Samui Wining & Dining
It’s a Wrap!

Flip through Thai cookery books and you'll find plenty recipes that call for leaves.

 Flip through Thai cookery books and you'll find plenty recipes that call for leaves.Thai cuisine boasts quite a few traditional delights that don’t require serving up on dishes. Instead, they come in their own biodegradable containers – leaves. What could be better? No washing up and no pollution. It sounds like a scenario for the future, but for Thai people it’s more an age-old tradition, and one that makes even more sense in today’s age of plastic bags, polystyrene boxes and throw-away cutlery. In fact, for hundreds of years in Thailand, as in most countries, everything was bio-degradable. Sadly, this tradition has been mostly lost, but it certainly lives on in a gamut of wrapped ‘dishes’ that are healthy, delicious and which leave no trace at all.

Walk through any market, temple fair or attend any social gathering where food carts are present and you're almost sure to come across ‘khanom jah’. It might not look much, since all that you see are long flattish parcels of leaves. But open up any of the parcels and you'll find inside a delicious sweet. A bit of caution, though: in many cases khanom jah isn’t prepared in quite the original way. Some cheating may have been going on; instead of tying the ends together, metal staples are often used. Not so good for the teeth so discard them and scoop out the contents of the leaves and enjoy. But don't eat the leaves – they're for wrapping purposes only.

How did this leaf cuisine start? Nobody now knows, but the habit of chewing on parcels of food wrapped in leaves is thousands of years old, and you'll still find it’s done today. On the winding roads of southwest China, crossing into Laos and finally Burma, it’s still a popular tradition for drivers, travellers and merchants to chew on leaves. After all, one of the main products being traded is tea.

Tea leaves are steamed and then fermented before being sold. They're rolled into small balls, put into the mouth and chewed, allowing caffeine to trickle into one’s bloodstream. It’s a rather rough taste, so the leaves are often made more palatable thanks to the addition of shallots, peanut and lime. In Burma, fermented tea leaves have gained the status of a national dish, ‘lahpet’, considered a gesture of hospitality and an ancient symbolic offering of peace.

The most famed of all the Thai recipes using leaves is undoubtedly ‘miang kham’ – a wrapped hors d’oeuvre that is a favourite for many people. It’s basically made from putting together various ingredients and wrapping them up in ‘cha-plu’ or wild piper leaves. Each parcel is small, precisely one bite, hence the name, which translates as ‘one-bite parcel’.

Miang kham is well-known throughout Thailand and is very often to be found in the central regions, where during rainy season the leaves grow in abundance. The recipe takes just over an hour to make, and is perhaps an ideal way to pass the time while watching the endless rain outside. And, this being one of Thailand’s most delicious foods, one bite of miang kham is a total distraction from the weather. It is a pleasurable combo of sweet, sour and salty with notes of piquancy and spiciness.

If you're in the north of Thailand, you'll come across a simple dish in the markets, known as ‘aeb’. Quite a few different versions exist and some vendors will sell a medley. Try catfish, minced pork and tilapia fish. The ingredients may vary but you'll usually find lime and chillies present, along with a mix of spices and herbs. The aeb rests on a barbecue, wrapped in banana leaves. Be careful when you open the parcel as it’ll be filled with steam.

Who can forget the inimitable Thai fish custard, hor mok? The dish may sound a little strange but it’s definitely popular; you'll find it in many Thai markets up and down the country. Its ingredients are fillet of fish, red curry paste, coconut milk, palm sugar, kaffir lime leaves, basil leaves and herbs. The hor mok is usually steamed or baked, with banana leaves forming a kind of ramekin. Very easy to eat, just scoop out the fish custard with a spoon.

Rice can also be eaten in tiny green bales, tightly wrapped in string, known as ‘khao tom’ while delicate pyramids of ‘khanom peakpoon’ await at markets and make a delicious pudding, flavoured with coconut.

It’s easy to get started with leaf cuisine. You can also go ahead and improvise, using banana or plantain leaves. The leaves aren’t eaten but are used for making a sealed container which is then steamed, boiled or simply heated through. The leaves give a distinct aroma to the food, and give humble dishes an instant upgrade. To proceed, cook your food, if it’s meat or fish, until it’s completely done. Then take a banana leaf and quickly hold it over a gas flame for a few seconds. Now you can wrap your food in it. If you're cooking rice, then the rice should almost be ready. Add whatever spices and herbs you see fit (ginger, chillies, kaffir lime leaves, whole cinnamon, turmeric and onions are all good) and then prepare for the final step. If you're very dexterous or have had a lot of practice with folding leaves, you can fold them and tuck the ends into the parcel. It’s quite tricky and a simpler way is to tie the bundle with some cooking twine or use toothpicks as a fastener. Place a large pan over low heat and then place the banana package in the pan. Cook on both sides for some ten minutes, turning the parcel over two or three times in the process.

Afterwards, you can let stand for a few minutes. Lucky you if you're living in Thailand, and have a few banana trees growing in your garden. You have a dependable source of wrapping for many cooked dishes, and you can get really inventive with your recipes. It doesn’t need to stop there either. Use banana leaves instead of plates, and you'll be eating in a truly minimalist style. Save on washing up and compost the wrappings and ‘plates’ and you'll have extra leisure time as well as a healthy garden!


Dimitri Waring


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