Thai food is some of the most delicious anywhere, but it still seems to be one of the lost gems of the food world. Too many people don’t know much about Thai foods, much less know how to make them for themselves at home. 

Tom Yum and Tom Kha are two delicious soups that are perfect for just about any occasion, meal, or type of weather, but they can be intimidating for home chefs looking to make them for the first time. 

Here are the key differences between Tom Yum and Tom Kha, along with some key hints on how to make 

Tom YumTom Kha
Key FlavorsLemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal or ginger, shrimp, chili pasteCoconut, chicken, lemongrass, and galangal or ginger, curry
Heat LevelHot (unless modified)Spicy, but not overwhelming (coconut milk mellows the heat considerably)
Cooking DifficultyModerateModerate

What is Tom Yum

Tom yum is one of the quintessential Thai soups, known for its clear or red-hued broth, intense and layered flavors, and being one of the most light-calorie soups out there. It’s pleasantly refreshing, perfect for hot summer days (despite the heat of the spices and peppers), and can be easily customized with different vegetables and meats depending on your preferences. 

The most common version of Tom Yum is a slightly tart, citrusy, herby broth with a lot of spice, and lightened a bit by the vegetables. It’s most commonly made with shrimp for the primary protein, but almost any other protein can be used in place of shrimp. Chicken is a particularly good option, but pork also works if you want a slightly richer flavor. 

Different Types of Tom Yum

The main differences between versions of Tom Yum are relatively simple, coming down to variations between family recipes, heat levels, and the type of protein you choose. One of the nice things about Thai cuisine is since it’s an island cuisine, a lot of the regional dishes are more well-known and standardized. 

Milder versions of the soup are also substantially different, but that’s because there isn’t as much depth and layering possible when you reduce the spice level. 

How Do You Make Tom Yum? 

Tom yum soup is surprisingly simple to make, you start with the broth, and that’s where you’re going to spend most of your time. The best tom yum features well-cooked vegetables and protein, but not overcooked or mushy. 

It can be tempting to skip the sugar in a good tom yum soup to make it even lighter and healthier. Don’t. Not only is the soup relatively light on sugar, but it’s important to help remove some of the bitterness from the soup and also helps to balance out the heat to make it tolerable. 

Delicious Tom Yum Ingredients

Tom yum variations come through the protein and companion vegetables you choose, rather than the broth. Options include fresh basil leaves, tomatoes, mushrooms (shitake and straw mushrooms are particularly good) bamboo shoots, baby corn, onion or shallots, cilantro, and any other mushroom that’s relatively sturdy and heats well. 

Cucumber might be good in cold Thai dishes, but it gets too bitter for this soup when heated. Zucchini could be an interesting addition though! 

Great Tom Yum Recipes You Should Try

Food Network has an excellent version of Tom Yum, that has an incredibly fast cooking time. Just be warned, this version comes with a good amount of heat. You can reduce the number of Thai chili peppers to cut the heat a bit. 

Or, you can go with a slightly more savory version of Tom Yum from The Woks Of Life. 

What Is Tom Kha (or Tom Kha Gai)?

If you love the flavors and layers of Thai cooking but are looking for a slightly creamier less intense soup that’s slightly sweet, plenty spicy, and deliciously savory, Tom Kha is a great option. 

The sweetness of this soup comes primarily from the addition of coconut milk, which also helps to balance and cut the spice compared with Tom Yum soup. 

The differences between Tom Yum and Tom Kha are relatively subtle though. Tom Kha often calls for more galangal or ginger flavor than lemongrass, where Tom Yum tends to be more lemongrass than galangal. Tom Kha also often comes with more mushrooms, which add umami, and fewer other vegetables since adding too many can dilute the sweetness. 

Lime is also a little more diluted in Tom Kha, thanks to the creaminess of the coconut milk. 

Different Styles Of Tom Kha

Like Tom Yum, there aren’t too many variations of Tom Kha and none that are significant enough to call for a unique name. The biggest differences are in the proteins, with the most common versions of the soup being made with chicken or seafood. There are a lot of different kinds of seafood, and seafood mixes, that pair well with Tom Kha, so you can play around with different combinations till you find one you enjoy. 

How Do You Make Tom Kha? 

The trick with Tom Kha is getting all of the flavor into the broth before you add the coconut milk. The added fats in coconut milk can make flavor absorption much slower, so you want almost all the flavor to already be there before you add the milk. 

Fish sauce and palm or brown sugar are also musts with this dish since they really help bring out the other flavors. A light hand with both ingredients is also important though. Fish sauce can quickly make the soup too salty, while too much palm sugar leads to a soup that tastes more like dessert than dinner. 

For a vegetarian or vegan version of this soup, you can switch to vegetable broth instead of chicken or seafood, and add tomatoes to complement the umami in the mushrooms. You may also want to reduce the sugar for vegan and vegetarian versions since there won’t be as much umami to balance it. 

Tom Kha Gai Ingredients and Toppings To Experiment With

The most important ingredients for Thom Kha are the chicken, or other protein, coconut milk, and galangal root. 

If you can’t get galangal from your local grocery store, it’s worth a trip to the local Asian supermarket to try there. The Kha in Tom Kha soup refers to galangal. While ginger is similar, the galangal is a much more authentic flavor. While you’re there, try to find fresh kaffir lime leaves. Regular lime works almost as well, but kaffir lime is slightly sweeter and more floral, which adds layers to the dish. 

For a more savory soup, consider adding eggplant, tomatoes, or both. Both are a good addition to vegan and vegetarian versions. 

For mushrooms, consider experimenting with a range of savory options. Shitake mushrooms offer a lot of flavor, but might not be as well balanced as other milder mushrooms like Straw or even white mushrooms. Portobello mushrooms are a good, and easy-to-find option, but they can be a slightly strong flavor depending on your taste preferences. 

Top Tom Kha Recipes You’re Sure To Love

If you’re looking for a fantastic authentic recipe, and good substitution options if you can’t find the specialty Thai ingredients, Hot Thai Kitchen has a fun and easy Tom Kha recipe for you to try. Or you could go to Bon Appetit, with both Chicken and Salmon versions of this iconic soup. 

Wrapping Up: What are the key differences between Tom Yum and Tom Kha Gai? 

Both of these Thai soups are delicious, complex, and nutrient-packed. They both work well as a main dish or as a starter, and both can be made at home with the help of a handful of specialty ingredients from your local Asian supermarket or have easy-to-make substitutions that offer nearly authentic flavor. 

Here are some of the differences:

  • Tom Yum is much spicier, and has a clear broth. 
  • Tom Kha uses coconut milk to stabilize and mellow the flavors, making it both sweeter and slightly heavier. 
  • While both soups can be made with a variety of proteins, tom yum usually calls for shrimp, while tom kha is commonly made with chicken. 
  • The balance of aromatic herbs and spices is slightly different between the soups, despite having a similar ingredient list. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: Which is healthier, Tom Yum or Tom Kha Gai

On a surface level, Tom Yum is generally the healthier of the two thanks to its incredibly low-calorie load, and the absence of heavy fats from coconut milk. However, both soups can be considered healthy as part of a healthy diet. Tom Kha Gai’s addition of coconut milk provides a lot of key nutrients in addition to more calories and fats, though you should be careful to eat with moderation and not have too many high-fat meals in a row if you’re looking for a balanced diet. 

Q2: Which is the best Thai Soup for getting better from being sick? 

Both of these soups can be great options when you’re sick. The capsaicin and heat can help you feel better, and both soups are packed with nutrients that give your body what it needs to recover. 

However, tom kha is probably better for people who are looking for a comforting meal, while tom yum is a good addition for brighter spicier cravings, or when you want something a little lighter. 

Q3: Why are Tom Kha and Tom Yum so good? 

There are a lot of reasons why these soups are so delicious for so many people. For one thing, the unique blend of spices and flavors packs a huge nutrient punch. Both of these soups include a ton of nutrients that might not be in other foods. 

They are also very well-balanced foods, with key nutrients from most of the main food groups. 

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