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Sweet Dishes

The Great Wide World
Of Thai Rice III :
The Last Course

And so at last our journey through Thailand's rice-based cuisine comes to an end. As at the end of any meal this is the sweet course, the dessert, that completes the gastronomic cycle. The range of Thai sweet dishes is very wide, and probably much wider than the passing visitor may realize, but the theme remains, rice is the major player in this as in all other parts of the Siamese diet.

Sticky rice and rice flour are the main elements of local desserts, some of which are truly wonderful despite the apparent simplicity of their ingredients and preparation. Take, for example, that finest of Thai sweet dishes, sticky rice with mango, Khao Niew Mamuang. Enriched with the tropical luxury of coconut milk and coconut cream, and sweetened by the addition of palm sugar, obtained from collecting the sap of palm flowers and boiling the residue, the sticky rice attains a heavenly flavour vastly superior to any rice pudding that can be found elsewhere in the world. Add fabulous nectar-sweet slices of Thai mangoes and this is truly a dish fit for kings. Traditionally eaten during the short mango season, this magnificent sweet can now be eaten throughout the year, thanks to the skill of Thai fruit growers who have devised ways to extend the harvest period of glorious mangoes.

Sweetened sticky rice seems to have a natural aptitude of combining with almost all native Thai fruits, and is equally splendid with the much maligned durian. Belittled by even the earliest of foreign travellers to reach Thailand's shores as tasting like "custard flavoured with garlic", the spiny durian is far more subtle than its aroma suggests, and sticky rice is the perfect balance to its assertiveness. Sticky rice with durian, Khao Niew Thurian, is a treat well worth seeking out. When eating durian in any form, try to avoid consuming alcohol at the same time, as the sulphur in the fruit can play havoc with one's digestion.

One of the things that often strikes visitors as strange about Thai tastes in food is a tendency to mix sweet with savoury. Western food, in particular, has tended towards a clear rule in a meal to have courses clearly defined by flavour. Although this is a comparatively recent trend, many overseas visitors have forgotten traditional combinations of foods such as apples with cheese or even sugar and salad that were simple and tasty mixtures from the past. It is therefore surprising to see sweet and juicy pineapple chunks being dipped into a mixture of dried chilli and salt, or a tantalisingly green slice of avocado, surely crying out for a prawn cocktail dip, being smothered with sugar. So it is with sweetened sticky rice which combines magically with minced prawn, coriander and lime (Khao Niew Na Goong) or dried fish and onions (Khao Niew Na Pla Haeng).

A particularly splendid sweet that can be made with sticky rice, and which has the virtue of being absolutely traditional in its preparation, is Khao Dtom Mud. This delightful amalgam of rice, coconut and banana, with a few black beans thrown in for good measure, is wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. It is a real pleasure to unwrap the banana leaf and bite into this delectable confection.

Although its texture is less apparent than the swollen steamed grains of sticky rice, the contribution of rice flour, either plain or sticky, to Thai sweets is far greater. None of the flour-based desserts have the assertive characteristics of whole rice, but the role of the ground product as a thickener and binder extends its repertoire to a truly amazing range of sweet dishes called Aharn Waan or Khong Waan. These sweets often contain a great many unusual ingredients, such as beans, that are used only in savoury foods in western cuisine. There are also a great many unusual flavours unfamiliar to the western palate.

An example of this combination of the strange and exotic is Thua Paeb Bai Toey, Pandanus balls with a mung bean filling. This dessert is based on a mixture of sticky rice flour and fresh shredded coconut. The dough balls are formed using the green-tinged water obtained by boiling pandanus leaves, which impart a subtle and indefinable fragrance. After cooking the dough, the balls are stuffed with a mixture of soaked and steamed mung beans, roasted sesame seeds and sugar. A surprisingly tasty mouthful as one bites through the ball of coconut and flour and reaches the total contrast of the filling.

A similar combination of flavours is found in the Three Friend Cakes, or Khanom Saam Gler, which are traditionally served at weddings. These batter-coated sweetmeats are deep-fried in groups of three. The tradition is that of all three batter balls cook without breaking apart, the marriage will be happy and fruitful, but if one of them breaks, the couple will be childless, while if all of them fall apart, the same will happen to the union.

Coconut and rice flour also combine superbly in the coconut pancakes called Khanom Bueng. The rich batter, which includes eggs and sugar, is cooked just like a thin pancake. Sprinkled with freshly grated coconut, they are delicious. Many Thais prefer these made without the sugar, and then smeared with sweetened condensed milk, rolled up, and the whole gooey mess, dripping with the filling, gobbled up with relish.

One of the sweetest of Thai desserts is Tong Yord, or golden drops. These are made from a mixture of egg yolks and rice flour. Pinches of the batter are dropped into boiling syrup scented with jasmine. These set in the syrup in the shape of rain drops, golden as the sun. Once set they are then cooled in more syrup, absorbing yet more sugar. For those with a really sweet tooth, these are a real treat.

Fruits, somewhat surprisingly, have a limited role in Thai rice flour desserts, but a few of these deserve mention. Pumpkin pudding, Khanom Faak Tong, is a luscious combination of steamed, mashed pumpkin, rice flour and coconut. Mixed together with sugar, this splendid confection is steamed in a baking tray and then cut into portions. Deep frying is the method used to prepare simple, yet delicious, Gluey Khaek. (It is peculiar --- the Thai word Khaek means "Indians or visitors" and has nothing to do with bananas.) Gluey is the Thai name for bananas, and these are sliced lengthwise, coated with a rice flour, sugar and coconut batter, and popped into the hot oil. This method is also used with sweet potato and taro, a kind of yam.

Many palms other than coconuts are native to Thailand. One of these is the palmyra or sugar palm. The flesh of this palm's fruit is crushed and mixed with water, and the resulting orange mush is wrapped in a cloth and hung overnight to drain. The residue of strained fruit is then mixed with rice flour and boiled coconut cream. The mixture is poured into a tray made of banana leaves, topped with grated coconut and salt, and then steamed to make scrumptious Khanom Dtarn, or sugar palm dessert.

Over the last three months we have tried to tell you, the reader, a little about rice. Hopefully this will have whetted your appetite, and also helped you around Thai menus, taking out a little of the trial and error involved in ordering a meal and yet making it easier to experiment. In these articles, we have barely scratched the surface of just how important this humble cereal is to the people of Thailand, in all aspects of their lives, not just in the kitchen, and we would like to think that it may have helped you to understand a little more about the Thais themselves during your stay here.

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