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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Kanom Thai: Thai desserts

Kanomthai

(Clockwise from bottom)
Kanom Tua-pab, tender rice flour dough enveloping a mixture of mung bean, coconut, amd sesame seeds, and covered in coconut flakes. They are eaten tossed with sugar, crushed sesame seeds, and salt.
Kanom Tom, the same rice flour dough but this time stuffed with coconut flakes cooked in a caramel made of palm sugar.
Kanom Niaw, the same dough again, but rolled into a little worm shape, eaten with palm sugar caramel syrup with sesame seeds.
The blue hue in these desserts came from Dok Anshan, a type of blue flower that I don't know the name in English. The ashy-gray hue came from, what else, ash.

Thai sweets, unlike our savory dishes, could be something of an acquired taste. The sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy balance of Thai savory dishes are easily appreciated, but somehow, the odd textures and shapes of Thai desserts can be off-putting to many. Not helping the matter is the fact that it has become increasingly difficult to find great Thai desserts, even in Thailand. Thai dessert making requires intricate skills, and depends a great deal on the quality and freshness of ingredients, coconut milk and meat, palm sugar, rice flour and other essentials. While fresh ingredients is expensive and the process of dessert making can be arduous, Thai traditional desserts can't really be sold for a lot of money, unlike fancy Western style desserts, so only a few vendors even bother to make them, or make them properly as they are often forced to use canned coconut milk and artificial colors to cut cost.

Growing up in Sukhumvit area, I've been buying from one particular vendor here for many years. (The desserts in the picture are from her, naturally.) Pi Ahb, the dessert maker sells her homemade desserts from a cart parked in front of Soi Thonglor. She used to work as a servant in one of the grand old houses in the nearby Soi Paidi-madi. Selling Thai desserts was her side job, but now her little dessert cart has become successful enough for her to quit the job and make and sell her sweets full time.

What distinguishes her desserts from others are the quality of her ingredients and her skills. Having worked for years in an upper class household, she was trained to cooked in the traditional Thai way. Her husband drives to Rayong province every couple of days to buy fresh coconut and other ingredients directly from the farms, and she makes everything from scratch to sell each day.

Her little dessert cart is, at first glance, just like any another street vendor, but a closer look tells a completely different story. Her cart is meticulously clean, and her desserts, unlike those that are tinted with articial colors, have subdued, natural tones derived solely from natural ingredients. Her litle business is commercially viable because she not only sells on the street, but takes orders from many rich households in the neighbourhood when they have parties or religious celebrations. For years my mother has been ordering desserts from her to take to every temple celebrations, and now my sister is doing the same. And every time I come home from the US, her little cart is one of my first stops. Pi Ahb told my driver today to tell me that she would be making Kanom Piak-poon tomorrow. I can't wait to have some. I'm sure there will be a photo or two on the blog, perhaps even of the lovely dessert maker herself if I get to pay her a visit myself.

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