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Kasma’s Intermediate Thai Cooking Class #3

Michael Babcock, Saturday, June 1st, 2013

Note: These classes are no longer offered.

Kasma Loha-unchit has been teaching Thai cooking in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1985. This blog looks at the third class in her 4-session Intermediate Thai Cooking Series, sequel to the Beginning Thai Series (also 4 classes).

I’ve already blogged on the first two classes in the series:

Student Stir-Fries

A student stir-fries as Kasma watches

Kasma’s classes at their best are very much like a group of friends coming together to cook. By the 3rd intermediate class, people are getting to know each other and are more comfortable together. By this class they’ve gotten used to the class format of breaking into groups and taking a recipe from start to finish. If they’re not hooked on Thai food before this class (most people are), this class is bound to do so!

(Click images to see larger version.)

This class also mirrors what will happen in most advanced classes. One of the recipes is typically a snack (in this class it’s Miang Kam – Tasty Leaf-wrapped tidbits) and another recipe is a Thai dessert. I know no place in America other than by going through all of Kasma’s classes where you will get such a complete introduction to various Thai foods and desserts in particular. The food in this class is also trending to spicier than before.

Bai Cha Plu - Wild Pepper Leaf

One of the strengths of Kasma’s classes is introducing Asian ingredients that are generally unknown to us westerners. In this class the Tasty Leaf-Wrapped Tidbits (Miang Kam) traditionally uses a leaf called bai cha plu – piper sarmentosum – the wild pepper leaf. Since we can find it in local markets, Kasma uses it in the class alongside her usual substitute, spinach leaves. Strangely enough nearly all writers about Thai food (including famous ones who should know better) misidentify this leaf as “betel leaf,” which is  bai plu – piper betel. See Kasma’s blog Miang Kam uses Bai Cha Plu NOT Betel Leaf (Bai Plu)

In this class, Kasma also introduces fresh water chestnut, used in the Tapioca Pudding. Most students have only tasted canned water chestnuts: the fresh one is fresher, crunchier with a natural sweetness.

Chopping Ingredients}

Chopping ingredients for a paste

Prepared Ingredients

Prepared ingredients (paste on right)

In the Intermediate and then Advanced classes, Kasma shows how the same ingredients can be combined in a multitude of ways to make different dishes. In this class, the students learn how to use the mortar & pestle to make a curry paste (Panaeng Curry) from scratch. They learn a delicious stir-fry, which also uses the mortar and pestle to make a paste to be used in the stir-fry. In later classes students get to learn Thai dishes that virtually can not be found in this country elsewhere; some classes will focus on regional cuisine. Kasma estimates that the restaurants in the United States probably offer around 5% of the dishes available in Thailand: in her Advanced Classes, you get to sample a large number of that other 95%.

Fresh Water Chestnuts

Peeling fresh water chestnuts

Stir-frying

Stir-frying can be fun!


Menu – Intermediate Thai Cooking Class Series #2

Miang Kam (Tasty Leaf-wrapped Tidbits)

Miang Kam

Miang Kam - Tasty Tidbits

Assembling Miang Kam 1

Assembling Miang Kam 1

Miang is a Thai word used to describe a whole class of leaf-wrapped food. Kasma has a cookbook (written in Thai) that consists only of various miang that you can make. Miang Kam has to be one of the all time best appetizers anywhere in the world: tasty and fun to assemble. It consists of a number of ingredients cut into pea-sized pieces (these are the tidbits), which are wrapped up in a green leaf: in Thailand they use bai cha plu (see above) but you can substitute with any leafy green – Kasma prefers Spinach when she can’t get bai cha plu locally. (We are lucky enough to have 3 or 4 local markets that often carry the leaf.)

Assembling Miang Kam 2

Assembling Miang Kam 2

In Kasma’s recipe the tidbits are all arranged on a plate so that each person can assemble their own snack. Once each of all of the ingredients are placed on the leaf, a dab or two of sauce is added and the leaf is folded to enclose everything. Then, and this is critical, the entire leaf with all of the tidbits is popped, whole, into the mouth. The magic of the snack is the interaction of all the different ingredients: when done right you get a burst of flavors that light up the entire palate: description can not do it justice.

Miang Kam 2

Assembled Tasty Tidbits

Miang Kam a common snack in Thailand, both at restaurants, where it is often served as Kasma serves it in class, and as a street food, where it is often sold pre-wrapped so that the buyer can just pop it right in his or her mouth.

Kasma’s version is my all-time favorite. There are no less than 10 different ingredients to wrap up in the leaf, including one that I’ve never seen in Thailand – crispy rice pieces – which adds a crunchy texture. Most of the Miang Kam I’ve had in Thailand has had anywhere from 4 to 6 or 7 ingredients.

Panaeng Beef Curry (Kaeng Panaeng Neua)

Panaeng Beef Curry

Panaeng Beef Curry

Kasma’s version of Panaeng Beef Curry is another dish that I prefer over anything I’ve eaten in Thailand: partly because of the beef. In Thailand the beef is not as good as in the United States; in Thailand, for this dish, beef is typically cooked well-done in coconut milk for at least an hour before being added to the curry. Kasma’s version uses skirt steak, which she cooks rare: it comes out tender and tasty.

This is a dry curry using coconut milk where the curry sauce barely coats the meat. The beef version of this dish is especially tasty because it uses several roasted spices: the roasting gives a different and delicious dimension to the dish. In introducing the recipe, Kasma goes over using different meats: when making the dish with chicken, the spices are not roasted; for pork, they are just lightly roasted. Roasted garlic and shallots add another dimension lacking in most other coconut-based curries.

Be sure to view the slide show below.

Spicy Southern-style Stir-fried Shrimp and Squid (Pad Ped Goong/Pla Meuk)

Stir-frying in Wok

Preparing the dish

Seafood Dish

Spicy Stir-fried Shrimp & Squid

Given its name, you would expect this dish to be spicy-hot; and it is. It uses a simple paste, made using the stone mortar and pestle, that includes lemon grass, galanga, garlic, cilantro roots and chilli peppers. Kasma uses both Serrano and Thai chillies in the dish. Sliced shallots are added to provide a different texture along with their distinctive taste. It can be made with any seafood; Kasma uses cuttlefish and shrimp. It’s spicy and somewhat sour and salty. A delicious dish.

Tapioca Pudding with Water Chestnuts and Coconut Cream (Ta-koh Sakoo)

Tapioca Pudding

Tapioca Pudding with Water Chestnuts

This recipe is a kanom wan (sweet snack). Growing up in America, tapioca pudding was an unappetizing confection that deserved the name “Fish Eyes and Glue.” This dessert is another story. It uses small tapioca pearls in a sweet syrup. What makes it so delicious is the addition of a coconut cream sauce that is both sweet and salty: it is the combination of flavors that takes the dish out of the merely mundane and into the spectacular. Served warm, it softly melts in your mouth with the saltiness accentuating and off-setting the sweet. It is truly comfort food!

You can read Michael’s blog on Thai (Sweet) Snacks – (Kanom Wan)


Making Panaeng Curry – A Slideshow

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Roasting Chillies
Roasting Coriander Seeds
Roasted Coriander Seeds
Grinding Spices
Toasten Oven
Shallots & Garlic
Shrimp Paste
Roasting Shrimp Paste
Roasted Shrimp Paste
Smelling Shrimp Paste
Pounding
Making a Paste
Paste with Chillies
Pounded Curry Paste
Cutting Meat
Meat Close-up
Heating Coconut Cream
Adding Paste
Cooking Paste
Cooked Curry Paste
Adding the Meat
Cooking the Meat
Adding Thai Basil
Panaeng Curry Cooking
Panaeng Curry Team
Panaeng Beef Curry
Close-up of Panaeng Curry

Roasting chillies, stove-top

Roasting coriander seeds in a iron skillet

Roasted coriander seeds - Panaeng Curry uses roasted spices

Grinding spices in the "coffee" grinder

Roasting shallots and garlic in a toaster oven

Roasted shallots and garlic, ready for pounding into a paste

Shrimp paste (kapi) is wrapped in a banana leaf

The shrimp paste (kapi) is then roasted over a flame

Roasted shrimp paste (kapi) - ready for pounding

Shrimp paste (kapi) is quite fragrant!

Beginning to make the curry paste with a stone mortar & pestle

The curry paste is progressing

The curry paste with pounded chillies, almost ready

Pounded Panaeng Curry paste, ready for cooking

Cutting the skirt steak for the Panaeng Curry

Close-up of cutting beef against the grain

Heating coconut cream for frying the curry paste

Adding the curry paste to the coconut cream

Cooking the curry paste in the coconut cream

The curry paste is cooked until it is aromatic

Adding the skirt steak to the curry paste & coconut cream mixture

The beef is lightly cooked in the paste mixture

Thai Basil and slivered kaffir lime leaves are added to the pot

The Thai basil has wilted: almost finished!

The 4 members of the Panaeng Curry team

Panaeng Beef Curry (Kaeng Panaeng Neua)

A close up of the Panaeng Curry, ready to eat

Roasting Chillies thumbnail
Roasting Coriander Seeds thumbnail
Roasted Coriander Seeds thumbnail
Grinding Spices thumbnail
Toaster Oven thumbnail
Shallots & Garlic thumbnail
Shrimp Paste thumbnail
Roasting Shrimp Paste thumbnail
Roasted Shrimp Paste thumbnail
Smelling Shrimp Paste thumbnail
Pounding thumbnail
Making a Paste thumbnail
Paste with Chillies thumbnail
Pounded Curry Paste thumbnail
Cutting Meat thumbnail
Meat Close-up thumbnail
Heating Coconut Cream thumbnail
Adding Paste thumbnail
Cooking Paste thumbnail
Cooked Curry Paste  thumbnail
Adding the Meat thumbnail
Cooking the Meat thumbnail
Adding Thai Basil thumbnail
Panaeng Curry Cooking thumbnail
Panaeng Curry Team thumbnail
Panaeng Beef Curry thumbnail
Close-up of Panaeng Curry thumbnail

Don’t miss:

Here is the next Intermediate Class Blogs:

I’ve already blogged on Kasma’s Beginning Thai Cooking Series:


Written by Michael Babcock, June 2013

Miang Kam uses Bai Cha Plu NOT Betel Leaf (Bai Plu)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, July 25th, 2010

There seems to be much confusion and misinformation in western culinary publications and in the food pages of major newspapers about the alleged culinary use of betel leaf, called bai plu in Thai and Lao; bai = leaf, plu = name of the leaf. We do not use it in Thai cuisine and it’s wrong to say that it is the leaf used to wrap a common Thai snack called miang kam.

Betel Leaves

Betel leaves - bai plu

In most of Southeast Asia, the betel leaf is used largely for the chewing of areca nut (erroneously called “betel nut” by colonialists) and as a medicinal herb. It has a very intense taste – bitter, hot, and unpleasantly medicinal – and can numb the tongue. Such a strongly flavored leaf would be far from the leaf of choice among sensible cooks for wrapping the tasty tidbits in miang kam; It would only ruin the intricate balance of flavors of such a delightful Thai snack.

Bunch of Bai Cha Plu

A bunch of bai cha plu

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

The leaf used in wrapping miang kam is instead the “wild pepper leaf” – bai cha plu in Thai and Lao. Like the betel leaf, it is a member of the pepper genus (botanically, “Piper”) and. therefore, the two are related but far from being the same, just as lemons and oranges are different fruits though both are citrus. The botanical name of betel leaf is “Piper betel,” often spelled “Piper betle,” which gives it its common name, whereas the edible leaf with culinary uses is “Piper sarmentosum”. It would be more accurate to call the latter “wild pepper leaf” rather than “wild betel leaf” as it is sometimes called (again wrongly just as is the case with areca nut) since it has little to do with “betel” other than being in the same large “Piper” family with many other prominent relatives. Doing so only confuses aspiring cooks interested in learning to prepare Thai, Lao and Cambodian cuisines who end up buying the wrong leaf to use.

Plu or “betel” is a woody evergreen vine that prefers growing on high ground since it dislikes wet soils, whereas cha plu is a herbaceous creeper that naturally grows along streams in lowland forests, preferring damp soils. This difference already sets the two plants a world apart. Besides, I believe the origins of the two differ – “betel” is native to India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, whereas cha plu‘s home is the tropical heartland of Southeast Asia. The reason for the confusion between the two, aside from the improper naming by western sources, stems from the similar shape and color of the leaves and the difficulty of telling which is which from a distance. Both have large, glossy, deep green, heart-shaped leaves. But when the two are placed side by side, the differences are apparent. bai plu is much larger, thicker, tougher and more leathery with a smoother appearance, while bai cha plu is thinner, more tender and has much more veining in-between the main vertical lines giving it a crinkly appearance (see pictures below for comparison).

Bai Cha Plu

Bai cha plu

Bai Plu - Betel Leaf

Bai plu - betel leaf

Sweet Potato Leaf

A type of sweet potato leaf

(This is a leaf of a type of sweet potato – don’t mistake it for bai cha plu!)

Because of their similar appearance, even some Thais can confuse one for the other if shown just one leaf. For this reason and the way it is cultivated and harvested, bai plu or betel leaf is almost always sold as single leaves, occasionally bundled together with a strip of the outer covering of banana stem. In fresh, open-air marketplaces in Thailand, it is usually found in the “smoke shop” – i.e., the stall that sells fresh or dried areca nuts and tobacco. Seldom is it ever found among vegetables at fresh produce stalls. Bai cha plu, on the other hand, is always sold still attached to a stem in the company of several other leaves and is sold in bunches alongside other vegetables (see picture, below, of vegetable stall in Sukhothai market).

Vegetable Vendor

Vendor, bai cha plu to right

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the two leaves are sold in a similar fashion as above. Betel leaves can be found in single leaves in a large bag, usually near dried areca nuts (yes, there are Southeast Asian immigrants here who still chew them as a stimulant) or the checkout stand and you can buy one or as many leaves as you wish, while “wild pepper leaves” are sold still attached to stems (usually the terminal ends of young vines) and most often, already packaged in plastic bags. At $7 to $20 a pound, depending on availability, it’s hard to confuse it with a common and much cheaper summer vegetable (a kind of sweet potato leaves – see picture, above) which comes in large bunches with similar-shaped but thinner, smaller and non-shiny leaves at 99 cents a pound.

Miang Kam For Sale

Packaged Miang Kam sets

The Thai name cha plu is a recognizable one to Lao and Cambodian shopkeepers, so you can ask them to verify whether you are buying the right leaves. In the East (San Francisco) Bay where I live, I have no trouble finding cha plu in three Oakland stores during the warmer months of the year – Sontepheap on International Blvd. and 14th Ave, Sun Hop Fat on East 12th Street at 5th Ave, and occasionally bulk at the Laos International Market on International between 16th and 17th Aves. During the winter and early spring when the weather is still quite cold, this tropical vegetable may be hard to come by and has to be shipped in from Hawaii.

Yum Sadet Salad

Yum sadet salad

Bai cha plu has become so closely associated with Miang Kam that among Thais it is frequently given the nickname bai miang (bai = leaf), although another tasty, large and fairly thick, oblong leaf called bai tonglang is also used for this snack. The latter, however, is now rarely available as fewer growers cultivate it. Besides Miang Kam, cha plu accompanies many kinds of spicy salads as a wrapper since its size, resilience and peppery flavor make it a good leaf for this purpose. Among them is the delicious and fiery hot yum sadet pictured here from Reun Mai restaurant in Krabi – a mixture of shrimp, fried cashews, fried dried cuttlefish, chopped ginger, lemon grass, Thai chillies, chopped lime with peel, shredded green mango and other ingredients that combine perfectly to set off the fuse for a big explosion of flavor in the mouth, the bai cha plu adding both flavor and texture.

Miang Takrai

Miang Takrai, Sudapon restaurant

Another salad pictured here – Miang Takrai (Lemongrass Miang) – comes from the charming Sudapon restaurant in Trang – a sweet-and-sour combination of myriad chopped ingredients and featuring thinly sliced lemon grass and sweet shredded dried pork. There are other miang’s, too, that sometimes use bai cha plu as one of the leaves for wrapping, such as the miang bplah tu shown below from one of my classes, consisting of a tossed salad of finely shredded cooked “bplah tu” (a favorite, small mackerel plentiful in the Gulf of Thailand), slivered ginger, sliced lemon grass, sawtooth coriander, green onions, and a hot-and-sour dressing made with chopped Thai chillies and lime juice, to be wrapped in a leaf (either bai cha plu or lettuce) along with toasted shredded coconut, roasted peanuts and cilantro. Indeed a delicious combination! and a complete meal in itself served chilled on a hot summer day!

Miang Plah Too

Miang Bplah Tu

Bai cha plu is also shredded up as one of the vegetables in southern Thailand’s well-loved rice salad (kao yum) and cooked in whole leaves as a vegetable in pungent curries with chicken, shrimp or snails, where the leaves impart a distinctive flavor and aroma. cha plu is loaded with antioxidants and recent research indicates that it is protective against several kinds of cancer, including cancer of the lungs throat, stomach, intestines and bladder. It is rich in beta-carotenes, which the body can convert into valuable vitamin A if eaten along with good fats needed to store and transport this fat-soluble vitamin. In the case of a curry, the coconut milk provides the necessary fat. bai cha plu, however, does contain a fair amount of oxalates, which need to be offset by eating it with sufficient protein such as the seafood or other meats in a curry, and by drinking lots of water to flush out the oxalates from the body.

Betel Nut Sets

Betel nut sets with rolled betel leaves

As for betel leaf, I know of no culinary use for this strong-tasting leaf with known stimulant qualities. Some sources here in the Bay Area say the Vietnamese use it for wrapping meats for grilling, but when I ask recent immigrants from Vietnam, I am told the leaf used for this purpose is not the betel leaf, but the “wild pepper leaf”. They all tell me that betel leaf is only used for the chewing of areca nut and for medicinal purposes and that it is much too strong and stimulating for consuming as a vegetable. In fact, a Cambodian friend told me recently that he once ate a betel leaf and it kept him frazzled most of the day!

In wrapping areca nut for chewing, the betel leaf is not ingested, but spitted out. Betel leaf is a stimulant and so is areca nut, but the stimulant property of both is absorbed through the blood vessels lining the inside of the mouth and not through the digestive tract. Although it has many medicinal benefits and is used in age-old Ayurvedic medicine in India, the unusually higher rate of oral cancer among people who chew “betel nut” has led some scientists to speculate that the betel leaf might possibly be the culprit. In the absence of further studies to prove or disprove this suspicion, it would be prudent to be cautious and avoid eating the betel leaf as a substitute for the nutritious “bai chaplu”. There’s no telling whether it might contribute to the risk of other cancers if it is ingested.

Miang Kam

<em>Miang Kam</em> bite on bai cha plu

In a Thai-language book about 108 myriad Thai vegetables (the number 108 is often used to describe plentiful abundance in varieties), the author is quick to point out that the flavorful bai cha plu with all its wonderful nutritional properties, “often feels horribly slighted” by people who erroneously identify it as betel leaf. Somehow in the West, culinary personalities, like the colonialists before them, are confused. Just as the areca nut has been “slighted” for centuries by being called “betel nut”, the “wild pepper leaf” is likewise being misunderstood as if it is the “betel” leaf. Why is it that the West has such a romanticized notion of the word “betel”?


Of further interest:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2010.