Samui Wining & Dining
Sweet Tooth

A look at some of the more popular Thai desserts.


wining - dining 24Admit it - you are thinking of a rich chocolate mousse to complete your dining experience. A creamy tiramisu or a refreshing gelato, perhaps? Sorry, you are going to have to retire those old-world notions and open yourself to a whole new experience.

      Khanom wan (dessert in Thai) are made from just a few basic ingredients: usually coconut, sticky rice, palm sugar, beans, seeds and eggs. While your hotel may list some local toothsome delights on the menu, khanom are mostly eaten as snacks, and not necessarily after a meal. More unusual ones are prepared especially for ritual events or festivities, and often they require some hunting and gathering skills on your part.

       The best place to track them down is on the street - sometimes at the sit-down stall of a specialist vendor, but almost always in any ‘fresh’ market where you will find a stand offering a multi-coloured array of Thai desserts conveniently packed in a banana leaf, plastic tray, cup or bag.

      There are some specialty purveyors of desserts that serve the same street corner for eons. In Bangkok’s Chinatown a vendor stand offering ‘bua loy nam king’ (sesame encased rice flour dumplings floating in a hot ginger

soup) is a famous night-time mecca for generations of fans. But let’s back up. Like any explorer in a new land, you are going to have to sometimes suspend your preconceptions while you get your bearings. Sugar with salt? Green onions on a sweet coconut base? Kidney beans? And what’s this - an ice-cream sandwich?

         It’s a great way to discover some truths about Thai people: they love variety, balance and contrast in their food, and are more than happy to travel across town for a taste treat. They are fearless about combining strange tastes and textures, and are per capita the third highest sugar consumers on the planet, with ever-increasing appetites for the sweet stuff.

         So be prepared for sweet. And sometimes for salt. At first weird, but very more-ish, many Thai desserts will contain layers of both. Khanom tuay is a traditional cup-shaped sweet that uses rice flour, coconut milk, sugar, salt and pandanus to produce a sweet layered dessert that, when viewed from the side, displays a sweet pale-green base and a white creamy salty topping.

         Be prepared for unusual colours - garish pinks and greens abound, but also more subtle natural colours from leaves and flowers. The butterfly pea (dok anchan) imparts a purple blush, while the much loved bai toey or pandanus leaf (more commonly encountered as a wrap around grilled chicken) infuses a green shade and a distinctive fragrance to many desserts.

         And be prepared for weird combinations that surprise and delight. Did we say ice-cream sandwich? The best are homemade coconut cream ice-creams delivered by bicycle or a motorbike-powered sidecar, and cooled by an ingenious system where the salted water below the stainless steel drum creates a heat exchange that chills the ice. These vendors are often to be found parked outside the school yard in the afternoons. As the children spill out of school, the vendor will cut open a fluffy white hot dog bun, while kids select from an array of coloured glassy looking squiggly things, or dried fruit like bananas or pineapple as a layer under the scoops of ice-cream and finish off with toppings of peanuts and condensed milk. While neither ice cream nor hot dog buns are traditional, the unique combination is definitely Thai: sweet, unexpected, simple yet rich, cold, creamy, crunchy and reminiscent of the best ice-cream experience of your childhood.

         The most commonly found street dessert may be khanom krok, where a rich mixture of coconut (both shredded and cream) and rice flour are crisped on a charcoal heated indented cast-iron skillet to produce hot morsels served plain or topped with scallions, taro or corn.

         Besides coconut, bananas are a common ingredient whether in combination with sticky rice in parcels called khao tom mud, or fried, or boiled in coconut milk with salt and sugar as kluai bot chi.

         One of my personal favourites is fak thong sang-ka-ya - or pumpkin custard - where a mixture of coconut cream and eggy custard (duck eggs are richer) is steamed inside the whole pumpkin, and then sliced when the custard is firm.

         I also love spongy brightly yellow khanom tan made by crushing the flesh of ripe sugar palm fruit to extract the colour and flavour, then combined with rice flour, coconut cream and ground coconut flesh, and steamed in banana leaves.

         Perversely perhaps, I also go for the fermented flavours of khao maak - an almost purple concoction that has a seductive alcohol tang from adding natural yeast to black sticky rice. Khao neow dam - made with tapioca starch, coconut milk and topped with shredded coconut is also a favourite dessert using black sticky rice. Another place to find black sticky rice is in khao lam - bamboo sections stuffed with rice, beans, nuts and coconut cream and grilled over a fire. These are most commonly found on the street offered by itinerant hawkers and are well worth trying.

         But let’s be candid - all this is foreplay to the most beloved of Thai desserts made with sticky rice; khao neow ma muang. Sticky rice is famous as north-eastern Thailand’s glutinous staple, but here it’s been adopted as the base for a sweet coconut mango dessert that is the pride of Thailand. This dessert is one of the consolations of the hot season when the mangoes that are essential to this dessert are in season.

         You may find mango sticky rice at other times of the year, or even out of Thailand (what with clever growers and imports) but you simply can’t substitute the simple perfection of the ripe fruit in season.


Annie Lee


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