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Tapioca – Sagu (or Sakoo)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Warm Tapioca Puddings Give Comfort on Cold Evenings

The tapioca pudding in Thailand is quite different from what westerners are used to.

Tapioca pearls

Tapioca pearls

Traditional wisdom in the Orient tells us to eat foods in accordance with the elements of the season in order to stay healthy. In the hot season, we eat milder and lighter foods, such as clear soups, oil-less sour salads and leafy greens, and drink cooling teas like those made from chrysanthemum flowers and pennywort leaves. In the cool season, our diet shifts to include richer and spicier foods like curries, coconut soups, and creamy coconut custards and puddings.

Among the puddings I so loved as a child are those made with tapioca pearls swimming in a warm coconut milk soup. They sometimes contain other flavor and texture elements such as starchy black beans or barley, crunchy water chestnuts, smooth creamy strips of young coconut meat, chewy sticky rice, or sweet corn kernals. These puddings warm the tummy and calm a child’s restless spirit on cool winter evenings. At the same time, they are nutritious, easy to digest, and relatively light compared with dairy-based western desserts.

Uncooked tapioca pearls

Uncooked tapioca pearls

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

In most of Asia, tapioca pearls and the puddings made from them are called sagu, sago or sakoo – derived from a Malayan word for the sagu (pronounced “sah-koo”) palm tree (Metroxylon sagu). The sagu palm grows naturally in swampy areas of tropical Asia and is believed to have originated in the Molucca islands of Indonesia. From there, the palm found its way to the rest of Southeast Asia and to India. This 12- to 17-foot palm in the same family as the coconut palm lives for about fifteen years, after which it dies standing. During its decline, a shoot sprouts from the underground root to produce a new tree which carries on the life of the dying parent.

Tapioca pearls cooking

Tapioca pearls cooking

Since ancient times, natives on the islands of Indonesia have used the dense starchy core of the dead sagu palm’s trunk for food. The starch is made into small pellets and dried in the sun so that they can keep until needed for cooking into both savory and sweet dishes. A very common preparation is to cook the starch into a thick porridge and mix with sweetened coconut milk to make the age-old pudding that is now enjoyed throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest of the Asian subcontinent.

Before rice cultivation was introduced in the fifteenth century, sagu was an important staple carbohydrate food on many of the islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Even today, the southeastern islands of the chain where sagu palms grow abundantly continue to rely on it, especially during seasons when rice yields are insufficient to feed the populations. A full-grown tree can yield as much as 600 to 800 pounds of starch for consumption. Besides the starch, the fruit of the sagu palm makes a good snack; the leaf fronds, like those of the coconut palm, are valuable thatching material for roofs; and the fibrous, peely bark can be woven into mats for use as siding for homes, into flat trays for drying foods and into storage baskets.

Tapioca with water chestnuts

Tapioca with water chestnuts

It is believed that sagu as a food has been around for over a thousand years. In his explorations of the Spice Islands, Marco Polo encountered and sampled it, and later, in the booming international maritime trade of the eighteenth century, sagu was among the prized commodities from these islands, favored especially by Chinese merchants. Even western merchants in those days became intrigued with sagu and brought it to their homeland where sagu pudding soon became a popular dessert.

Tapioca black bean pudding

Tapioca black bean pudding

Though sagu palm starch is still used to make puddings, it has been replaced in much of Southeast Asia by the starch from the manioc or cassava root, which grows prevalently, take much less time to mature and are easier to harvest. Most of the tapioca pearls imported into America today are made from the latter. In Southeast Asian markets, they come in tiny round pellets in a choice of white, light green and purplish pink. The colors are natural –– the green from the fragrant juice extract of pandanus leaf and the pink from the lovely purple flower of a tropical vine called anchan. Occasionally, you might encounter a mixture of louder colors like bright orange and red, which are from artificial food dyes.

Use the small pellets for the following recipe. For a more substantial, chewy texture, try the larger pearls the size of fish-eye pupils in the first recipe, or use it in savory soups for both an interesting visual and textural component, as well as a source of carbohydrate.

See our website for more  Thai recipes and more Thai ingredients.

This recipe is also available on our website as Tapioca Black Bean Pudding.

Tapioca Black Bean Pudding Recipe (Sakoo Tua Dtam)


Tapioca black bean pudding

Tapioca black bean pudding

  • 1/2 cup black beans
  • 1/2 cup small tapioca pearls
  • 2 cups, or 1 can coconut milk
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar, to taste
  • 1 tsp. sea salt, to taste

Pick through and discard any shriveled beans. Cover with water and soak for two or more hours.

Bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the beans and return to a boil.  Simmer covered over low heat until the beans are tender, stirring occasionally and adding more boiling water if the beans are drying up. When tender, stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 cup sugar, and simmer a while longer for the beans to absorb the flavorings.  [Beans may also be cooked in a pressure cooker, adding the salt and sugar when the beans are cooked.]

When the beans are in their last stretch of cooking, heat 2 cups of water in another saucepan. While waiting for the water to come to a boil, rinse the tapioca pearls in a fine-mesh strainer under running cool tap water until thoroughly wet. Drain and let sit a minute or two for the pearls to absorb surface water, then add to the boiling water. Reduce heat and stir frequently until the pearls clear (8 to 10 minutes). If the mixture becomes too thick, add a little more water to help cook the tapioca until all the pearls are cooked through.

Make a coconut sauce by combining the coconut milk, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Heat and simmer about 5 minutes to thicken slightly.

When both the beans and tapioca are cooked, mix them together and pour in the coconut sauce. Stir to blend. Serve warm. Makes 6 to 8 servings.


As with many Thai snacks and desserts, the coconut cream topping is salty sweet to contrast with the bottom layer of pudding which is sweeter. The saltiness makes the cream taste richer; the cream is not meant to be eaten by itself, but together with its sweeter companion.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, October 2009.

Garlic Chives and Flowering Chives

Kasma Loha-unchit, Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Garlic chives and flowering chives are vegetables found in Asian markets that may not be familiar to westerners.

Garlic Chives

Garlic chives

Members of the onion and garlic family are indispensable in my cooking. Crushed garlic, diced onions, chopped shallots and sliced green onions are routinely added to salads, soups, stir-fried dishes, marinades for grilled foods, dipping sauces, and curries and stews. They provide the background foundation upon which other flavors are layered to bring about the depth and complexity of flavor typical of many exquisite Southeast Asian dishes.

In the early spring, I also look for green garlic and various types of leeks at local farmer’s markets, which not only make wonderful companions in stewed meat dishes, but star as the main attraction in vegetable dishes. Come the warm and sunny months of late spring, summer and autumn, luscious bundles of green and yellow garlic chives (also called “Chinese chives”) and irresistible bunches of long-stemmed chive flower buds draw my attention at Asian markets.

Chopping Garlic Chives

Chopping garlic chives

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

The garlic chives cherished by many Southeast Asians are not the green leaves of garlic plants, but are a kind of leafy chives with a distinct garlic flavor. Not at all like the skinny, fragile-looking, round-and-hollow stemmed chives sold in tiny bundles in western supermarkets and used sparingly as a seasoning herb in western cuisine, garlic chives are long (8 to 15 inches), flat and rather wide (1/4 inch) in comparison, and are usually sold in large bunches as they are frequently cooked as a vegetable on their own right (indeed, in parts of China, they are known as “jewels among vegetables”).

Garlic chives, ready to cook

Garlic chives, ready to cook

Of course, they also serve as a flavor-enhancing herb in a wide variety of dishes, from soups and salads to fish, meat and egg dishes. They are sometimes eaten raw, cut into inch-long segments, in salads and noodle dishes; or stuffed into dough mixtures to make chive cakes for snacks and appetizers.

Garlic chives come deep green in color, as well as white or yellow. They are one and the same, the latter grown in the dark, preventing chlorophyll from developing. This growing method, called “blanching”, weakens the stems and causes them to grow a bit more curly than straight. Because it also inevitably weakens the plants, blanching is done only once or twice a season following healthy harvests of green chives, thus, limiting the availability of yellow chives.

Stir-frying Garlic Chives

Stir-frying garlic chives

The Chinese prize yellow chives for their pretty color, succulent texture and subtle flavor; but because they are more fragile and perishable and their supply more limited, they command a rather high price. The more common green variety, on the other hand, is abundantly available almost year-round in most Asian markets at inexpensive prices. Unlike the curly, fleshy and limp yellow chives, which are not bundled, they can be recognized by their distinctly flat, straight, fairly stiff, deep green leaves tied together in hefty bunches.

Garlic Chives in Wok

Garlic chives in wok

Much more precious than either green or yellow garlic chives are flowering chives – oval unopened buds borne on long, stiff,  angular green stems. This is reflected in the price, from $2.50 per pound and up, but in most instances, just about the entire stems are edible, not just the buds. The buds  have a pungent garlic flavor, while the stems are delectably sweet and crisp. If the stems are unusually long (more than 8 inches), the bottom inch or two can be a bit fibrous and should be trimmed off and discarded. Otherwise, the entire stems can be cut into one-and-a-half-inch segments and stir-fried quickly with oyster sauce, by themselves, or with mushrooms and shrimp to make a quick-and-easy, delicious and nutritious one-dish meal.

See our website for more in Thai recipes and information on more Thai ingredients.

This recipe is also available on our website (Stir-fried Chive Flower Buds with Shrimp and Oyster Mushrooms).

Stir-fried Chive Flower Buds with Shrimp and Oyster Mushrooms

(Pad Dawk Goochai Gkoong Hed Hoi Nahnglom)

  • 1 bunch chive flower buds on long stems – about 3/4 to 1 lb., or substitute green garlic chives
  • 1/2 lb. oyster mushrooms
  • 1/3 lb. small shrimp, shelled and butterflied
  • 3 Tbs. peanut oil
  • 3-4 Tbs. oyster sauce*
  • 2-3 tsp. fish sauce, to taste

If the bunch of chive flower buds you bought has thick stems at the bottom, cut and discard the bottom 2 to 3 inches that seem tough and fibrous. Cut the remaining stems into 1 1/2-inch segments.

Separate the oyster mushrooms into individual caps. Cut the larger ones in halves or thirds, so that they are bite-size pieces.

Heat a wok until its surface is smoking hot. Add the oil and let heat 10 to 15 seconds. When hot, toss in the shrimp and stir-fry until they begin to turn pink on the outside. Follow with the chive bud-and-stem pieces and stir-fry another minute or so, or until they are partially wilted. Add the mushrooms and toss to mix them in with the chives and shrimp. Sprinkle in enough oyster sauce to lightly coat the vegetables. Stir-well. Salt to taste with fish sauce. Stir-fry another minute or so, or until the chives are cooked but still crisp. (If you are substituting green garlic chives for the chive flower buds, the cooking time will be much shorter as they wilt faster.)

Serves 6 to 8 with rice and other dishes in a shared family-style meal.

* As of May 2020 we still recommend Dragonfly Super Premium oyster sauce. The Dragonfly Premium Oyster Sauce is acceptable.

The Finished Dish

The finished dish

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, September 2009 & 2020.

Grilled Eggplant Salad

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, September 4th, 2009

Grilling Over Mesquite Adds a Rich Smoked Flavor to Spicy Eggplant Salad

One of my husband’s favorite salads of all time is Grilled Eggplant Salad (Yam Makeau Yao).

Prepping roasted eggplant

Prepping roasted eggplant

The hot tropical climate of Thailand lends itself to outdoor cooking. In fact, the kitchens of most traditional homes are in open shacks behind the main house. In the countryside, farmers still live in airy wooden houses on stilts, their kitchens in the open area beneath, or on the verandah. Besides making cooking more bearable in the heat of day, the openness of the kitchens and their separation from the main living quarters keep the fumes from charcoal stoves from smoking up the house.

Charcoal was the primary source of cooking fuel while I was growing up in Thailand. I remember the heaving call of the “charcoal man” as he pushed his heavy cart of black logs through our neighborhood each week. Mother would buy her load for the week, keeping the charcoal in a wooden bin in our kitchen behind the house and breaking the logs into smaller chunks when needed to fit into the different size burners. She trained me to be the fire starter, a duty I most enjoyed and learned to do with great proficiency. When we eventually converted to natural gas, our family enjoyed the cleanliness of the new convenience but missed the wonderful flavors that charcoal cooking added to food – whether grilled, boiled, or stir-fried.

Prepping roasted chillies

Prepping roasted chillies

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

Modernization has brought cleaner gas and electric cooking to urban areas, but country folk and the poorer of the urban population still rely on less expensive charcoal for their cooking. The charcoal is not highly processed and does not come in uniformly square briquettes as most Americans know charcoal to be; rather, they are irregular charred logs that, like mesquite, impart a delightful smoked flavor to food. Because of this, grilling and roasting over hot coals continue to be popular cooking techniques in Thai cuisine. Fine restaurants around the country know well to keep a section of their kitchens fueled on charcoal, and along city streets, sidewalk food vendors grill all kinds of food over wood coals – from chicken, pork, meatballs, squid on skewers, fish and sausages to bananas, corn, sweet potatoes and yams, coconuts and even whole eggs.

Assembling the salad

Assembling the salad

One of my vivid memories from childhood is helping Mother skewer and sizzle large green chillies over hot coals. These were followed by succulent eggplants, roasted and charred to perfection. Both were then skinned, cut up into bite-size strips, arranged beautifully on a serving plate and dressed with a limy hot sauce.

On those Indian summer days this fall, as you fire up your barbecue kettle or hibachi, grill up some eggplants and chillies along with your chicken and meat for a spicy, lip-smacking dinner.

Note: This recipe is one of my husband’s (Michael’s) all-time favorites. I taught it my weekend Series Set A (class 1). The pictures here are taken from the one of these advanced classes

See our website for more in Thai recipes.

This recipe is also available on our website (Spicy Mesquite-Grilled Eggplant Salad).

Spicy Mesquite-Grilled Eggplant Salad – Yam Makeau Yao

  • Mesquite charcoal and a small handful of mesquite wood chips
  • 4 long Asian eggplants
  • 4 jalapeño or fresno peppers
  • 10-15 Thai chillies (bird peppers), finely chopped
  • Juice of about 2 limes, to taste
  • 2-3 Tbs. fish sauce (nahm bplah), to taste
  • 2-3 tsp. sugar, to taste
  • 2 shallots, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 lb. small fresh shrimp, shelled and butterflied
  • 1 hard-boiled egg, cut into small wedges (6-8 pieces)
  • A small handful of short cilantro sprigs
Dressing the salad

Dressing the salad

Start a batch of mesquite charcoal in a barbecue kettle and soak the wood chips. While waiting for the coals, trim the tops off the eggplants and the peppers. Make a hot-and-sour sauce by mixing together the chopped Thai chillies, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar. Let sit for the flavors to blend and mingle.

Prepare the remaining ingredients. Blanch shrimp in boiling water for 30 seconds to cook. Drain well and set aside.

Grill the eggplants and peppers whole over the hot mesquite, turning occasionally until they are slightly charred on the outside and have softened. For a stronger smoked flavor, add damp wood chips to the red coals and cover the barbecue kettle after each turning.

Place the grilled eggplants and peppers in a paper sack for a few minutes to steam. When cool enough to handle, peel off the charred skin and thin outer membrane. Cut each eggplant crosswise into segments about 1 1/2 inches long, each segment in half lengthwise, and each half in 2-3 strips, depending on the size of the eggplant. Arrange on a serving platter and spread the sliced shallots over the top.

Cut the skinned peppers into long, thin strips. Do not remove the seeds if you want an extra spicy salad. Arrange in an attractive design over the eggplants and shallots and top with the cooked shrimp.

Taste and adjust the spicy lime sauce so that it is equally sour and salty with a hint of sweetness. Spoon evenly over the salad. Garnish with egg wedges and cilantro. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6-8.

Eggplant salad detail

Eggplant salad detail

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, September 2009.

Tamarind (Makahm)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, July 26th, 2009

Use Tamarind to Add a Fruity Tart Flavor to Your Cooking

To many people, tamarind (makahm or makamin Thai) is an unknown ingredient. To most seasoned Bay area cooks, the word “tamarind” conjures to mind a tart, dark brown fruit – a beloved and essential souring agent used in many tropical cuisines, from India and southeast Asia to Africa and the Americas.

Tamarind Pods

Tamarind Pods

Held by stringy fibers inside curved beanlike pods, the moist, sticky fruit is protected with a brittle, reddish-brown shell. These fresh pods can frequently be found in specialty produce stores and in Asian and Latino markets.

To use, the flesh is removed from the shell and the fibrous strings and hard seeds are discarded. It can then be chopped up to make chutneys and dipping sauces. More frequently, it is mixed with water, the soft pulp dissolved to make a thick, smooth, dark brown concentrate that is used to add a pleasing fruity tart flavor to soups, salads, braised and stir-fried dishes. The concentrate is also used to make refreshing drinks such as tamarindo, and is frequently added to curries to heighten their flavors and to marinades to flavor as well as tenderize meats.

Compressed Tamarind Package

Compressed Tamarind Package

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

However, not all tamarind is sour. In fact, the fresh tamarind pods found in many Asian markets at this time of year are actually sweet tamarind, some without the slightest hint of sourness. This “best variety” sweet tamarind are not meant for cooking, but for eating fresh by itself as one would fruit. It makes a wonderful, nutritious snack.

At other times of year, Asian markets may carry unripe tamarind. Though brown on the outer surface, the shell and seeds have not fully developed and are not separate from the green flesh. Southeast Asians pickle these immature pods, eat them fresh with a sweet shrimp sauce, or chop and incorporate them into a tamarind chilli sauce for accompanying raw or blanched vegetables, fried fish and grilled meats.
Because of the variation in fresh tamarind pods and their availability, more consistent results can be obtained in cooking by using prepackaged forms. Ready-to-use tamarind concentrate or paste is available in plastic containers. I personally prefer to use the compressed blocks wrapped in clear plastic and labeled as “wet tamarind,” or simply “tamarind,” to make my own tamarind concentrate when I need it.

These blocks are made up purely of the dark brown flesh of sour tamarind extracted from the pods, with the fibrous strings and most of the seeds removed. When I buy one of these blocks, I usually squeeze the package and select one that feels the softest, as it will more likely be fresher, more moist, easier to work with and yields better-tasting tamarind juice. The block should also look a rich dark brown and not black.

Making Tamarind Paste

Making Tamarind Concentrate

To make tamarind juice or concentrate, break off a one-inch chunk of wet tamarind paste and mix with a quarter cup of water, using your fingers to knead and mush the soft part of the fruit so that it melts into the water. Work the tamarind until a brownish fluid the thickness of fruit concentrate results, adding more tamarind paste or water as needed. Gather up the undissolvable pulp and any seeds with your fingers, squeeze out the juice and discard.

Making your own tamarind juice concentrate when you need it ensures a fresher tamarind flavor than pre-mixed concentrates. An added advantage: the tamarind block does not require refrigeration, whereas pre-mixed concentrates do after the containers are open. Store the compressed block well-wrapped in plastic in a cool place in your pantry.

See our website for more information on tamarind (makahm).

This recipe is also available on our website (Spicy Tamarind Tiger Prawns) where it is available with Notes and Pointers.

Spicy Tamarind Tiger Prawns Recipe

  • 1 lb. medium-size tiger prawns
  • 1 tsp. sea salt
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 2 large shallots, halved lengthwise and sliced crosswise 1/8-inch thick
  • 8 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 4 large dried red chillies, each cut into 2-3 pieces
  • 1/4 cup chopped onion
  • 2 chopped jalapeño or serrano peppers (do not remove seeds)
  • 1 Tbs. Sriracha hot chilli sauce
  • 1 Tbs. soy sauce
  • 1 Tbs. palm or coconut sugar
  • 1/3 – 1/2 cup tamarind juice the thickness of fruit concentrate, to taste
  • 1 1/2 to 2 Tbs. fish sauce, to taste
  • Lettuce to line serving platter
  • 1 green onion, white part only, cut into 1 1/2-inch lengths, then split into thin matchstick-size slivers
  • A few cilantro sprigs

Shell, devein and butterfly the prawns. Place in a bowl and add 1 tsp. of salt and 1/2 cup of water. Mix well to dissolve salt and set aside for 10 minutes. Then drain off the grey water and rinse several times to remove all the salt. Drain well and let sit to warm to room temperature before stir-frying.

Heat the oil in a small skillet for 2-3 minutes. Add the sliced shallots and fry over low to medium heat, stirring occasionally until the pieces are evenly browned and crisped (may take 10-15 minutes). Drain from oil with a fine wire-mesh strainer. Return oil to skillet and fry the garlic over high heat until golden brown. Drain likewise, reserving the oil for stir-frying.

Heat a wok over high heat until its entire surface is hot and smoking. Swirl in 2 Tbs. of the reserved oil to coat the wok surface. Wait a few seconds for it to heat. Then add the dried chilli pieces and fry quickly until they begin to darken. Toss in the chopped onion and fresh peppers and stir-fry until softened and aromatic. Add the Sriracha chilli sauce, soy sauce and palm sugar and season to the desired sourness and saltiness with tamarind and fish sauce. Stir well to blend, heat to a sizzling boil and reduce a minute or two to thicken.

Add the prawns and with frequent stirring, cook over high heat until the sauce is thick and the prawns are cooked to your liking (2-4 minutes). Turn off heat and add the fried shallots and garlic. Toss well.

Transfer to a lettuce-lined serving platter. Garnish top with slivered green onion and cilantro sprigs. Serves 6 with other dishes and rice in a shared family-style meal.

Serves 6 with other dishes and rice in a shared family-style meal.

Kasma's Spicy Tamarind Prawns

Kasma's Spicy Tamarind Prawns

Kasma taught this recipe in her weekend Series Set A (class 2).

There’s many more of Kasma’s Thai recipes on the website.

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2009.

Bitter Melon, Chorizo and Egg

Michael Babcock, Saturday, June 20th, 2009

This recipe, Bitter Melon, Chorizo and Egg, is a variation on one of my very favorite recipes of all time – Bitter Melon and EggMara Pad Kai. Admittedly, bitter melon might be an acquired taste, although I’ve liked it from the start.

Bitter Melon

Bitter Melon

Generally, I don’t like the idea of “fusion” food – the word confusion springs readily to mind. I think cuisines are already fusion foods – they’ve been created from ingredients at hand and when new ingredients show up, the cuisine changes. We’ll have a blog post down the line by Kasma titled “Thai Food is Fusion Food.”

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

Turning slightly translucent

Turning slightly translucent

I make the Bitter Melon and Egg recipe frequently and one day as I was getting out the ingredients to make it, I happened to see a package of chorizo sausage and decided to add it into the recipe and see how it went. The chorizo I most prefer is bought from The Fatted Calf. It is a Mexican style chorizo (loose sausage, like hamburger) made from pasture raised pork, organic garlic, red wine vinegar, organic herbs, sea salt and spices. It is very good. That’s what I used in the recipe.

Egg has just been added

Eggs have just been added

The recipe is simplicity itself. After cutting the bitter melon in half lengthwise and taking out the seeds, I cut it (diagonally) into slices. Before cooking I took the sausage out of the package and beat some eggs lightly. Then I heated up some lard in a wok (lard is a marvelous oil for stir-frying), cooked the bitter melon a bit until it began to turn a little bit translucent, added the chorizo and cooked it until the sausage was almost cooked, then added the eggs and cooked until done. From start to finish can be about 10 minutes. Serve over rice, if you want a starch, but with a good chorizo, the dish is good enough to eat by itself.

I’ll include a more formal version of the recipe below but it’s so simple you really can just wing it. For tips on buying bitter melon, read Kasma’s Notes and Pointers from her Bitter Melon and Egg recipe.

Feel free to vary quantities any way you’d like. The pictures I’m including here actually used a pound of chorizo to one bitter melon and I used three eggs. If you like it with chorizo, try it with another loose meat or sausage.

You might also enjoy Kasma’s article on Bitter Melon on the website.

Bitter Melon, Chorizo & Egg Recipe

Recipe by Michael Babcock
Adapted from recipe by Kasma Loha-unchit


  • bitter melon about 8 inches in length
  • 2 eggs
  • 2-4 Tbs. or lard (peanut oil will do)
  • 1-2 tsp. fish sauce (optional)
  • 1/2 pound loose Mexican chorizo

Cut the bitter melon in half lengthwise, remove the seeds and slice each half crosswise in thin pieces. Beat the eggs in a bowl.

Heat a wok until its surface begins to smoke. Swirl in the lard or oil and let heat 10 to 15 seconds. Add the bitter melon and sauté in the oil for about one minute. If needed (this will depend on your chorizo), sprinkle with fish sauce and continue to sauté for another 1 to 2 minutes, or until the melon starts to soften.

Add the chorizo, break up so that it is loose, toss amongst the bitter melon and cook until nearly done (1 to 2 minutes).

Spread the mixture thinly over the wok surface. Pour the beaten eggs evenly over the melon pieces. Let eggs set about half a minute, then flip the mixture over to cook the other side. Cook until eggs are set and lightly browned.

The Finished Dish

The finished dish

Written by Michael Babcock, June 2009.

Salted Crab – Boo Kem (or Bpoo Kem)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, April 30th, 2009

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



  • 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.