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Cooking Food ingredient

Salted Crab – Boo Kem (or Bpoo Kem)

Salted crabs (Boo Kem) are an ingredient foreign to many westerners.

Salted Crab
Salted Crab, 3-1/2 inches wide
In my childhood days, I was fascinated by the myriad moving, darting and crawling creatures inhabiting the edge of the pond that wrapped around two sides of my family’s property. Among them were these small black crabs, no larger than a small Louisiana crayfish; they scurry through the rushes and sometimes venture across the wide expanse of our lawn to the sedges at the edge of our neighbor’s pond. Their strange sideways movement always caught my curiosity, but whenever I approached one, it would come to a complete halt, raising its front pincers up toward me, its alarmed eyes protruding out from their sockets and moving side to side to study me closely. I had even come across ones that would foam around their mouths. A bit too ominous for a small child to touch!

Salted Crab Green Papaya Salad
Salted Crab in Green Papaya Salad

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

These small freshwater crabs are found in great numbers in and around ricefields and flatlands turned into wetlands during the rainy season. Though they do not have much meat, they are caught and fermented in salt water, making a briny crab sauce for seasoning. They are then called boo kem (or boo kem), salted crab. The best part, though, are the crabs themselves, which are cut up into chunks shell and all, and added to salads, including the delicious Salted Crab Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam Boo Kem) – to this day my favorite rendition of this popular national dish. They are also cooked in saucy dishes to lend their flavor, and make a wonderful sauce with chopped pork, shrimp and coconut cream for serving with crisp vegetables, aromatic herbs and rice (see recipe,  below).

Since other Southeast Asian cultures also delight in the flavor of salted crabs, these small black crustaceans can occasionally be found among the unusual offerings of ethnic markets located near areas where large concentrations of Southeast Asians have settled. Look for them in small plastic pouches or containers in a refrigeration unit.


Crab Coconut Cream Sauce (Loen Boo Kem) Recipe

One Brand of  Salted Crab
One Brand of Salted Crab

 

Ingredients

  • 6 small salted crabs
  • 2 cups coconut cream
  • 1/4 lb. ground pork
  • 1/4 lb. fresh shrimp, shelled and chopped finely
  • 1/4 cup tamarind juice the thickness of fruit concentrate
  • 1/4 cup palm or coconut sugar
  • Sea salt as needed to taste
  • 2 small shallots, quartered lengthwise and sliced thinly crosswise
  • 1 red or orange serrano pepper, cut into fine slivers with seeds
  • 1 green serrano pepper, cut into fine slivers with seeds
  • 4 red and green Thai chillies (prik kee noo), cut into 2 segments
  • Assortment of fresh firm and crisp vegetables, such as green or long beans, snap peas, cauliflower and cucumber; and sprigs of leafy aromatic herbs, such as mint and basil
Salted Crab Dip
Salted Crab Dip

Pull off the back shell of the salted crabs and discard. Remove the gills and cut each crab into four pieces, each piece with a few legs attached to a body part. Rinse and drain.

Heat the coconut cream in a saucepan over medium heat until smooth. Spoon out 2 tablespoons and reserve for later use. Add the ground pork and chopped shrimp, stirring to break into small bits as they cook. When most the pork has lost its raw pink color, add the crab pieces and return to a boil. Season sauce to taste with palm sugar and tamarind.

Simmer uncovered for ten to fifteen minutes. Taste, and if it is not salty or sweet enough, add a little salt and palm sugar. Stir in the sliced shallots and slivered red and green serrano peppers. Return to a boil, stir and transfer to a sauce dish. Let cool for ten to fifteen minutes. Top with the reserved coconut cream and garnish with the Thai chillies.

Vegetable Platter for Salted Crab Dip
Vegetable Platter for Salted Crab Dip

Arrange the vegetables on a platter and serve with the salted crab coconut sauce. The sauce may also be eaten with plain steamed rice. Suck on the crab pieces for a burst of salty crab flavor.

Serves 8-10 in a multi-course Thai meal.

Notes and Pointers:

Dip the vegetables and herbs into the sauce to eat, or place a few pieces at a time on the side of your dinner plate and spoon a little sauce over them. Dip and nibble-eat as you desire, rather than serve it as a course. The sauce may also be spooned a small amount at a time onto a little bit of rice and eaten to clear the palate after spicy bites from other dishes in the meal.

In addition to mint and basil, many other kinds of leafy aromatic herbs and strong-tasting vegetables found in Southeast Asian markets are delicious with this sauce, such as polygonum (called “rau ram” by the Vietnamese), sawleaf coriander (oblong leaves with serrated edges), rice paddy herb (rows of very small green leaves growing up soft, light green stems), lemon mint and edible chrysanthemum leaves. Bitter and astringent vegetables like bitter melon (warty, oblong squash) and fresh banana blossom also make good accompaniments, as the sauce softens their strong bite. Look for these unusual produce in Asian markets near you and give them a try, or substitute with strong-tasting salad greens, such as arugula, radicchio, endive, sorrel and parsley.

Banana Blossom
Banana Blossom

If you wish to try out the exotic banana blossom, it is available from time to time during the warmer months in Southeast Asian markets. The outer layers are a rich purplish red color, but the best parts for eating are the light ivory leaves in the center. Because the sap can blacken the heart and leaves, soak in salted water immediately after cutting. Banana blossom has an unpleasant astringent bite (an acquired taste) when eaten by itself, but this disappears when accompanied by the creamy sauce – a very unusual experience!

Note: This originally appeared in Kasma’s second cookbook, Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood (now out of print).

Kasma’s website includes information on many Thai ingredients.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2009.

Categories
Cooking Food ingredient Travel

Principles of Flavor Harmony

When working with strong flavors, like strong colors, it is important to keep them in balance with other flavors, so that one does not overpower another and cover up the more subtle flavors. Sharp sours, fiery spiciness and cutting bitterness can make peace and share the stage without conflict. Here is where the art of Thai cooking lies: the creation of flavor harmonies that bring together seemingly disparate flavors and integrate them into a unique and magnificent whole.

Fish Sauce, Source for Salty
Fish Sauce, Source for Salty

Your own cooking experience may have already revealed to you that the salty and sweet flavors balance each other. If something is too sweet, add a little salt; if it is too salty, add a little sugar. Taking this a step further, both the sweet and salty flavors balance the sour. For instance, if a dipping sauce is much too sour, determine first whether you can taste the salty flavor. If not, add a little salt (or fish sauce if the recipe uses fish sauce as the salty ingredient).

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Sour (Limey), Spicy & Salty Dressing
Sour (Limey), Spicy & Salty Dressing

When the sauce tastes equally salty and sour, the addition of a little sweet often helps pull these two flavors together, so that they do not stand alone as separate ingredients, but embrace each other as partners. At the same time, this will enable you to taste their distinctive sources, as well as the flavors of other ingredients that may be in the sauce. Therefore, instead of just sour, you may now notice that the sauce is limy, garlicky if there is garlic in it, and may even taste hotter than before since you are better able to taste the flavor of the chillies swimming in it. The sweet flavor, on the other hand, is also known to mellow out the heat of chillies, but usually, it tightens flavors first until you are able to taste a very faint sweetness in the back of your tongue. The harmony of the sauce peaks at this point and any further additions of sugar mellows out the heat as well as the sour and salty flavors.

Thai Chillies, for Spicy
Thai Chillies, for Spicy

When working with strong sour, salty and hot flavors, the sweet flavor serves an important balancing function. It harmonizes the disparate flavors, pulling them together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and opens up doorways for your taste buds to taste the multi-dimensional flavors of all the ingredients in the dish. The fresh bouquet of aromatic herbs, unique textural taste of vegetables, and the delicately sweet and luscious flavors of fresh seafood come through the strongly flavored sauce to the foreground and are not smothered by it. At the same time, the bitterness of pungent roots and roasted spices takes a seat in the background, adding its own virtues like bass in an orchestra.

Steamed Fish, Sour & Hot
Steamed Fish, Sour & Hot

Strong sour flavors, especially, benefit greatly from the balancing role of sweet. Frequently, a significant amount of sugar is required in order to bring about this balance. Just a small pinch may have little effect, and sometimes may even muddy up the waters – as if it has not yet convinced the strong players to cooperate. Keep adding a little more sugar until the faintest sweetness is noticeable in the back of your tongue. At this point, sugar is no longer needed as a peacemaker, but comes to the fore for its own sake, to be an equal player with the rest of the team. Whether or not more sugar should be added depends on whether the sweet component is an important feature of a particular savory dish. Its role varies from dish to dish and on the taste preference of the partakers of the meal.

Shrimp with Sataw, Spicy
Shrimp with Sataw, Spicy

Of course, not all Thai dishes contain all five flavors in their full intensity. Some are actually rather plain and simple, using one or two flavor ingredients; others in-between. The Thai love for variety and harmony is reflected in the balance of dishes in a meal. A typical meal consisting of five dishes would usually have one, or at most two, intensely hot dishes, accompanied by one or two of medium-range spiciness and the remaining mild and bland. If there is a sharply sour salad or soup, the rest of the dishes are not likely to contain the sour flavor to clash with it. If a rich curry is on the menu, the accompanying dishes can be expected to be light and coconut milk will not be used in any of them. And so on. In short, not only should flavors be in harmony within a dish, all the dishes in a meal should be in harmony with one another.

Note: Harmonizing flavors lies at the heart of Thai (or, indeed) any cuisine. Kasma used to emphasize frequent tastings in her Thai cooking classes (she’s now retired) to help teach the principles. You might enjoy Kasma’s articles Creating Harmonies with Primary Flavors and Balancing Flavors: An Exercise.

We have recipes on our website for two of the above dishes, Mom’s Good & Easy Steamed Fish (Bplah Neung) and Stir-Fried Shrimp with Sadtaw or Fava Beans (Gkung Pad Sadtaw).


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2009.

Categories
Food Thai Culture Travel

Thai New Year

Another New Year to Celebrate

While most Americans have long settled into the new year, there is a group of us Southeast Asians yet to celebrate our traditional New Year. The Hindu-Buddhist cultures of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand are gearing up for our approaching grand celebrations on April 13, 14 and 15.

Offerings at a Temple
Offerings at a Temple

This is a festive time of year, full of merriment and close family reunions. Young people visit elders, bearing gifts and scented water to anoint their hands in gestures of reverence. In return, they receive blessings and words of wisdom. Families gather and all take part in preparing elaborate offerings of food and flowers to present to monks in the temples in colorful merit-making ceremonies. Sacred Buddha images are brought out from their places in the chapels, ceremonially bathed and paraded among the people.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Thais Worshipping
Thais Worshipping

In the countryside, the New Year gives young men and women the opportunity to meet and play games together, usually in groups. They sing and dance traditional folk songs and dances. It is a time of courting and jestful playing. Being that this is the hottest time of year, water is thrown about at one another, both to cool off and as symbolic acts of bestowing blessings. It is a day when people dress in their finest, yet laugh and cheer as they get drenched by water coming from all those around them. 

Sticky Rice Snacks
Sticky Rice Snacks

Food stalls crowd temple and fair grounds with an extraordinary array of snack foods and sweetmeats to tempt every palate, while at home, extended families cook together exquisite feasts of seemingly endless courses. Special new year foods vary from region to region and country to country. In the heart of Thailand scorched by heat, a traditional food consists of a special rice, pounded and winnowed seven times before it is cooked, after which it is sifted into cold water, strained through seven layers of thin cloth, and finally soaked in cold water in an incensed earthenware pot and sprinkled with jasmine flowers. The scented rice is served with an assortment of dainty side dishes and condiments. 

Sticky Rice with Mango
Sticky Rice with Mango

For most cultures, the New Year would not be complete without its luxuriant spread of delectable sweetmeats. Some are delicately wrapped in banana, bamboo and pandan leaves in packages of varying shapes and sizes. A log-shaped bundle holds sticky rice stuffed with banana and a few grains of black beans, while a miniature bamboo leaf-wrapped pyramid hides a gooey rice confection, and so on and so forth. 

For me, all the abundance the New Year brings does not overshadow the glory of the hot season’s favorite treat – luscious ripe mangoes served with creamy coconut-flavored sticky rice (also called sweet rice or glutinous rice). Though eaten throughout the mango season from March through May, the golden color, sweetness and fragrance of the heavenly fruits are hard to beat as symbols of prosperity, especially when paired with the rich taste of the rice, a grain that reflects the fertility of the land. Furthermore, it is easy to make and the ingredients readily available from Asian markets in the Bay Area.


Coconut-Flavored Sweet Rice with Mangoes Recipe

(Our website has a slightly different version of this recipe. Our recipe index contains many more dessert recipes, including one for Black Sticky Rice Pudding.)

  • 2 cups long-grain white sweet rice or glutinous rice
  • 2 cups, or 1 can, unsweetened creamy coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1-2 ripe mangoes, peeled and sliced

Rinse the rice, then cover with tap water 2-3 inches above the rice line and soakfour hours, or overnight. The rice will absorb much of the water, grow in size and soften, such that the grains easily break apart if pressed between the fingers.

Drain and spread grains loosely in a shallow heat-proof dish. Place on a steamer rack and steam dry (without water added to the rice) over a pot with at least two inches of water on the bottom. Steam over medium heat for half an hour, or until the grains are translucent, cooked through but chewy. Or you can use a stacked steamer.

Sticky Rice Steaming Basket
Cooking Apparatus for Sticky Rice

If you are making a large quantity, in order to cook the grains evenly, use the special woven bamboo, cone-shaped basket for steaming glutinous rice, which fits on the companion spitoon-shaped pot with a collar to hold the basket in place. Fill pot with water to a level at least 2 inches below the bottom of the basket, and the basket with the pre-soaked rice. Cover with any round lid that fits an inch or more over the rice level. The basket-and-pot set is available from Southeast Asian markets. Alternatively, a straw or wire mesh colander that fits inside a steamer pot works well as a substitute. Avoid steaming the rice on top of a piece of cloth lining a steamer rack as any moisture the cloth absorbs may turn the bottom layer of grains into mush rather than cooking them in whole grains.

While the rice is steaming, prepare the coconut sauce by heating the coconut milk, sugar and salt together in a saucepan. Warm the milk until the mixture is well blended and smooth.

Mix the cooked rice while it is hot out of the steamer with half the coconut sauce. Stir well with a spoon to coat all the grains evenly. The rice should be moist but not swimming with sauce. Add more of the sauce if needed, reserving the remainder for topping the rice before serving. Let sit for at least 10 minutes to allow the grains to absorb the sauce.

When ready to serve, dish onto individual serving plates, dribble a small amount of reserved coconut sauce over each portion and arrange mango slices over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2009.