One of the joys of Thailand is the wide variety of snacks, or, in Thai, kanom, available in all the markets. A recent blog entry by Kasma that included a recipe for a very tasty Thai pudding, Tapioca Black Bean Pudding, got me thinking about Thai kanom. In the title above I’ve used kanom wan, wan being the word for “sweet,” since I’ll focus on sweet snacks here and there are savory snacks as well).
Kasma tells me that Thai people traditionally didn’t eat sweets for desserts; if they had a dessert at all, it was fruit of some variety. Something sweet might be eaten an hour or so after eating or it might be eaten at any time during the day. This is not so different from how the Thai people treat food in general. For instance, they don’t really have any specific breakfast foods – breakfast is considered just another meal and anything that is eaten at any other time of the day will also be eaten for breakfast.
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Thai markets are full of kanom – I’m actually fairly amazed by the variety of Thai desserts and snacks. On our market walks we’re always seeing something that I swear I’ve never seen before. They are part of what I think of as a “grazing culture” – a Thai will eat any time of the day or night. Sometimes these new snacks don’t last – the sticky rice treats in jack fruit pictured here appeared one year at Or Tor Kor Market in Bangkok but the next year they were not there. Too bad, they were tasty!
The Tapoica Black Bean Pudding is representative of Thai sweets in many ways. One, it includes a salty component. Two, it is coconut based. Three, it contains ingredients that are healthy for you (black beans, coconut milk).
Thai sweets and snacks are seldom just sweet and, as a rule, are less sweet than American Desserts. They often have a salty component to play off the sweet taste. Kasma was very amused a few years back when the New York Times ran an article about the “new” way of making desserts that included a salty component. She wrote a letter and pointed out that in Thailand and all over Asia they’ve combined sweet and salty for hundreds of years.
A great many Thai kanom are coconut based. Although coconut can be used in any form, such as shredded meat as used in Kanom Paeng Jee – Grilled Coconut Cakes – use coconut milk. The Tapioca Black Pudding is one example and Kasma’s dessert recipes include three all time favorites: Coconut Flavored Sticky Rice with Mango (Kao Niow Mamuang), Grilled Coconut-Rice Hotcakes (Kanom Krok), and Coconut Egg Custard (Sangkaya). (The picture above of a vendor making Kanom Krok was taken at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) in Bangkok.)
Another characteristic of Thai kanom wan the presence of healthy ingredients – coconut milk, taro, squash, corn, to name just a few. Coconut milk is actually a very healthy food indeed, despite the efforts of the American oil industry to convince us otherwise. I’ve written an article The Truth About Coconut Oil and perhaps the best article on the subject is Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century by Mary Enig, Ph.D. We’ve also got a page with numerous links to information about coconut oil.
The quick story is that coconut oil does not clog your arteries or contribute to heart disease and it is full of healthy fats, such as Lauric Acid and Caprylic Acid, which have a beneficial effect in the body by helping you fight off bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungus. It is what is called a “functional food,” defined thus: “a functional food provides a health benefit over and beyond the basic nutrients.”
One of my very favorite Thai snacks is a coconut-milk based snack called ruam mitr. Kasma, in her classes, calls it “Iced Sweet Coconut Soup with a Mix of Various Tidbits.” It’s basically a sweet coconut soup to which up to a dozen or so various tidbits such as jackfruit, green noodles, young coconut meat, water chestnut and corn have been added. The picture above, before the ice is added, gives an idea of the variety of ingredients. It is topped with shaved ice and on a warm day is a delightful combination of coolness, taste and textures. It is very cooling and refreshing. (Picture is from Kasma’s class.)
There are numerous examples of kanom that contain something served in a “coconut soup,” such as Taro Cubes in Coconut Milk, Asian Pumpkin Simmered in Pandan-Leaf-Scented Sweet Coconut Cream Sauce (Gkaeng Buad Fak Tong) (picture from Kasma’s class), and the “Ordained Bananas” – Bananas Simmered in Jasmine-Scented Coconut Milk (Gkluey Buad Chi). (So-called, because nuns, in Thailand, wear white: the bananas have been “ordained” in the white coconut milk.)
Coconut milk is also used in other desserts, such as Kanom Tuay – Steamed Coconut-Rice Cakes in Small Dishes and Sticky Rice and Corn Pudding (Kao Niow Bpiak Kao Pohd). And of course the kanom krok mentioned above.
Bananas are another common and well-loved ingredient. Of course, in Thailand there are many different varieties of bananas, all of which make the kind we find in United States supermarkets taste very bland indeed. In addition to Ordained Bananas, here are just a few banana-based desserts Kasma used to teach in her Thai cooking classes:
- Grilled Plantain Bananas, Glazed with Sweet & Savory Coconut Cream Sauce,
- Fried Bananas (Gkluay Tawd)
- Stewed Bananas Topped with Coconut Cream Sauce (Gkluay Kai Cheum)
- Steamed or Grilled Banana Leaf-Wrapped Sticky Rice Stuffed with Banana and Black Beans (Kao Dtom Pad)
- Southern Thai Muslim Banana-Ginger Griddle Cakes (Gkalabpaeng)
- Steamed Banana Cake Wrapped in Banana Leaf Packages or in Banana Leaf Cups (Kao Dtom Pad) (picture from Kasma’s class)
Other snacks have more of a Chinese influence – indeed, they are found on Chinese menus all over the world as well as in restaurants and markets in Thailand:
- Sticky Rice Balls Stuffed with Black Sesame Paste in Warm Sweet Ginger Broth (Bua Loy Nahm King) (picture from the Krua Andaman in Nakhon Si Thammarat)
- Sweet Potatoes in Ginger Broth (Man Dtom Nahm King)
- Young Coconut Agar Jelly (Woon Maprao Awn)
Cassava, or yucca, is another ingredient often seen, as in these snacks:
- Steamed Cassava Strips Rolled in Shredded Coconut (Kanom Man)
- Caramelized Stewed Cassava (Yucca) in Syrup, Topped with Coconut Cream Sauce (Man Cheuam)
- Cassava Custard Topped with Coconut Cream (Dtakoh Man Sambpalang)
Here are just a few other snacks you may come across:
- Crispy Peppery Sweet Glazed Shells (Krawng Kraeng Gkrawb) (picture from Kasma’s class)
- Chewy Sticky Rice Balls Stuffed with Smoked Sweet Shredded Coconut (Kanom Dtom Kao)
- Southern Thai-Style Sweet Roti (Muslim Fried Bread) sprinkled with sugar and condensed milk and/or stuffed with sliced banana). Although these originated in the south, you’ll find roti vendors all over Thailand.
- Steamed Pumpkin Cakes in Banana Leaf Cups (Kanom Faktong)
Another type of sweet you may encounter has a bright orange appearance, the color coming from egg yolks. One example of this is Kanom Buang Thai, a Thai crepe whose filling includes meringue and sweetened egg yolks. These particuler snacks can be traced to the influence of Marie Guimar, the half-Japanese, half-Portuguese wife of a Greek minister (Constantine Phaulkon) to the Siamese royal court in the 17th century. Marie worked her way to the position of head of the royal kitchen and introduced the use of eggs in making desserts and other sweets.
One trend that I’ve noticed over the years is an increase in western-style desserts in Thailand. It is fairly common to see bakeries that have decorated cakes and there’s one restaurant chain, S & P, that is famous for their cakes. In markets and malls you’ll find cookies, cakes and donuts.
And there are the exceptions to Thai snacks being less sweet than western desserts. On one memorable evening, a Thai friend took us to a trendy kanom shop that served nothing but extremely sweet, multi-colored syrups on white, puffy bread. I suppose the western-style bread makes this a fusion dessert. The place was absolutely packed.
In the United States, I’ve not seen much of a variety of Thai snacks at Thai restaurants: you’re lucky if they have sticky rice or fried bananas. Where I’ve seen a greater variety of snacks, somewhat more representative of what you find in Thailand, are at some of the Asian markets we frequent, such as Mithapheap market on International Boulevard an 14th Street in Oakland. You’ll find the snacks by the check-out counters. If you’re not in the Bay Area, make a trip to some of the Southeast Asian markets in your area. (See Shopping at Asian Markets (for Thai Ingredients).
We’ll finish with this picture of a young woman vendor outside of Worarat Market in Chiang Mai. She’s making Grilled Coconut Cakes (Kanom Paeng Jee), Fried Yam Balls and Fried Bananas (Gluay Tawd).
Written by Michael Babcock, October 2009.