew we could. Everyone eventually does, inconceivable as it seems. I felt like a traitor, eating while my irrepressible mother was slipping away. But she would’ve rolled her eyes at that sentiment, and reminded me that life is hard enough without my efforts to make it harder.

Years later, my husband and I welcomed a son. Dinner came to our doorstep every night for weeks, courtesy of friends and neighbors. I wept with thankfulness. I wept a lot in those days, but that’s another story. I can still taste those meals, seasoned as they were with naked gratitude. I missed my Mom. I needed help. And help arrived, wrapped in foil and kindness.

Birth and death are demanding. They just swoop right and in and put their feet up, blithely flicking away the orderly unfolding of our days. We are tender and tired as we attend our loved ones at the beginning and the end. We sing and stroke. We wash and feed. The clock ceases to provide useful information. These are the rhythms of lives, not days. In the midst of these marathons of nurture, gifts of food stand in simple relief. Meals arrive like little missives from the world where the clock still applies, like souvenirs of simpler times. It’s hard to remember simpler times when you’re in the thick of life’s seismic upheavals. Food gives strength, and comfort.

A family friend dropped this soup by for me and my stepfather when my mom was sick. We were dazed by the unfolding loss. My memories of that time are foggy, but I recall thinking this soup was the most delicious thing I ever tasted.  I wouldn’t have thought it possible to even notice a bowl of soup just then, never mind enjoy it. But I savored every bite. It served to remind me that a world outside of sorrow still existed. Life would be there, with all its flavors and delights, when the time came to gather up the fragments of my broken heart and look forward again.

To this day, the complicated interplay of flavors in Tom Kha Gai puts me in mind of nurture, solace, and motherhood. When I know someone with a new baby, or an illness, or a death in the family, this is the dish I most often bring. I pass it on with thanks, for all the grace and sustenance.

I get a lot of requests for this recipe, which is the true measure of any dish’s popularity, if you ask me. This soup somehow manages to be feisty and harmonious at the same time. It’s interesting enough to impress foodie types, but simple and comforting enough to appeal to less adventurous eaters. (You might need to explain to the aforementioned “less adventurous eaters” that the big stalks of lemongrass and discs of ginger floating around in the soup aren’t meant to be eaten. They’re just adding flavor.) Sometimes I throw in cooked basmati rice at the end. That may be some kind of Thai-food no-no, but I find chicken and rice a soothing combination.


makes four generous servings

1 stalk lemongrass (Available at most grocery stores these days.)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced small
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Thai red curry paste (Also available at most groceries.)
6 quarter-inch wide slices fresh ginger
3 kaffir lime leaves (Not available at most groceries. I usually substitute ½ teaspoon grated lime peel.)
4 cups chicken stock
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced with the grain into quarter-inch wide strips.
2 cups shitake mushrooms, stemmed, caps quartered
1 14-ounce can coconut milk (Don’t use low-fat. Trust me. I tried it.)
Juice of two limes (about five tablespoons)
2 tablespoons nam pla (AKA fish sauce, also available in most groceries these days.)
3 green onions, trimmed and sliced into ¼ inch pieces
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Trim lemongrass, cut into three pieces about four inches long. Whack the pieces with the flat side of your knife blade to crush slightly.

Heat oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat.

Saute onion and garlic for about two minutes.

Add lemongrass, curry paste, ginger discs, and lime leaf (or peel). Cook, stirring, for three minutes.

Add stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 15 minutes.

Add coconut milk, chopped chicken and quartered mushroom caps. Cook five minutes, or until chicken is just cooked through.

Add lime juice and nam pla. Taste for balance between nam pla and lime. If one flavor is dominating too much, add a little of the other.

Garnish with green onion and cilantro.


23 Responses to “Thai Chicken and Coconut Soup (Tom Kha Gai)”

  1. Jud Landis says:

    Beautiful, sublime. I bow in awe, tearfully.

  2. Pam Rokke says:

    A very poignant and well written story, Gil. Your mom was so special. I will definitely try this soup. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Pamela Perry says:

    This was THE BEST SOUP I’ve ever eaten. Thank You.

  4. hungry dog says:

    What a lovely post. I remember having the same thoughts when my dad died many years ago and people brought food. At first I thought it was strange but then I realized it was thoughtful and practical both. Food does give strength and comfort, both very needed during tough times.

    This recipe looks wonderful. I esp like the photo of the handwritten original.

  5. Pamela Perry says:

    Day two of the soup and it only gets better.

  6. Gillian says:

    Thanks, Jud. You’ve been a steady friend through all of it.
    Thanks, Mrs. R. My Mom loved you.
    And Pamela! Best Soup Ever! That’s high praise! I’m thrilled you try my recipes, and even more thrilled when you like them.
    Hungry Dog: Thanks. I have this little book that I used to hand-write “keeper” recipes in, but it’s been neglected since I mostly print recipes out from blogs and epicurious these days. It still holds a place in my heart, though.

  7. S. says:

    This is such a lovely, thoughtful post about your mother.
    My mother passed away several years ago, and the food that I was surrounded with helped soothe me during a difficult time.
    the soup looks wonderful. I’ve started making Thai food myself at home, so this will definitely be on my to-make list :O)

  8. Olga says:

    Just wanted to let you know that you’ve inspired me to make this for dinner! I don’t think i’ll necessarily follow the recipe, but will use similar flavors!

  9. Gillian says:

    S: So glad I struck a chord about the importance of food at those pivotal moments. I hope you like the soup!

    Ogla: Recipes were made to be broken. Or is that rules? Regardless, I’m sure your dinner will be delicious. You can’t really go wrong with lime juice and fish sauce.

  10. Kari D says:

    There are two truisms in life…1) that even as it begins, it will eventually end, and 2) when either occur (or when other disasters happen in the lives of those we know; heart attacks, broken legs, stupid boy/girl friends) the women in my family cook. Perhaps it is the way we attempt to control things that are beyond our control; perhaps it is because even when we can not physically BE THERE we hope the food we make with love will transend the distance and give the hugs we so long to share. I have been the giver and receiver of gifts of food in good and bad times. I marvel at the way people share their love through homemade macaroni and cheese or veggie soup, made all the more delicious because of the caring that accompanies the dish. Thank you for sharing your experience and the wonderful recipe. Can not wait to try it, without the impending disaster attached, and will lovingly add it to the repetoire of food gifts that tell the receiver “made with love.”

  11. Gillian says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Kari D. Nuture and cooking go hand in hand, and we’re all the better for it.

  12. gaga says:

    One of my favorite soups, but I’ve never made it myself. Looks fantastic!

  13. sonya says:

    I’ll try this tonite! Yum.

  14. sonya says:

    Oh, also, I sympathize with you about the grievous time in which this soup came to you. Your words resonate so much.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  15. Gillian says:

    Thanks, Sonya. How did your soup turn out? – Gillian

  16. Corrie says:

    Gillian, last week I made this soup and it is so tasty. I ended up having to substitute green curry paste for red because the onions were already cooking when I realized I was out of red paste :( In any case, it was still incredible. Cheers to you!

  17. Gillian says:

    Corrie: So glad you liked it! I’m sure the green curry paste is good, too. I’ve never met a Thai curry I didn’t like.

  18. Tara says:

    beautiful, Gillian.

  19. Jane says:

    Hi Gillian, I stumbled on your website looking for a wholesome soup. I got alot more than I expected from your site. Thank you for sharing the time with your mum, it took me back to a similar situation in 2001 with my own mum. I will now have to try and purchase the produce to make this soup, although here in Murcia, Spain it may prove a little difficult!

  20. Gillian says:

    Thanks, Jane. I hope you can find the ingredients! I’ve been meaning to post another soup I love, a simple fish soup with wine and tomatoes that’s out of this world. The ingredients are probably available where you are. In honor of your search for a wholesome soup, I’ll do it soon.

  21. [...] KHA GAI SOUP (Chicken and Coconut Soup) – based on this recipe Lemon [...]

  22. Jenni says:

    Making this tonight, the pot is on and all the veggies are in the house smells so good! Thanks for the recipe!

  23. Derek Johnson says:

    I made this tonight. It went over well. I used the lime rind instead of the Kafir leaves. I also added Rice Vermicelli right at the end. Great recipe!

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