24 February 2009

Blue plaid sticky rice, anyone?!

After spending the morning watching the Academy Awards, I headed to the kitchen to execute my adventure in Thai Sticky Rice production. Provided as an accompaniment to almost every street vendor's meal, sticky rice originates in northern Thailand and is intended to be eaten with your hands and dipped into the dishes it is served with. Each grain of rice is firmly intact (not mushy), yet a small pinch off of a ball placed in your hand yields a compact sticky little parcel of joy. 

While there are several techniques for making sticky rice, the most traditional involves soaking the grains overnight and using a steamer the following day. There are many websites fully dedicated to showing you the step by step "top secrets" of authentic Thai sticky rice making. And, at this point, let's just cut to the chase of this post, shall we? I am here to tell you that authentic sticky rice making is an art form that still alludes me.

After hours of laboring over my pre soaked rice (I soaked enough to try several batches), the first method (and most often cited on all the other websites as the way to go) involves spreading your rice in a thin layer of a bamboo steamer and allowing it to cook until it is translucent. Translucency never arrived and I ended up with somewhat gluey rice that still had a crunch. Not at all what I was looking for.

Next, I relied on the advice of a professional. Thinking back to what a wonderful chef in Hua Hin shared with me, I wrapped the rice in cheesecloth, again laid it to rest in the steamer and fired up the gas. Nope.

My amazing Thai rice cooker whirred for the third batch and, even on the glutinous rice setting, didn't quite produce the wonderful little al dente grains I had hoped for.

Finally, on an experimental whim, I wrapped a final batch of rice that had previously soaked for only about an hour into a newly purchased thin cotton dish cloth. I threw the package into a boiling vat of water on my stove top. One hour later, I cut the twine that held it closed, unwrapped the towel and voila!..... perfectly cooked translucent pinch able sticky rice. Unfortunately, it was stained with blue plaid from the newly purchased dish cloth! 

With sticky rice everywhere and my kids threatening to never look at a grain of rice again if I didn't stop the insanity, I threw in the plaid dish cloth and called it a day.

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 33:
Black Sticky Rice Pudding
A lot less complicated than the sticky rice served with meals, this black sticky rice is a show stopper of a dessert. I highly recommend it as the end to a fantastic Thai meal.

1 cup black glutinous rice (also called Thai Forbidden Rice or Black Sticky Rice on packaging)
3 cups of water
1 cup of coconut cream (use coconut milk if you can't find coconut cream)
3-5 tablespoons of sugar
1-2 teaspoons of salt
Mango, diced, or lychees, halved

Using a rice cooker or stove top, cook the rice (1 cup rice to 3 cups of water). It will still be firm when cooked through and may take a bit longer than the conventional rices you may be used to. Meanwhile, bring the coconut cream, 3 tablespoons of sugar and 1 teaspoon of salt to a boil. Reduce by a third. Taste and adjust the sugar/salt to your liking. The final taste should be sweet with a background of saltiness. Add half of the coconut syrup to the cooked rice and stir well. Serve the rice in individual dishes, topped with your fruit of choice and the remaining syrup alongside to drizzle over the top.

Yield: four servings

17 February 2009

A four year old bargain

On a recent Sunday morning, my daughter woke up and declared that it would be a mommy-daughter day. And, where did she want to go? To the weekend market! Always up for a trip to Chatuchak, I donned my sun hat and stepped out into the already hot day, hand in hand with my daughter.

After a few Skytrain stops and one quick metro ride, we arrived in the heart of the market. Ahh, yes. The familiar scent of charcoals cooking satay, pots of jasmine being sold, smokey incense already wafting overhead mixed with the vibrant colors of electric oranges and yellows and magentas swaying from displays. And, the sounds of little kids playing their home made instruments, people chattering on about what they will purchase and a mixture of electric pop music and traditional Thai pan flute piped out over side by side speakers all mingled peacefully. 

My four-year-old immediately reached into her bag, pulled out 8 baht pieces and pulled me towards the nearest popsicle vendor. After careful consideration she pointed to the red stainless steel tube trapped side by side with at least fifty others in a giant ice bath. The vendor reached into the icy bucket to pull one of the bamboo skewers, holding the icy sugar water, out of its mold. A long glistening cylinder of red ice emerged. The transaction of baht for ice occurred (after my daughter removes the teeny plastic cow she brought along with the baht) and we moved on as she happily licked away.

Hand in hand, I gave my daughter full reign of the market and allowed her to experiment with purchasing in Thailand. She's been with me on many previous trips to this market, but this would be her first time creating her own shopping destiny. The vendors loved her efforts and rewarded her careful examination of their products. After about an hour of thoughtful consideration she had already purchased several gifts for visiting family members awaiting our arrival at home. With our arms full of several pieces of jewelry, a hand made bag holding lemon grass loose leaf tea, a tiny cactus garden, a wooden car ingeniously carrying a tiny cat sculpture selling fish, and a squeaky bird puppet, she told me that she'd like to buy me a very special present. Adorable, but tricky for me since I had been somewhat involved in the back and forth negotiations of the the day's other purchases. Her specific instructions did not allow for me to have a role in this purchase. Figuring the worst case scenario was that I lose a couple extra baht, I agreed to the plan.

We wandered a bit and then she came upon the vendor she wanted to do business with. Picking up a (truly and really gorgeous) necklace she approached the vendor, offered her greeting and asked the price. She said okay, without bartering, and returned smiling to me to get the full amount. Now in Thailand, you generally don't accept the first offered price, but, that's a bit tricky for a proud four-year-old to understand. The vendor began to realize what had happened and allowed my daughter to pick out another beautiful necklace and seven pairs of earrings from his displays!

My daughter walked away from the booth, eyes flashing, and happily declared "Mama, I never want to leave this market!" I agree....

Cooking in Thailand, entry no. 32:
Char Siew Rice Noodles
The following is a delicious recipe intended to use any extra Char Siew (sweet roasted pork) you have left from my previous recipe entry. This dish makes a wonderful, fresh salad-like main dish or a refreshing side dish accompaniment to a spicy meal. If you didn't try making the Char Siew (shocking, as it would be!), add your favorite meat, poultry or brand of tofu to the dish instead.

Half package medium thickness rice noodles
2 Tablespoons butter (or other preferred fat)
1 heaping Tablespoon flour
1 cup stock (pork, chicken, veggie)
2 Tablespoons Thai palm sugar, softened*
1 teaspoon fish sauce
2 Tablespoons lime juice
12 cloves of garlic, finely sliced into matchsticks
1 Tablespoon veggie oil
1 cup of cilantro, coarsely chopped
5 green onions, cut into 1 inch slices
1 cup bean sprouts
1/4 cup sliced radish
1/8 cup roughly chopped cashews
12 slices Char Siew (sweet roasted pork), cut again into match stick slices
Extra chopped cashews and cilantro for garnish

Soak rice noodles in a large bowl of hot water until they are al dente. Meanwhile, melt butter in a saute pan. Add flour and cook for two minutes. Slowly, add the stock, whisking continuously to eliminate all lumps. Bring to a boil and allow to thicken. Season with salt and pepper. Add the sugar, fish sauce and lime. Set aside.
In another saute pan, add the oil and garlic. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until golden brown (do not allow to burn) and remove at once from the heat.
In a serving bowl or on a large deep platter, add sauce. Add noodles and all other ingredients, including the golden fried garlic. Stir to coat. Sprinkle with the extra chopped cashews and cilantro. If you like spice, you can add a sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Allow to cool slightly and serve.
*If you can't find palm sugar, you can substitute brown sugar in this recipe.

13 February 2009

What I love right now in Bangkok

In celebration of Valentine's Day, here is a short list of the things I LOVE right now in Bangkok:

1. Jasmine rice. After all, how could I be Loving Rice if this didn't top the list?!
2. Chatuchak Weekend Market. THE destination for fantastic local shopping. Every trip inside the market is a new adventure and volumes could be written on the experiences one has here.
3. Prickly heat powder. Sold throughout the city at local pharmacies, this is the perfect cooling antidote to Bangkok's once again rising temperatures.
4. Our neighborhood chicken vendor. My family's solution to fast food. Ring, ring: Do you have lunch planned? No, I'll stop and get the chicken (and the fantastic peppery sauce served alongside it!).
5. Wat Pho. Even after several visits, the giant golden reclining Buddha never fails to impress me. And, the buckets that you toss baht into to create music and seek a blessing are the icing on the cake.
6. Tom Yum Soup, with the freshest of ingredients, preferably masterfully made by my husband.
7. I love that kids are adored and easily welcomed into society. Life becomes easier when your kids are included in discussion, experiences and explorations of the city.
8. The twirling, dancing pulled Thai ice tea vendor at Chatuchak Weekend Market. Truly a sight to behold.
9. I love that swimming in an outdoor pool is an option in February.
10. I love that despite media reports of the past months, Bangkok is a calm, serene and peaceful place to live.
11. The motorcycle taxis. They still make my heart flutter, even though my feet are firmly on the ground.
12. Despite the way they SLAM! into the piers, I smile each time I think of riding on one of the Chao Phraya's passenger ferries.
13. Baan Kanitha's Chicken wrapped in Pandan Leaves appetizer. One of the best restaurants in the city, Baan Kanitha serves up authentic Thai dishes in a gorgeous little setting (and their version of chicken in pandan leaves is worth buying an airline ticket for!).
14. The vendors selling the mosquito zapping tennis rackets. Being sold on almost every corner, these nifty little gadgets pack a wallop if you accidentally get bumped into one (I know from personal experience). None the less, how clever that the advent of mosquito season brings a special contraption to take care of the pests.
15. The candy colored taxi cabs. My kids and I love to stand on one of the sky bridges over a busy street and watch the cars of every color go zooming underfoot.
16. Char Siew. See below.

Cooking in Thailand: entry no. 31
Char Siew (Sweet Roasted Pork)
For whatever reason, I don't tend to naturally gravitate towards cooking pork. However, this recipe may affect further cooking expeditions! This is one of my favorite new dishes and my mouth waters at the thought of it. The bright red exterior seems almost magical as the meat cooks and creates a dramatic crackly glaze. And if any lasts beyond a first serving, the leftovers will make a plethora of new dishes. Serve alone as an appetizer or serve alongside rice and pineapple for a complete meal.

1 pork loin
3/4 cup white sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon five spice powder
1 teaspoon of black pepper
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 Tablespoons dry white wine or cooking sherry
4 drops of red food coloring
hot mustard and sesame seeds for dipping, optional

Combine all ingredients in a large bowl/pan. Cover and marinate overnight, turning once to ensure even coloring. This is intended to be served cold, so allow plenty of time to cook in advance of your meal. Raise the top rack in your oven as high as possible, still allowing clearance for the baking dish, and preheat the oven to 450 degrees F/230 degrees C. Fill a shallow baking pan with water and place a wire rack on top (the rack should not touch the water). Place the pork on the wire rack and cook for approximately 10 minutes (internal temperature should reach about 130 degrees at this point, using a meat thermometer). Turn the broiler on and watch the pork closely. When the surface begins to bubble, flip the meat and allow the reverse side to brown as well. Remove from oven and immediately transfer to a cutting board to rest. Once the meat is completely cool, slice across the loin to produce very thin circles of pork. Place on a serving tray alongside hot mustard and sesame seeds for dipping.

*Warning: this is so delicious, you'll want to make an extra batch!

08 February 2009

Bobbing on the Chao Phraya

Wobbling back and forth, we gain our sea legs just in time to SLAM! into the pier. And, this is nothing out of the norm while touring any one of the many passenger ferries on the Chao Phraya river. On this particular day, we have the honor of touring visiting family members through town and decide to take a quick hop on the boats before disembarking to visit Wat Pho

Tourists can buy an inexpensive and practical one day ferry pass and hop on and off the boats an unlimited amount of times in one day. But, today, with only one pier destination in mind, we opt to travel like a local and hop on a ferry ready to pay for one pier stop. Shaking her long brass box, the toll collector takes our change and provides us with our tickets.

Once on board, the river comes alive. My two year old, from the backpack that my husband is wearing, shouts. His mouth opens and closes and we can't hear what he is saying over the roar of the sputtering motor of the engine. I'm wishing I had ear muffs to limit the assault on my eardrums as I cover my nose as to not gag on the diesel exhaust coming out of the engine in black clouds. My four year old sits atop the engine's large platform cover in the center of the boat, providing her with a sturdy (albeit outrageously loud) seat to handle the boats dips and turns. Our visitors hold on tight and take in the passing sights. From this vantage point, one can imagine previous generations fishing along the once unpolluted Chao Phraya.

Today, you'll see every type of boat imaginable: wooden fishing boats where men are pulling in a catch, traditional long tail boats kicking up long trails of water around them, a mucky wake of water as a passenger ferry goes flying by, families out for a troll and hotels shuttling tourists from site to site aboard their elaborately carved vessels. In the background, you'll see the majestic sites of ancient temples, spires of the royal palace, and a mixture of architectural styles from past and present.

I see our pier approaching and brace myself amidst the crowded boat. The crazy docking procedure begins. Passengers move to the back of the boat, while the driver pilots us ever closer to the pier. 

Having done this several times before, I now know what to expect. As other tourists go flying and stumbling, I hold on tight while our boat SLAMS! into the pier. As fast as the jarring occurs, the boat is tied momentarily and people race to hop off the bobbing vessel. There is no ramp or bridge employed. Mind the gaping gap of sloshing brown water!

Cooking in Thailand, entry no 30:
Tom Yum Soup
I learned to make this from a woman while I was visiting Hua Hin, a beach town in the South of Thailand. The simple fresh ingredients make for a memorable soup, refreshing on both hot and cool days.

4 cups of water
1 stalk of lemongrass, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
a one inch piece of galangal, sliced into thin rounds*
2 shallots, peeled and sliced once in half
1 tomato, cut into wedges
6 large prawns, deveined
6 mushrooms, cut in half
3 kaffir lime leaves, folded in half**
dried red pepper flakes (or fresh chilies sliced into rounds), to taste
fish sauce, approximately 3 tablespoons
fresh lime juice, approximately 3 tablespoons
cilantro and lime wedges, to garnish

Bring the water, lemongrass, galangal and shallots to a boil and cook for 3 minutes. Add the tomato and cook over a low boil for two minutes more. Add the mushrooms and the lime leaves. Add the prawns and spoon the liquid over the top continuously until the prawns turn opaque (about one minute). Turn off the heat and add the fish sauce and lime juice. Taste and add more of each to balance the flavor. You are looking for a nice balance between sour and salty. Add red pepper to taste. Place cilantro on top just before serving. Provide extra lime wedges.

*if you can't find fresh galangal, you can use fresh ginger instead
**if you can't find lime leaves, omit and serve with extra lime juice