Thailand, with its vibrant street food culture and aromatic dishes, offers a culinary experience that is rich and incredibly diverse. At the heart of Thai cuisine are its soups, the most iconic of which are Tom Yum and Tom Kha. Both soups are celebrated for their complex flavor profiles that epitomize the balance of sour, sweet, salty, and spicy that Thai cuisine is famous for. While they share commonalities, the differences between them make each unique and worth exploring in its own right.

What is Tom Yum?

Tom Yum, or Tom Yam, is a hot and sour soup that is a staple in Thai cuisine. The name ‘Tom Yum’ is derived from two Thai words: ‘Tom,’ which refers to the boiling process, and ‘Yum,’ a term describing the spicy and sour salad flavor.

Typically, Tom Yum is made with prawns (Tom Yum Goong) but can also be prepared with chicken, fish, or mixed seafood. The soup gets its distinctive flavor from a broth infused with fragrant herbs like lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and often, fiery bird’s eye chilies. Tom Yum is usually garnished with fresh coriander and served with a wedge of lime for an added burst of tanginess.

The clear Tom Yum Nam Sai vs the creamy or red Tom Yum Nam Khon

Clear Tom Yum (Tom Yum Nam Sai) offers an intense, sharp flavor profile, with the sour, spicy, and umami tastes standing out due to the absence of coconut milk. Its consistency is light, resembling a broth, which allows the individual textures of ingredients like shrimp and mushrooms to shine.

In contrast, the creamy Tom Yum (Tom Yum Nam Khon) presents a more balanced and complex flavor profile, with the coconut milk softening the acidity and heat, and adding a touch of sweetness. This version has a smoother, creamier texture and appearance, providing a richer sensory experience.

In essence, the choice between clear and creamy Tom Yum depends on whether you prefer a sharp, intense flavor and light texture, or a richer, more balanced flavor and creamy texture.

What does Tom Yum Taste like?

When prepared as a clear soup (Tom Yum Nam Sai), its taste is often compared to a sharply flavored, hot and sour broth. The punchy citrusy tang of lime juice and kaffir lime leaves is reminiscent of the sourness you might find in a Mexican lime soup. The heat from the Thai bird chilies is similar to the spice level in a spicy Szechuan hot pot, and the umami depth from fish sauce evokes the savory richness of a well-cooked miso soup.

In contrast, when Tom Yum is prepared with coconut milk (Tom Yum Nam Khon), its flavor profile becomes more balanced and complex. The addition of coconut milk mutes the sharpness of the sour and spicy elements, and introduces a sweet, creamy note to the soup. This version could be likened to a spicier, tangier version of a Thai green curry in terms of the creamy, comforting depth it imparts.

In some variations, Tom Yum can also include a hint of sweetness, either from a small amount of sugar or naturally sweet vegetables like cherry tomatoes. This slight sweetness combined with the other bold flavors can draw comparisons to the sweet-and-sour balance found in a tamarind-based Pad Thai.

Finally, the use of aromatic herbs like lemongrass and galangal gives Tom Yum an earthy, refreshing quality that can be likened to the herby freshness found in Vietnamese pho.

What is Tom Kha?

Tom Kha is another beloved Thai soup that combines sour, sweet, and salty flavors. The name ‘Tom Kha’ translates to ‘boiled galangal, indicating one of the key ingredients in the soup.

While Tom Kha can be made with various proteins, the traditional version features chicken (Tom Kha Gai). What sets this soup apart is the addition of coconut milk, which gives Tom Kha a creamy consistency and a rich, slightly sweet taste. The soup also includes a blend of Thai herbs like lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves, similar to Tom Yum, but is generally milder due to the tempering effect of the coconut milk.

What does Tom Kha Taste Like?

In its classic form, Tom Kha Gai (chicken coconut soup), the taste is somewhat reminiscent of a creamy chicken soup, but with a tropical twist. The use of coconut milk gives the soup a rich and creamy base, somewhat akin to a mild Thai green curry, but lighter. The chicken contributes a savory depth that’s somewhat like a milder version of chicken pot pie, but with an exotic touch due to the unique blend of Thai herbs.

The lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal lend a citrusy, fresh, and slightly peppery note to the soup, akin to the vibrant flavors you might find in a refreshing lemongrass tea or a zesty ginger-lime drink. The combination of these elements results in a complex flavor profile that balances creaminess, umami, and refreshing citrusy notes.

The spiciness of Tom Kha can be adjusted based on personal preference. When a good amount of Thai bird chilies are added, the spiciness becomes more pronounced, similar to the heat you’d find in a spicy red curry. If the chilies are omitted or reduced, the soup remains flavorful but much milder, allowing the other flavors to shine through more prominently.

Variations of Tom Kha can include shrimp (Tom Kha Goong) or tofu (Tom Kha Tofu). When prepared with shrimp, the soup takes on a delicate, sweet, and briny flavor somewhat like a creamy shrimp bisque, but with a Thai twist. The tofu variation, on the other hand, is milder in taste and could be likened to a creamy miso soup with a tropical, citrusy edge.

In all its forms, Tom Kha is a heartwarming, creamy soup that offers a delightful mix of savory, sweet, and tangy flavors, complemented by the warmth of spices and the freshness of Thai herbs.

Main Differences

Key Ingredients

While both soups use similar aromatic herbs, Tom Kha includes coconut milk, giving it a creamier texture and a richer, sweeter flavor compared to the clear, tangy broth of Tom Yum.

Traditional Tom Kha Ingredients

  1. Chicken. Traditionally boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs are used, cut into small, bite-sized pieces.
  2. Coconut milk. This is one of the main ingredients that gives Tom Kha Gai its distinctive flavor. Full-fat coconut milk is often used for a richer flavor, although light coconut milk can also be used.
  3. Galangal. A type of rhizome similar to ginger, galangal is an important ingredient in Tom Kha Gai. It gives the soup a unique spicy and slightly citrusy flavor.
  4. Lemongrass. The lemongrass stalks are usually bruised and then cut into large pieces to infuse the soup with their flavor.
  5. Kaffir lime leaves. These leaves are torn into pieces or bruised to release their flavor. They give the soup a distinctively Thai fragrance and citrusy flavor.
  6. Thai bird chilies. These small chilies are very spicy and are usually added whole or slightly bruised. They can be omitted or the quantity reduced for a less spicy soup.
  7. Fish sauce. This gives the soup its savory, umami flavor. Some people substitute it with soy sauce or tamari for a vegetarian version.
  8. Lime juice. Freshly squeezed lime juice gives the soup a tangy flavor.
  9. Mushrooms. Straw or button mushrooms are usually used, although other types of mushrooms can also be used.
  10. Coriander (Cilantro). Fresh coriander is often used as a garnish before serving.
  11. Sugar. Some people add a bit of sugar to balance the flavors, although this is optional.
  12. Onion. Some versions of the recipe include sliced onions.
  13. Tomatoes. Some recipes include tomatoes for a bit of acidity and added flavor.

Traditional Tom Yum Ingredients

  1. Shrimp. Large shrimp or prawns are typically used in this dish, although it can also be made with other types of seafood or chicken.
  2. Lemongrass. This is used to infuse the soup with a citrusy and slightly sweet flavor.
  3. Kaffir lime leaves. These are torn into pieces or bruised to release their flavor. They give the soup a distinctively Thai fragrance and citrusy flavor.
  4. Galangal. Galangal is a type of rhizome similar to ginger, adding a unique spicy and slightly citrusy flavor.
  5. Thai bird chilies. These are usually added whole or slightly bruised for heat. Adjust the quantity to your spice preference.
  6. Fish sauce. This adds a salty and umami flavor to the dish.
  7. Lime juice. Freshly squeezed lime juice gives the soup its characteristic tangy flavor.
  8. Mushrooms. Straw or oyster mushrooms are commonly used, but any kind of mushroom can be added.
  9. Cherry tomatoes. These are often included for a touch of sweetness and acidity.
  10. Onion. A small onion or a couple of shallots, sliced, can be used.
  11. Cilantro. Fresh cilantro is used as a garnish.
  12. Sugar. Some recipes include a touch of sugar to balance out the flavors.
  13. Tom Yum Paste. While it’s not traditionally used, some recipes might call for Tom Yum paste for convenience. This paste typically contains lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and chilies. If you’re using this, you might not need the individual herbs.
  14. Thai chili paste (Nam Prik Pao). This is optional but it gives the soup a nice red color and extra heat.
  15. Coconut milk. While not always included in all types of Tom Yum, coconut milk is often added in Tom Yum Goong Nam Khon, which is a creamy version of the soup.

Spice Level

Tom Yum is known for its bold, spicy flavor, usually amplified by bird’s eye chilies. Tom Kha, on the other hand, has a milder, more subtle heat owing to the coconut milk’s cooling effect.


Both soups have a tangy flavor, but Tom Yum tends to be more sour due to the higher proportion of lime juice.

Flavor & Taste

Tom Yum is characterized by its sharp, tangy flavor, which is balanced with the heat from chilies. The herbs give it a refreshing, citrusy aroma and a slight bitterness, creating a multi-dimensional taste experience.

Tom Kha offers a softer, creamier taste due to the coconut milk. It has a pleasant balance of sour, sweet, and salty, with the spicy notes being less pronounced than in Tom Yum.

Nutrition Comparison

Tom Yum (average serving)Tom Kha (average serving)
Calories120 kcal350 kcal
Fat3 g25 g
Sodium1200 mg750 mg
Protein15 g14 g
Carbohydrates8 g14 g

Please note that these nutritional values can vary significantly based on the specific ingredients and quantities used.

tom yum vs tom kha

25 Facts about Differences and Similarities

Fact 1: Origin

Both Tom Yum and Tom Kha have a long-standing history in Thai cuisine and are beloved across the country’s diverse regions.

Fact 2: Popularity Abroad

While both soups are beloved in Thailand, Tom Yum is more well-known internationally, often being a staple in Thai restaurants worldwide.

Fact 3: Protein Variations

Although both soups can be made with various proteins, Tom Yum is most often associated with prawns (Tom Yum Goong), while Tom Kha is commonly made with chicken (Tom Kha Gai).

Fact 4: Vegan Adaptability

Both soups can be adapted to a vegan diet by substituting animal proteins with tofu or mushrooms and using a vegetable broth.

Fact 5: Common Ingredients

Both Tom Yum and Tom Kha feature a bouquet of fragrant Thai herbs such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and galangal.

Fact 6: Broth Base

The base for Tom Yum is a clear, tangy broth, while Tom Kha is characterized by a rich and creamy coconut milk base.

Fact 7: Cooking Process

The cooking processes for both soups involve simmering the aromatic herbs in the broth to infuse it with flavor.

Fact 8: Pairings

Tom Yum and Tom Kha are usually served with a side of steamed jasmine rice in traditional Thai cuisine.

Fact 9: Health Benefits

Both soups offer health benefits, primarily from the herbs used. These ingredients are known to aid digestion and have anti-inflammatory properties.

Fact 10: Heat Levels

The spice level in Tom Yum is typically higher due to the use of bird’s eye chilies. Tom Kha, on the other hand, has a milder heat that is well-balanced with the creaminess of coconut milk.

Fact 11: Garnish

Both soups are usually garnished with fresh coriander leaves. However, Tom Yum is often also served with a wedge of lime to enhance its sourness.

Fact 12: Dietary Preferences

Tom Kha may be more suitable for those with a lower tolerance for spicy foods, while Tom Yum could be a favorite for spice enthusiasts.

Fact 13: Regional Variations

Like many traditional dishes, both Tom Yum and Tom Kha have regional variations across Thailand, reflecting the local ingredients and taste preferences.

Fact 14: Serving Style

Both Tom Yum and Tom Kha are traditionally served hot, and they are often consumed as main dishes, not just as starters, in Thai cuisine.


Whether you’re team Tom Yum or team Tom Kha, there’s no denying that both soups offer a flavorful immersion into Thai culinary traditions. While they share some ingredients and flavors, their distinct characteristics cater to different taste preferences, making them both integral parts of Thailand’s gastronomic repertoire. Whether you prefer the fiery, sour kick of Tom Yum or the soothing, creamy delicacy of Tom Kha, you’re in for a feast of flavors and aromas that symbolize the essence of Thai cuisine.

Alex Bayev Photo
About me:

Hi, I'm Alex. I love to cook and bake, and I'm always looking for new recipes to try. I started this blog — to collect and share most delicious and easy recipes in one place. I remember, how many questions recipes raised to me, when I started cooking. To make sure that doesn't happen to you, I take step-by-step photos of the cooking process for every recipe so you can see how all the steps are supposed to go together, even if you're not following my recipes exactly.

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