It is now the hot season in Thailand and that means a whole lot of hardship. Temperatures hover around 40-degrees and even darkness brings little relief but the occasional warm breeze and a few hours without the sun’s glare. Drought and power outages are common, even in the modern capital of Bangkok, and people seem to water their plants by the hour. But ‘summer’ here, as some English-language papers translate it with optimism, has its selling points. There are bunches of holidays like Songkran (Thai New Year) with its water festival and traditional processions; fruit season begins in earnest and mangoes are stacked high in the markets; and cooling foods like iced soups and coconut sorbet are sold by vendors everywhere.
The most famous of the hot season dishes is also among the rarest: khao chae (rice soaked in water). It consists of a clear, sweet rice soup scented with flowers and a collection of sweet-savory tastes as accompaniments. These include luk kapi (deep-fried shrimp paste balls), hom dang yud sai (deep-fried stuffed shallots), prik yuak sord sai (green chili pepper stuffed with minced pork and shrimp wrapped in crispy egg net), chai pow pad khai (stir-fried daikon with egg), pla chon hang (caramelized dried fish), and neua or muu sawan (shredded sweet beef or pork). Khao chae is, traditionally, a food made in palaces and it dates back to the reign of King Rama V in the 19th century. In what is perhaps Southeast Asia’s most synthetic culture in the way it incorporates foreign influence, one can see Persian ideas, which came to Thailand during the era of the Spice Trade and through Pax Islamica, in the use of a water scented with flowers.
Of Royal provenance and usually made from highly guarded family recipes, khao chae was unheard of outside palace compounds even a few years ago. But it has begun to make a comeback as Thai society opens up and once roped-off traditions—especially the Royal ones—are presented to the public. For the next few weeks it is possible to find this specialty in hotels like The Peninsula, in tiny sois (alleys) in Chiang Mai, at restaurants, and even by calling the homes of couples like Dr. Gothom Arya and his wife, Pornthip, who make khao chae from an old family recipe and sell it for take-away or delivery. Not only is this collision of things private, public, and traditional rare, it is a potential savior for a fragile food culture.
Despite a surge in popularity, khao chae is still largely unheard of and untasted by many Thais. Intricacy plays a large role in keeping it this way. To achieve the combination of fresh, aromatic, and subtly saccharine tastes, the dish relies upon takes practiced skills and hard-to-find products, and usually a grandmother with patience and training in a Royal kitchen. The flower water tastes by turns delicate and chalky; the jasmine rice on display in its transparent liquid is washed three times before cooking. Many khao chae cooks grow their own flowers, pesticide-free, from jasmine to chamanard and an intensely scented variety known as kradang-nga.
Craftsmanship is as important as flavor-building when making khao chae. The luk kapi (balls of shrimp paste) are marble-sized and have a polished second skin of sorts, despite being dipped in egg batter and fried. The green pepper is crisp to the bite, the shrimp/pork mixture within tender and with just a hit of black pepper and salt for seasoning, and the deep-fried egg net around it an edible fresco. The daikon are candy-sweet and have a color like golden raisins. To make the neua sawan (shredded sweet beef) some families begin shopping in February, buy rare meat, boil it until tender, beat it until crumpled, deep-fry it, shred it, and toss it with a mixture of sour tamarind water and palm sugar.
Given that only a few families in Thailand have an actual tradition of eating khao chae, having the opportunity to consume it is still equal parts curiosity and virgin food experience. The pungent and mellow-sweet pop of kapi balls. Crunchy strands of beef that are like the best jerky one has ever encountered, leaving a hint of palm sugar heavy on the tip of the tongue. Carrots, finger root (krachai), and green mango served on the side. And, above all, the khao sao nam itself that one keeps reaching for to use as coolant, thirst-quencher, and to satisfy the craving for a flower-scented water and unctuous rice that, lest you were a Thai Royal, you never knew you had. It is the kind of taste that blurs the boundaries between familiar and unfamiliar, public and private, and now, Siamese past and global present.
Robert McKeown is the Asia correspondent for Gourmet Magazine. He lives between Thailand and China and regularly travels, eats, travels, and eats throughout the region. He can be reached at [email protected]