I've been meaning to post this piece for a while so I could share some insights into the tastes and textures of Thailand. On my recent trip there, which wasn't for pleasure mind you, I was lucky enough to eat some really fabulous food.
It is hard not to eat well in Thailand especially when buying from the street vendors where there is always something new and exciting to be discovered. Mind you, I did have one particularly ghastly food experience which I will share at the end. Maybe. But for now, here are some of the delightful things I got to eat.
Thai Khanom, otherwise known as Thai sweets, are very special. Coconut and Bai Toey, or pandanus leaf, are often key ingredients in the little jellies featured below. Pandanus leaves are long and slender and have a wonderful aroma that is used for anything from flavouring sweets, wrapping and barbecuing chicken in, flavouring drinking water and even deodorizing taxi cabs! It's true. I took of photo in the back of a cab that had a whole bunch of leaves just sitting on the dash board. The cab smelled wonderful.
Kao Niew Mamuang, or sticky rice and mango is my favourite Thai dessert. I crave it often. I can actually make it now that I have a sticky rice steamer but it is not the same as it is in Thailand. I am not sure what it is, maybe just the extra Thai touch. Towards the end of my trip, I made a point of eating it every day just to get my fix. The Kao Niew is steamed and then mixed with coconut cream that has been boiled with sugar and little bit of salt and then served with ripe mango.
This is another Thai sticky rice snack. It is an intriguing dessert. The rice gets its yellow colouring from saffron. It is sweetened the same way the sticky rice and mango is: with coconut milk boiled with sugar and salt. It is finally served with sugar, deep fried shallots, tiny dried shrimps and roasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top. The fried shallots balance the sweet, crunchy sugar by adding a pleasing but very slight bitter taste.
The little coconut jelly cups below, left are taro jellies with a coconut custard on top with a hint of rose essence. On the right are Guey Kaak, or deep fried bananas. My aunt actually bought them for me as a present as she has done every time she has seen me since I was about 4. The bananas are actually red. They are lightly coated in a sweet batter with black sesame seeds and then deep fried and sold in paper bags.
Thais have a wonderful way of eating fruit. They tend to sell things like pomelo, guava, pineapple and in this case, Mamuang Mun or medium-ripe green mango, with a little bag containing a mixture of sugar, salt and chili flakes. The fusing of these flavours and textures is quite fantastic to taste. The mango is subtly sweet with hints of green unripeness. A completely unripe green mango, Mamuang Priew, or sour mango, is sold with a caramel chutney dipping sauce that contains deep fried shallots and dried shrimps. Again, another example of the Thai genius for fusing salty, sweet and sour.
Behold Miang Kum. This snack consists of a betel leaf that is folded and then filled with several little dried shrimps, a small piece of lime (complete with rind), a piece of ginger, peanuts, toasted coconut, a chili and then topped with some of that caramel chutney I mentioned earlier.
The use of Betel leaves has expanded past its Asian borders and is now very popular in places like Australia in some Thai restaurants. In one instance it is used to wrap smoked river trout, sliced Kaffir leaves and topped with trout roe and lime juice. I have seen Betel leaves sold in Vancouver at the South China Trading Seas Company on rare occasions in the summer.
These little treats below are called Khanom Buang and can only be described as sweet, crispy shells filled with a sweet paste and topped again with sweetened coconut which is colored orange. So you get the point...it's sweet, maybe a little too much so; but in moderation they are delicious.
Now for some savoury dishes. To start, we have a Kwae Teow Ped Sen Mee, which translates to duck noodle soup with small (thin) noodles. Those brown jelly cubes you can see is the duck's blood which is boiled until it congeals and then cut into cubes. Thais love it. I myself was a little squeamish so I mostly ate around them and just nibbled little bits here and there. The soup itself is a delicious light chicken broth flavoured with Chinese celery and deep fried garlic.
Noodles are always served with a little tray of condiments for sprinkling on top that include sugar, dried chili flakes, fish sauce and large red chilis soaked in vinegar.
This is a dish I ate in Khon Kaen in the Northeastern region of Thailand otherwise known as the Issan region. It is a barbecued Issan sour sausage. It is eaten with a piece of ginger, a bite of chili and fresh green scallion. The sausage is made from rice and fermented pork and is best washed down with a glass of beer. It is such a delicious snack.
Lastly, the most famous of all Issan cuisine: Gai Yang and Som Dum Boo, or barbecued chicken and green papaya salad with small crabs.
Gai Yang is served throughout Thailand however the Northeastern version is much much drier and as you can see, the chickens are very small. Gai Yang is usually accompanied with green papaya salad which is pummeled with a mortar and pestle along with lime juice, fish sauce, chilis, tomatoes, green beans and small black crabs for extra saltiness.
Both dishes are always served with the Issan staple of sticky rice. I ate the Gai Yang and Issan sausage in a famous restaurant in Khon Kaen called Ranahan Vises Gai Yang. It serves fantastic Issan and Laos food, some of which I had never tried before. I believe the restaurant is owned by a retired Thai premier.
This brings us to the end of our culinary tour of Thailand. I will however tell you about one particular restaurant in Bangkok that I had the unfortunate experience of eating in. The place looked so promising from the outside but when I opened the menu, I was assaulted with such 'tempting' dishes as 'Stuffed Black Leeches', 'Pig's Bowel Stew', 'Fried Pig's Bladder with Peking Mushrooms' and 'Viscera of Headfish in a Spicy Salad'. I am not sure what Viscera is and I think I am quite happy about that.
Needless to say, my mum, who was my dinner date, and I ordered the most normal looking thing on the menu which was a 'Steamed Butter Fish in a Lime and Ginger Sauce'. It arrived and it was GHASTLY. It was as if the fish had been frozen for so long that it had petrified. All that was left was a dead fish that was more dead than fish. And the cook's valiant attempts to resuscitate it with lime juice and ginger was more an act of desperation.
The charming waiter, so eager to please, stood next to our table hoping to catch a glimpse of us enjoying the meal. It was so awful that mum ordered another beer, so when the waiter disappeared to get it, we bundled some of the fish up in napkins and put it in our handbags. Why we did this? I am not really sure. It seemed like a good idea at the time and we didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings.
Unfortunately, through our act of charity, we lost two good handbags that night.
Out of the twenty years or so that I have eaten in Thailand, this incident was my one and only bad one. So don't let this one story put you off: your chances of a bad experience are still pretty slim.
Thailand will take you on a constant gastronomic journey. It delights and challenges all the senses and the best food is often found on street corners and in local markets.
All food explorers should taste thailand at least once!