Tom Kha Soup

For some people, cooler weather signals a reinvigorated time of baking. However, even though (and maybe because) I have a sweet tooth, I try to resist the call of the flour-and-sugar sirens. Years of blood sugar crashes finally soured me on the temporary euphoria associated with baked goods. (You can still like sweet stuff without courting “white death”. Try maple syrup, coconut syrup, agave and local honey that supports – not exploits – the bees).

It took me a long time to step away from the sugar. One trick was to tantalize my taste buds with herbs/spices. Our palates are designed to enjoy a diversity of tastes. But with our current culture and diet, most of us have limited access or exposure to a wide variety of healthy foods – and tastes. (Case in point: On a trip five years ago, I was astonished when our tour guide told us that Peru grows nearly 4,000 varieties of potatoes! Whaaat?)

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) lists five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty. (Ayurvedic adds a sixth: astringent.) These five tastes correspond with the Five Phases: Spring (sour), Summer (bitter), Late Summer (sweet), Autumn (pungent), and Winter (salty). Each flavor contains properties that ameliorate conditions commonly found in that season. For example, in TCM Autumn is associated with Cold and marks the beginning of the cold and flu season. Pungent herbs like garlic and ginger not only pack a flavor punch, but also assist our bodies with volatile and aromatic oils that are antimicrobial, carminative (good for digestion), diaphoretic (opens pores for perspiration), and expectorant (thins fluids to pass more easily through pores and channels). That’s why so many traditionally-served dishes are so good for us. Soups, stews, curries, and even stir-fries are replete with ingredients that serve our body’s greater good, and bonus! taste amazing.

One of my favorite soups to make in the fall and winter is Tom Kha (Thai coconut) soup. Its immune-boosting and beneficial herbs include lemongrass (good for fevers and headaches), cilantro (controversial with certain palates, but full of antioxidants), garlic (antimicrobial), and ginger (too many health benefits to count, including shortening the duration of cold/flu). It’s so much more enjoyable to eat your medicine than to take it from a medicine cabinet after you’re sick .

Below is the recipe I use for Tom Kha. Remember, it’s soup! There are no hard and fast rules (except step #3 – trust me on that one). It’s very forgiving and you can customize it with what you’d like. Don’t want chicken? Use salmon, shrimp or tofu. Or just stick with mushrooms like the more traditional variety. Trying to eat more veggies? Soup is a good place to hide them if you or someone you love is a little veggie-shy.

Tom Kha (Thai Coconut) Soup

32 ounces broth (ideally bone broth, but chicken or vegetable is OK)
3 (13.5-ounce) cans regular coconut milk
2 big stalks lemongrass, sliced in large pieces (try lemongrass tea in a pinch)
1/4 cup fish sauce (or soy sauce, if vegan)
2 tablespoons tamari (or soy sauce)
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup lime juice
1/4 cup minced ginger (or ginger paste because there’s a lot of chopping!)
8 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, sliced (or button mushrooms, if that’s what you can find)
3 green onions, chopped
1 tablespoon Thai green curry paste
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped (you can even use the stems)
Other options: Add chicken for Tom Kha Gai soup. Use 2 medium skinless chicken breasts or 4 skinless chicken thighs, shredded or cubed. Or try adding other veggies like spinach, kale, baby bok choy, or carrots.

  1. Heat the bone broth and coconut milk in a large pot.
  2. After the broth and milk are heated, add the lemongrass, fish sauce, tamari, apple cider vinegar, lime juice, ginger and garlic.
  3. Bring broth to a slow simmer. Make sure it doesn’t boil, and do not cover it during cooking.
  4. When the broth is simmering, add mushrooms, green curry paste, and any other optional ingredients.
  5. When vegetables are tender (or if using chicken, once it’s cooked fully), add the cilantro. Cook for another minute, taste, and add more lime juice if needed.

This recipe makes a ton of soup. Stick the leftovers in the fridge and reheat on the stove (without the lid). I think the flavors improve over time!

Recipe adapted from