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The Wonderful World of Thai Sweets

EATING IS ALWAYS an adventure in Thailand, but one part of the adventure that foreign visitors to the Land of Smiles may not venture very far into is the myriad variety of Thai sweets, called in Thai khanom. The main reason for this, perhaps, is the lack of recognition factor for all of those attractive little sweets in cups that look so appetizing on their bed of green banana leaf and all the rest. Thai cookbook writers have lamented about the eagerness with which the Thai people have abandoned aspects of their traditional customs and gone helter-skelter to take on the trappings of Western culture, but note with pride that the sometimes humble and sometimes elaborate Thai traditional sweets and desserts remain high on the preference list of indigenous Thais to the present day.

It would be a misconception to say that these multitudinous products of this aspect of Thai cuisine are only desserts. The usual dessert after a Thai meal is a plate of attractively arranged mixed, cut fruit. It has been said that eating is the Thais national sport, and Thais are likely to nibble at one of the finger-sized sweets as a between-meal shack or take a bowl of one of the mixed sweets prepared with chopped ice as a refreshing treat on a hot tropical day. Some Thai sweets are also especially prepared for festivals such as the lunar new year, or as special treats to be offered to monks on special occasions.

Thai desserts are usually simple and most of the ingredients can be found in any Thai marketplace. Basic ingredients for starting from scratch often include plain rice flour, sticky rice flour, or legume flour of various sorts. Sweeteners include cane sugar, palm sugar, coconut sugar, and the ubiquitous coconut cream. There is a whole class of khanom made from egg yolks, such as foi thong which are golden threads of egg yolk cooked hard in a sugar syrup flavored with essence of jasmine. Delicious, but not for those watching their waistlines or cholesterol levels. Sometimes aspects of khanom cooking can be exotic, such as used of the lowly pandanus leaf, which can be plaited into mats and other household items but finds its way into Thai khanom as a pleasing flavoring agent in anything from the small agar jelly snacks to ice cream.

Methods of cooking or making Thai khanom are as diverse as the range of goodies themselves. For the agar jelly khanom, the cook may simply mix the ingredients and put them into molds, and some, like sangkayaa fak thong, a whole pumpkin filled with a coconut cream and egg custard, are steamed. Other kinds of khanom are deep-fried or cooked in syrup such as the egg yolk sweet. Some, such as khanom krok, little half circles of a layer of legume flour batter filled with another layer of sweetened coconut cream with a few chopped scallions added, are cooked on their own compartmented griddles over heat.

Finally, Thai khanom are served at a temperature to suit any diner. On hot days have a khanom waan, where the diner chooses from among sundry sweet bits made of legume flour, or pieces of fruit or water chestnuts all displayed in separate jars or bowls, which the vendor puts in a bowl to order and adds sugar syrup, coconut cream, and a scoop of crushed ice. To sample a bit of everything just tell the vendor you want ruam mitr. Most finger sized khanom are served at room temperature, but on a slightly nippy cold season day try khanom tua daeng, a sweet concoction of kidney beans to which the diner can add a bit of sweetened coconut cream, or any other similar khanom which is served warm.

The simplest Thai khanom, and often the most delicious, may be based on the various tropical fruits for which Thailand is famous. No one looks forward to the transition from the cold season to the searing hot season, except that the period of time mentioned heralds the season of ripe, savory mangoes. These are best enjoyed as khao niew mamuang , a dollop of sticky rice garnished with sweet coconut cream and a few roasted sesame seeds, and of course sections of sweet, ripe mango. Lucky are those that find a place which makes homemade mango ice cream, as an alternative. For those with a taste for the fruit, the same sticky rice is also served with bits of durian in season.

The lowly banana finds its way into all manner of khanom. If a sweet shop offers a range of warm khanom, there might be gluay khaopode buad, a kind of pudding of bananas in coconut cream mixed with canned corn. Vendors can be found most anywhere selling simple gluay tarwd, deep-fried sweetened bananas, which make a tasty and filling snack. In some markets vendors offer a range of hand-wrapped homemade candies. A dark colored one might be gluay kloog ma-prao, a sweet made from bananas boiled up with sugar and coconut cream. One of those steamed snacks wrapped in leaves might be khanom kluay, a snack of bananas, coconut cream, coconut meat and sugar held together with rice flower. Another appetizing steamed offering teams bananas up with sticky rice, sweetened with sugar and the ubiquitous coconut cream, in khawtom mud sai gluay.

In season, the succulent linchee or longan might be offered in a sweet coconut cream custard as well.

One of the offerings to put into the iced khong waan sai naam kaeng is the meat of the strongly flavored jackfruit. A sweet custard-like khanom, called med khanoon is made with duck eggs, coconut cream and sugar.

Finally coconut cream is not the part of the coconut to find its way into khanom. Sticky rice flour and grated mature coconut meat are mixed with sugar and essence of jasmine to make khanom tom daeng, sweet round balls rich with the flavor of coconut. The same grated coconut meat teams up with mung beans and condiments in a steamed sweet called thua paeb.

The brief descriptions of fruit-based khanom here barely scratches the surface of varied world of Thai sweets. When your sweet tooth needs to be assuaged, go out and have a khanom.

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