Samui Wining & Dining
Khao Yam

A look at a uniquely southern Thai dish.


10Tom yam. Pad Thai. Som tam. Our first encounters with Thai food, whether overseas or in Thailand, are generally with central or north-eastern favourites. Southern Thai cuisine is often the last frontier we visit.

      So how different is it? Well, it’s hotter. Even central Bangkok folk are floored by its fiery, fishy diversity. “This food is gasp-for-air spicy, it's fishy-funky, and the foil to that spicy-fishy funk is usually a bitter punch in the kisser. A slap of sour might follow. There's nothing subtle about this noise,” says Jarret Wrisley, food writer and Bangkok restaurateur.

      And it’s not just one shrill tone - there are different chords of spicy. Often a little sour will twist the heat - as in po tek (a fish soup) where the holy basil and fresh lemon impart a refreshing citrus twang.

      The central and northeast regions each have their fermented fish sauces, but it’s the ‘tai pla’ (fish innards) that often imparts its creeping fiery breath to southern food. So it’s both in the diversity and complexity of its spiciness that southern Thai cuisine stands apart.

      But it’s not just heat that differentiates it. Southern cooking also draws from its rich tropical locality where coconut, tamarind and seafood are

plentiful. More so it’s the generous quantities of fresh young shoots, fruits, roots and herbs that make it truly local. Wild lime, galangal and lemongrass flavours abound. And lastly, southern cooks are lavish with fresh root turmeric.

      Let’s take for example, gaeng som (sour curry), one of the best known southern dishes. It’s sometimes called gaeng leung (yellow curry) because of the golden glow of turmeric. This is a fish soup cooked with red chillies, slices of pineapple and sometimes green papaya. Eaten alone it may take out your fillings, but its hot and sour heat is divinely zesty as the spicy part of a milder meal.

      That nobody elects to eat one dish without accompaniments, is key to appreciating all Thai food. One may occasionally, in a hurry, on a budget or on the road be forced to order a single plate of something on rice. But by preference Thais will eat with as many folk as possible so that a hot dish is both augmented and tempered by a diverse and apparently endless variety of tastes and textures. These may include greens, rice, a milder soup, something fried, something bitter, a generous salad, together creating a symphony where the hot notes are in harmony with the bit players.

       But perhaps symphony is a misleading word down south. Let’s say at first it more closely resembles the orchestra at the Muay Thai boxing in Chaweng - audaciously loud and piercingly discordant, but with patience and practice you discern a thing of beauty in the clashing tones.

         Having said all that about cacophony, there is one signature southern favourite that can definitely be eaten solo. It’s a light snack that tantalizes the taste buds. That’s because khao yam (a rice salad with vegetables, herbs, shredded coconut and a unique ‘nam boodoo’ sauce) is itself a carnival of southern flavours. The rich herbal baseline comes from the finely minced spices, roots, and leaves. Many of these are naturally medicinal (turmeric is now lauded as one of the power foods of our century) and ingested entirely fresh.

         Every dish seems to have a particular herb, root or leaf that makes it authentic - and just as gaeng som needs tamarind, no khao yam would be complete without ‘bai pa hom’, a stinky leaf that’s the hallmark of this great signature southern Thai salad.

         “It smells like a fart,” my informant tells me, and I have to concur. However, I’ve been around in southern Thai markets long enough to know that while a certain leaf (try young cashew) eaten alone can curl your tongue into a bitter snarl, if it’s matched with the right curry, you’ll be in heaven!

         Khao yam has, as its main ingredient, steamed rice, sometimes infused with herbs or tinted with medicinal flowers. A floral note is common - including the petals of marigolds, butterfly pea or even the magnificent torch ginger.

         There’s always a sour note - young mango, pummelo or lime to brighten the taste. Then the greens - the bai pa hom is chopped finely with thinly sliced lemongrass, fresh kaffir lime leaves and the young leaves of turmeric, ginger, lime, pennywort and sataw (stink bean). The seeds of young white popimac pods, fresh mung bean sprouts, and wing beans are often added.

         Speak to as many southerners as you like, you’ll get as many versions of what to include. That’s because this is a foragers delight - beyond the core ingredients everything else is an enthusiastic response to whatever is blooming, rooting, fruiting or sprouting in the vegetable patch - which in southern Thailand includes the roadside, jungle, seashore and coconut groves. The closer to nature, the more herbaceous the displays of forest tucker.

         The core flavour of the salad is in the ‘nam boodoo’ dressing - a distinctive thick black sweet-and-pungent salty sauce which is almost exclusively used for this dish. To this add coconut syrup, tamarind pulp, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and fresh galangal. While it has a fishy tone, it’s delicate and almost nutty when poured over the salad.

         The heat in khao yam comes from both the shredded coconut roasted in curry paste and roast fish which has been roughly pounded with a curry paste. But it’s not overwhelmingly spicy - and the secret to the whole salad is in the mixing - it’s really important to turn it over well to get the full palate of tastes.

         It’s amazing to take in the complexity of preparation and the enthusiasm of interest in local plant lore where you and I would see roadside weeds. And, as you may expect, it’s increasingly rare to find an authentic khao yam. For this article I tasted an ersatz version at one food store, and had to pre-order with Khun Yai opposite Sweet Sisters in Baan Bang Kao, for her to prepare the real deal, no-holds-barred salty, rooty, nutty, sweet, fishy, piquant, spicy, crisp and zesty khao yam.


Annie Lee


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