The Great Wide World of Thai Rice II Last month we took you on a tour of rice in Thailand. We delved into its history, its cultivation, its spiritual associations and its multiplicity of uses. Finally we left you hanging, unable to expand your repertoire of possible dishes from the bewildering range available in your hotel coffee shop, corner cafe or roadside restaurant. So let's go on and tell you the rest, how to really enjoy marvellous Thai food, and therefore how to make the most of rice, the foundation of the entire cuisine.
First of all we have plain boiled rice, Khao Suay, which is the indispensable carrier of so many Thai dishes. It is the perfect foil, the bland and simple counterbalance against the myriad rich and wonderful flavours that make up the cuisine that has been created over generations by Siamese chefs and cooks. In any street side food shop, with a bewildering array of dishes in cooking pots displayed outside, you can point at the meal of your choice and simply order it Gup Khao, literally with rice, or ask for Khao Gaeng, simply rice with a sauce-based topping. It is easy to translate Gaeng as "curry", but this can be misleading, as the dish may be devoid of any fierce spices. You can find out the main constituent of the dish you ordered by asking if it contains chicken (Gai), pork (Moo), beef (Neua), fish (Pla) or vegetables (Paak) so that you can avoid any dietary sensitivities. Most, though not all of these delicious, sauce-rich rice toppings are quite spicy (Ped), but shopping around, the discerning diner may find strange and often pleasing tastes such as the bitter bite of bitter gourd (Mara) or the sweet-bitter-sour flavour of young tamarind leaves (Bai Makham).
Moving on from these simple everyday delicacies, we come to the safe haven of many a first time visitor, fried rice (Khao Paad). This apparently simple dish can vary in taste from the sublime to the inedible, according to the skill of the chef and the freshness of the oil. Perfect fried rice is made from boiled rice that has been tossed in a wok with hot, fresh oil and the other ingredients that have been ordered. Each rice grain should have an almost pearl-like translucence, and each should be separated from the rest. Fried rice is usually served with chicken, pork, prawn (Goong) or crab (Poo), though it can also be made with nothing but vegetables. Almost invariably, strips of quick-fried egg (Khai) will be added. It is usually served with sliced cucumber (Taeng Gwa), lime (Manao) and fish sauce with chilli (Prik Naam Pla) to add the crunch of fresh salad, the tartness of citrus, the saltiness of the fish sauce and the spicy pungency of chilli.
Travelling in the north, one dish that shouldn't be missed is Khao Mun Gai, boiled chicken, with rice that has been cooked in chicken stock. Although this sounds simple and bland, the rice and chicken are brought to vibrant life by the accompanying soup and soy, ginger and black bean sauce. It is a typical northern lunchtime or evening meal and one that can be almost divine-tasting when well prepared.
Early in the morning, or on the way to bed after a hard night out on the town is the time to get stuck into a steaming bowl of Khao Tohm, boiled rice further boiled to make a soup or gruel. This sounds almost like an invalid's diet, but is actually delicious when all the side dishes that go with it are ordered. These may include almost anything from fried garlic to chunks of fish, and in a good Khao Tohm restaurant, the diner's imagination can run unchecked with the choice. Many of these eateries tend to specialise in a particular type of this double-boiled rice soup, and these are often crowded with happy customers. A variation on Khao Tohm is the gruel-like Jok, a popular breakfast, where the rice is boiled even longer. This is always served with a raw egg that gradually gels in the steaming porridge.
Some of the toppings for rice are so commonly eaten that they are no longer merely Gup Khao, but have entered the Thai culinary language as distinct dishes of their own. These are usually some kind of grilled meat, with a distinctive sauce that characterizes the meal. Best known is Khao Moo Daeng, rice with red pork, which is simply pork fillet grilled with a red basting sauce, and served with a spicy gravy and pickled vegetables. Also popular are Khao Moo Grob, which is grilled pork with crispy crackling and similar additions to those for Khao Moo Daeng, and Khao Na Bped, succulent grilled duck with rich, spicy sauce, pickled ginger and crunchy pickled carrot and cucumber.
So far we have been dealing only with boiled rice, but the preferred grain in the North is Khao Niew, sticky rice. Although not many restaurants actually serve sticky rice, there are some that specialise in this regional favourite. Amongst these are the Khantoke Dinner Shows, and also restaurants that have northern or north-eastern food as their speciality.
Sticky rice is not eaten with fork and spoon but with the fingers of the right hand. Each diner gets a small woven basket of Khao Niew. Take a pinch of the glutinous rice and press it into a ball and dip it into the rich, often spicy, dishes that accompany the rice. The main dishes will be some of the delicious Naam Prik sauces, hot and salty, served with fresh, steamed or grilled vegetables on the side, Burmese-style Gaeng Hang Lay, redolent with the bite of ginger and full of tender chunks of pork, or Laab with any of a wide range of meats as its base, lurking beneath the unique flavour of roasted or dry-fried rice, Khao Kua.
Last of the choices for rice as your savoury dish is Khao Tung. This is the result of slow drying of boiled rice in thin sheets. These are then deep-fried when they "pop" just like popcorn. Dip these chunks of popped rice into a juicy dish of Gaeng, Gaeng Khiew Waan, green curry, being a particular favourite, and you will find one of the finest combinations of dip and cracker in the world.
Finished with you main meal of rice, and ready for some dessert, maybe rice pudding? Feeling like a mid-afternoon snack? Wait until next month and we'll take you the rest of the way through the mouth-watering world of Thai rice. For now, why not try out some of our suggestions for starters and entrees. Until next month Bon Appetit (Khaw Hai Jarern Aharn).