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Don’t Miss Naem Sour Sausage When Visiting Northern Thailand

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, March 1st, 2013

Naem (or nem), also known as jin som in the northern Thai dialect (jin = meat, som = sour) is a common way of preserving pork meat in several Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In Thailand, it is mainly done in the northern and northeastern parts of the country – the land-locked regions where a lot of pigs are raised and pork features prominently in the local cuisines.

Wrapped Naem

Naem wrapped in banana leaves

(Click images to see larger version.)

In the days before refrigeration, when a pig was slaughtered, there was usually too much meat to cook and eat up fresh in dishes like laab, soups, curries and stir-fries. The remaining meat would be chopped up and preserved with salt. Pork skin, also often too much to eat up by cooking fresh, was added to improve texture.

Now as then, cooked sticky rice or plain steamed rice is used to make the meat develop a sour flavor. Garlic and Thai chillies are added to further improve flavor. In the olden days, pork fat was in the mixture as well, but in more modern times, naem is made mostly of lean pork meat, which gives a better color to the soured meat.

Naem Maw 1

Naem maw (made in a large pot)

The sour flavor imparted to the meat from fermenting rice is distinctive and unique and is unlike the sour from citrus, vinegar, tamarind, or any other tart fruits. It is simply delicious and quite addicting for those of us who like foods with sour flavors.

Originally, the meat was cured by placing the mixture in a pot or a large bowl and covered to make it airtight, thus giving the name naem maw (maw = pot). Market vendors still sell naem in this form – that is, it’s sold bulk in a large bowl, the vendor cutting and scooping up the amount customers want and wrapping it in pieces of banana leaf, secured with a bamboo pick. In city markets nowadays, this form of naem is usually already pre-cut into uniform chunks and wrapped in plastic with a label slapped on.

Naem Maw 2

More naem maw

Naem Maw 3

Naem maw on top of naem taeng

Naem Taeng 2

Banana-leaf wrapped naem taeng

Later, naem began to be made in short, cylindrical bundles tightly wrapped in several layers of banana leaf and tied tightly with bamboo strings. Nowadays they are mostly made in long, sausage-like logs tightly wrapped and sealed in heavy-duty plastic wrap. Both these forms of naem are called naem taeng (taeng = cylinder). Naem is also tightly wrapped in small pyramidal shapes tied with bamboo strings. Often the leaf-wrapped packages are hung in a cool place (in the tropical room temperature) out of direct sun exposure and allowed to cure until the sour flavor develops. The banana leaf helps moderate the temperature of the meat so that the internal temperature does not get too warm. These days, these banana leaf-wrapped packages are often wrapped again in plastic wrap to keep the banana leaf from drying out.

Naem Taeng 1

Naem taeng (cylinder naem)

In modern times, plastic wrap has become prevalently used in wrapping naem, because it is easy to use and makes it possible for buyers to see the color of the meat. In the tropics where room temperature is fairly warm, it usually takes only 2 to 3 days for the sour flavor to develop, but in temperate climate kitchens such as in the Bay Area, it takes about a week. When juice or moistness can be seen through the plastic wrapping, the naem is usually ready. With the banana leaf-wrapped packages, buyers look for leaf wrappings that are not too freshly green, but not too dried out either.

2 Naem Taeng

Traditional & modern naem taeng

Naem Taeng Unwrapped

Naem Taeng Unwrapped

Grilled Naem Sausages

Grilled naem sausages

Sticky rice was originally used as the souring agent, but later the preference turned to regular cooked rice because it keeps the meat sour for longer after the sour flavor has developed and gives the meat a better pink color. Sticky rice, on the other hand, develops the sour flavor more quickly, but also loses the sour flavor faster, giving the meat a shorter window of opportunity for consumption at its optimal sourness.

Food Platter

Food platter, naem on the left

One reason why many northern Thais still prefer to have some of their naem wrapped in banana leaf is that it can be cooked by roasting in the ashes of their charcoal brazier, burning the outer layers of leaf to give the meat a smoky flavor. Often, naem is eaten raw and the small pyramidal leaf-wrapped packets are pretty and easy to serve individual people in a meal. Raw naem, appearing as those translucent, pinkish slices of meat, is a common part of the northern hors d’oeuvre platter, accompanying slices of spicy sai oa northern sausage, baloney-like moo yaw, crispy fried pork belly with skin (kaep moo), an assortment of steamed or boiled vegetables, and the favorite spicy green chilli dip called nam prik nuum.

Naem Ready To Eat

Naem, ready to eat

Raw naem is frequently made into hot-and-sour yum salads with shallots, pickled garlic, Thai chillies, aromatic herbs and fried nuts, but if you are squeamish about eating raw, cured meat, cook the naem by roasting in banana leaves or by lightly steaming or baking before slicing to make the salad. But if you wish to enjoy the delicate texture of raw meat like Southeast Asians do in a safe manner, you may wish to freeze the sausage for about two weeks to kill off any parasites before consuming.

Naem With Garlic

Sliced Naem with Pickled Garlic and Chillies

Naem Fried Rice

Naem Fried Rice

Other common ways naem is eaten in northern Thailand are: stir-fried with pickled garlic/leeks and chillies; scrambled with eggs and onions; incorporated into fried rice; deep-fried by itself in slices or round balls and eaten with fried peanuts, diced ginger and chillies; added to curries, spicy soups or stir-fries with mucilaginous vegetables like pak bpang (zan choi in Chinese or the “slippery vegetable”) or okra to reduce the mucilaginous property; sliced and tossed with crisp-fried rice, slivered cooked pork skin, fried dried Thai chillies, slivered ginger, fried peanuts and other ingredients to make a crisped rice and sour sausage salad – a delicious street and market food that has now become popular in many restaurants that serve regional cuisines in Bangkok and other major cities throughout the country.


Some More Thai Dishes with Naem Sour Sausage

Fried Naem Maw

Fried Naem Maw

Crispy Fried Naem

Crispy Fried Naem Sour Sausage Balls

The picture to the above left shows naem maw cut into cubes, dipped in egg and deep-fried (naem tawd) at Kaeng Ron Ban Suan in Chiang Mai. On the right is deep-fried, crispy naem sour sausage balls in a crispy taro basket in a Chiang Mai restaurant.

Soup With Naem

Soup with naem

Stir-fried Naem

Naem Stir-fried with Egg and Spinach

To the above left is a soup made with the flowers of pak bpang (zan choi in Chinese) and naem to reduce the mucilaginous property of the vegetable at Come Dara restaurant in Chiang Mai. To the right is naem stir-fried with egg and spinach at Keuy Chiang Mai restaurant.

Naem Salad

Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad

Naem Salad 2

Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad

To the above left is Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad (Naem Kluk Kao Tawd) at Ton Kreuang in Bangkok. To the right is Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad (Yum Naem Kao Tawd) at the Isan restaurant of Vientiane Kitchen in Bangkok.


Naem Slideshow From Kasma’s Classes

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

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

Rolling Naem
Prepped Naem
Assembling Naem Salad
Naem Salad 3
Fried Naem
Stir-fried Naem
Stir-fried Naem 2

Rolling the naem sausages into a tight cylinder in Kasma's class

The soured naem sausages sliced and ready for cooking in a weeklong intensive class

Assembling the Crispy Rice and Naem Sour Sausage Salad in a weeklong intensive class

Crispy Rice and Sour Sausage Salad made by students in Kasma's Advanced B weeklong intensive class

Fried Naem Slices on Crispy Taro Baskets, in Kasma's Advanced D weeklong intensive class - students made the naem and fermented it for 5 days

Naem Sour Sausage (made by students) Stir-fried with Pickled Leeks and Thai Chillies in Kasma's Advanced D weeklong intensive

Naem Sour Sausage (made by students) Stir-fried with Bitter Melon, Eggs and Thai Chillies in Kasma's Advanced D weeklong intensive

Rolling Naem thumbnail
Prepped Naem thumbnail
Assembling Naem Salad thumbnail
Naem Salad 3 thumbnail
Fried Naem thumbnail
Stir-fried Naem thumbnail
Stir-fried Naem 2 thumbnail

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March 2013

Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 2

Kasma Loha-unchit, Tuesday, January 1st, 2013

The coconut milk-tasting exercise is an eye- and palate-opening experience for my cooking students on the very first session of their four-week beginning Thai cooking class. They are given 8 to 10 different brands of coconut milk to taste, ranging from excellent to mediocre to awful and unfit for consumption. Half or more of the cans end up being thrown out. The point is made and the lesson learned: not all coconut milk is the same, so don’t just go out and buy any brand if you wish to make a delicious Thai curry or dessert.

Tasting Coconut Milk

Tasting coconut milk

This valuable learning tool has become expensive with the price of coconut milk doubled and tripled what it was a couple of years ago due to the acute coconut shortage in Thailand – the world’s major producer and exporter of canned coconut milk. And it’s unlikely that the price will return to former levels any time soon (see our last blog about the coconut shortage). For someone who hates waste, it’s painful for me to see $10 to $15 gurgling down the drain. But it’s definitely well worth it for my students to learn to distinguish subtle differences through their sense of taste and come to know that choosing the best ingredients is an important starting point to becoming a good cook.

Along with the price hike, the quality has changed in some of the brands of coconut milk and not necessarily for the better. In order to meet rising demand with a reduced and limited supply of coconuts, companies have developed new ways to make more coconut milk out of fewer coconuts. That, of course, affects quality.

Students Tasting

Students tasting coconut milks

Canned coconut milk has become lighter and it’s now difficult to find cans with enough cream for some of those dishes that require rich coconut cream. My students find out from their tasting exercise that cans labelled as “coconut cream” are not necessarily creamier or richer than those labelled simply as “coconut milk.” In the past, I’ve depended on Chaokoh and Mae Ploy brands to supply me with the rich cream I needed for dishes such as haw moek (curried fish mousse), choo chee curry and rich desserts like coconut custards. These two brands are widely available in Southeast Asian markets in the Bay Area and usually come up top in tasting exercises.

Mae Ploy

Mae Ploy coconut milk

Each can of the same brand can have varying amounts of cream if it does not contain an emulsifier. I rely on shaking the can to determine how much cream it contains. If it sloshes like water, there’s no question that it is light; if it gurgles like a thick fluid, then it’s likely to be fairly rich; and if shaking hard produces no sound whatsoever and room temperature is cooler than 78 degrees in the store, then the can is likely to contain almost all cream. The coconut oil found in coconut cream firms up when the weather is cool; its melting point is 78 degrees. The shake test is how I collect my cans of thick cream for those Thai dishes that require them – and not by buying brands that say “coconut cream” on the label. Mae Ploy brand still has good cream content and the cans that pass the shake test can be relied on for those rich coconut-based dishes.

Avoid buying “light coconut milk” since you’ll be paying mostly for water. The flavor is in the cream, so choose cans that contain rich milk and then you can thin it with water any way you wish if you want your curry or soup to be lighter. But don’t be afraid of the oil in coconut milk; it’s one of the best fats for you and can actually help you lose weight as it has the ability to increase metabolism and burn off fat from other sources in your meal. (See The Truth About Coconut Oil on our website).

Chaokoh

Chaokoh coconut milk

Last year at the height of the coconut shortage when prices rose dramatically, I started noticing that Chaokoh had become lighter and, instead of having a thicker and sometimes coagulated cream on top and watery liquid on the bottom of the can, it appeared more emulsified. When heated, instead of melting down to a smooth, lighter fluid, it thickened up as if it contained starch. At the same time, it had become almost impossible to separate the oil from the cream in the first step of making a curry – frying the curry paste in coconut cream. This was frustrating for some of my students who emailed to ask what’s wrong with the Chaokoh coconut milk they’re buying. I also noticed that when making peanut sauce in class, the sauce unusually thickened more than I wanted it to.

Suspecting that starch had been added to the product without stating so on the label, Michael emailed the company to ask if they indeed had done so. Initially, we didn’t receive a reply. Michael emailed them an additional two times – again without any response. Finally, in frustration, he emailed them to say that we had recommended their product to thousands of our students over the years and if we didn’t hear from them, we could “un-recommend” their brand. That mild threat generated a prompt response.

Although they deny having added starch, they admit that their product now contains more carbohydrates than before. From our understanding of their reply, it seems that they have found a way to grind and reduce the pulp completely so that more of it is incorporated into the coconut milk. Because there is more pulp (i.e., carbohydrates), when the creamier-looking stuff on the top of the can is heated, there is little fat to be separated and that’s why you can’t see oil floating on top as you used to for frying your curry paste. At the same time, the milk thickens with the pulp acting like starch. Their reply also explains why their product looks more emulsified and why you won’t see thick coagulated cream as in the past on cold days or when the cans are refrigerated to make it easier to separate the cream in making dishes like haw moek.

Aroy-D

Aroy-D coconut milk

Thais do like to see a thin layer of oil floating on the top of their curries. It gives color to the dish instead of the pale whitish color of opaque coconut milk. Nowadays, to accomplish this and to help fry the curry paste to a tastier result, I recommend my students to buy and use pure coconut oil to fry curry pastes when they are making curries. Using other oils will add an oiler and often incompatible taste.

Although Chaokoh is now more or less low-fat, it still has good flavor. A good test of its superior flavor is when we used it to make coconut sorbet. It’s still creamy and has delicious coconut flavor. It does, however, contain a preservative.

For people who wish to stay away from preservatives, a readily available Thai brand is Aroy-D. It has fairly good coconut flavor, though when compared side-by-side with Chaokoh, it tastes a little bland and has less of the natural sweetness of fresh coconut milk. Some of this weakness can be balanced during cooking with the addition of palm sugar. Aroy-D has a new product: a 19 oz.-size can labelled as “Coconut Cream” with only coconut and water as the ingredients. It’s the only product labelled as “Coconut Cream” that I recommend. All the other brands labelled as coconut cream has a strong unnatural flavor from processing or from emulsifiers like guar gum added.

Natural Value

Natural Value coconut milks

In the past, besides Chaokoh and Mae Ploy, we’ve had pretty good luck with the Natural Value label (available locally at Rainbow Foods in SF and Farmer Joe’s in Oakland) for good, rich coconut milk that does not have any preservative or emulsifying additives. Natural Value is the only brand of organic coconut milk that we recommend because it does not contain guar gum: unfortunately most brands of organic coconut milk contain guar gum as an emulsifier. Guar gum ruins the natural flavor of the coconut milk, leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, and does not work well in Thai cooking.

Coconut palms generally grow easily in poor, sandy soil along the coast and do not require much care as far as fertilizing or spraying to control diseases and pests. So most brands of natural-tasting coconut milk are pretty much organic but the plantations may not be “certified organic” for the milk to be labeled as “organic.” There are slightly different processing standards for organic as well.

The Natural Value brand that is not labeled “organic” is just as natural as the “organic” one – both only contain coconut extract and water and list no preservatives or emulsifiers. Natural Value wasn’t able to find a manufacturer in Thailand that produces “organic” coconut milk without guar gum added as emulsifier so their organic coconut milk now coms from the Philippines. Both of their products have  the added advantage of being in BPA-free cans. Both the organic and non-organic products are good, though we have found the organic to be not as rich as their non-organic product  (from Thailand) that can be thick with cream (but this could have changed with the coconut shortage).

Coconuts

Coconuts, too young for milking

Old Coconuts

Matured coconuts are used to make milk

Though prices have stabilized and may have begun to drop a little, it is unlikely that we will see the 69 cents we used to pay for a can of Chaokoh coconut milk a few years ago. The coconut shortage is a long-term problem as new groves have to be planted and time given for the new trees to reach maturity. The good news is the industry has been able to use biological means to control the pest problem instead of resorting to chemical pesticides.


Coconut Articles on Thai Food & Travel

Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 1

Ingredient Information and Use

Preparing and Using Coconuts

Coconuts in Thailand

Coconuts & Health


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, January 2013

Thai Coconut Shortage, Part 1

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, November 15th, 2012

Coconut Shortage Leads to Higher Prices and Compromised Quality (Part 1)

The price of canned coconut milk has doubled and tripled in the past couple of years, while the quality has changed and not for the better. Though prices have somewhat stabilized and may have even scaled back a little the last few months, it is unlikely that they will return to the same levels as before the spike – at least not in the short term.

Coconut Palm

Coconut palm trees

If you’ve noticed how your favorite brands of coconut milk, including the brands we recommend – particularly Chaokoh, seem to be different and not work as they used to in your Thai cooking, you’re right and it’s not your imagination. Many of our cooking students are concerned that they can no longer see coconut oil separating from the cream when they are heating it to make curries. And when making sauces and soups, they’ve noticed that the coconut milk unusually thickens rather than melting down to a smooth, lighter fluid.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Picking Coconut

Monkey picking a coconut

These things are happening because the large canned coconut milk producers have changed the way they make their products. The reason they had to do this is because of the acute coconut shortage – not from the skyrocketing production of canned and bottled young coconut beverages for the foreign market as some of our students have thought, nor from the devastating floods late last year, though this might have contributed to logistics costs. The culprit is a serous pest problem, aggravated by years of drought, that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of coconut palms in Thailand’s major coconut-growing provinces in the south. Notable are a number of non-native beetles, likely brought into the country with the ornamental plants imported from South Africa and Indonesia for the gardens of burgeoning tourist resorts.

In Koh Samui where coconuts count as heavily in the island’s economy as tourism, the rhinoceros beetles, which are up to two centimeters long, and the even larger coconut leaf beetles lay their eggs in the unopened flowers of coconut palms and feed on the young leaves of the trees. Their voracious appetite kills the trees and the insects move on to their next victim. This severe infestation has destroyed over 125,000 trees on the island and cut annual yield by 20 percent in 2010 and 2011.

Coconuts

Coconuts for grating

Of even greater concern is the tiny insect commonly known as the coconut hispine beetle (Brontispa longissima). Its minuscule size belies its ability in numbers to put the wheels of an entire industry to a screeching halt. Appearing in the midst of a two-year drought, this beetle has managed to decimate 35 percent of the coconut plantations in the southern peninsular province of Prachup Khiri Khan– by far the country’s largest coconut producer and famously known as the “coconut basket” of Thailand.

This destructive pest is native to Indonesia and according to the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (the FAO), it has spread throughout the Southeast Asia-Pacific region through ornamental palm shipments. (One of my students heard that a similar beetle is starting to appear in coconut groves in the Caribbean and may become a cause of concern there in the near future.) More than 20 species of palm are vulnerable to attacks by the hispine beetle with the coconut palm identified by the FAO as its “most favored host.” The insect feeds on seedlings and the young leaves of mature coconut trees and can quickly kill an adult tree in no time.

Grating Coconuts At Home

Coconut grater for home use

Grating Coconuts Commercially

Commercial coconut grater

The grave beetle infestation shrunk supply and tripled the domestic price of coconut from the 6 to 7 baht each in mid -2010 to over 20 baht in late January 2011. At the height of the disaster early last year, Thailand’s leading producer of coconut milk under the Chaokoh label was forced to import some 200,000 coconuts a day – ironically from Indonesia – but the volume the company was able to produce still fell far short of demand. Over 500,000 coconuts are needed each day to produce Chaokoh coconut milk.

Making Coconut Milk

Machine for making coconut milk

Although it has become expensive, domestic demand for coconut remains strong since it is a key, indispensable ingredient in many Thai desserts, curries and soups. Thais cannot do without their coconut milk, even if this means an increase in their cost of living. When fresh coconut milk is hard to find, customers turn to pre-packaged products and this has driven Chaokoh sales even more. According to a company spokesperson, “Despite the import volume being so large [i.e, import volume of whole coconuts], we can supply only 100 tons of coconut milk per day to the market, far less than the demand of 150 tons.”

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk desserts

A research team from Kasetsart University (Thailand’s premier agricultural university – much like UC Davis) is at the forefront in the fight against the much dreaded hispine beetle. Fortunately for those of us who prefer our coconut milk as natural as possible, the pests are being battled with biological means rather than toxic chemical insecticides. Three different biological agents have been tested and proven effective. One is a fungus whose spores germinate and grow inside the beetle, killing it within days. The fungus then emerges from the carcass and spreads to other hispine beetles. A second biological weapon is a predatory “stink” bug and the third is a parasitic insect that attacks the beetle at the larval stage. These natural tools are gradually eliminating the pest – good news for coconut growers.

On Koh Samui, the Department of Agriculture is successfully using a parasitic insect to control the destructive beetles on the island. Local authorities are working hard to make the island a center of coconut production again. They have teamed up with tourism authorities to start a scheme whereby the 1.1 million annual visitors are asked to sponsor the planting of coconut seedlings: for 300 baht each their names will be put by the trees they sponsor. The goal is to plant a million new palms and as of June last year, a quarter of a million have been planted, Most have foreign names by their side as 85 percent of tourists to the island are from overseas.

Coconut Sprout

Sprouted Coconut

Coconut palms are recovering. Seriously injured and dead trees, plus old trees susceptible to diseases and pests, are being cleared from the plantations. Farmers are planting new drought- and pest-resistant hybrids to replace them. The catch is: it will take five to eight years for the new plants to mature and start bearing fruit. The coconut shortage will not be alleviated any time soon.

The supply and demand situation means the price of canned coconut milk for those of us who cook Thai food in the Bay Area will likely remain high for several more years. In an attempt to increase coconut milk production with limited supplies of coconuts, some companies, including the producer of Chaokoh coconut milk, have modified how they make coconut milk. The resulting products have noticeably changed and do not work quite the same way in American kitchens. We will cover how the products have changed and what brands we now recommend in Part 2 of our blog.


Coconut Articles on Thai Food & Travel

Ingredient Information and Use

Preparing and Using Coconuts

Coconuts in Thailand

Coconuts & Health


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, November 2013

Satisfying A Durian Craving

Kasma Loha-unchit, Wednesday, July 18th, 2012

The bountiful durian season in Thailand wound down to its tail end as I left to return home to Oakland at the end of this June. But I had my fill the last three weeks of my stay, succumbing to temptation time and again as I walked down Bangkok’s busy streets, around bustling open-air marketplaces and even through the produce aisles of modern supermarkets. The “King of Fruits” was everywhere and it’s so easy nowadays to satisfy a craving without having to overeat, overspend, or be intimidated at having to pry open the wickedly spiky fruit oneself.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Peeled Durian

Peeled Durian at Or Tor Kor Market

Unlike days long passed, it’s no longer necessary to buy durians whole. From streetside vendors to supermarket aisles, the fruit is available already peeled and sealed in packages holding one to two sections of the fruit (a durian has three to five sections, depending on size and shape), costing anywhere from 60 to 150 baht ($2 to $5) when the fruit is in season and usually doubling in price during the off-season. The packages are wrapped in clear plastic, making it easier to tell how ripe the fruit is and select according to one’s taste. Some Thais like their durian under-ripe (hahm hahm) with more of a crisp texture and less of a scent. Some like it really ripe (ngom ngom) – soft and creamy with a robust aroma and usually a deeper color. Many prefer it “just right” – neither too green nor too ripe (gkam lang gkin or “just the time to eat”), which is what I usually go for. At this stage, it is rich and creamy like custard, yet firm in texture without being too soft or too moist, and deliciously fragrant without being too sulfurishly odiferous. Most vendors won’t allow you to touch the package to feel how firm or soft the fruit is, so visual guidance has to be depended upon. But they will tell you the stage of ripeness of the package that looks good to you. Some label the stage of ripeness, in Thai of course, on the plastic wrap next to the price.

Rambutan & Durian

Rambutan & Durian

During my childhood and youth, in the days before styrofoam, plastic wrap and air-conditioned supermarkets, durians were sold only whole and buying one involved quite a ritual. Some people could tell a good durian by just looking at it, while others relied on their sense of smell. The size and shape of the fruit were important considerations. A round and perfectly symmetrical one was likely to have more sections holding more fruit than an unevenly skewed one. Vendors often used a bamboo stick to tap on the spiky fruit to determine ripeness by tone. They would cut a triangular-shaped plug through the thick brownish green peel for the prospective buyer to take a peak at the fruit inside, smell more closely and even lightly touch the flesh. When all the indicators met with the customer’s satisfaction, the durian was weighed and haggling over price would take place.

Weighing Durian

Vendor weighing a durian

After the purchase, another set of rituals took place. if a household had both durian lovers and durian haters like my family, when the fruit was brought home, it would have to be kept and pried open outside the house – in the garden or the detached kitchen behind the house. Then it would have to be consumed by the durian lovers in its entirety before they could return into the house. There were no air-tight plastic containers in those days to store uneaten portions in the fridge, and even if they were carefully wrapped for storage in the fridge, the durian’s tenacious aroma could easily escape through any seal and permeate the ice box, contaminating everything within. For durian haters, even imperceptible levels of the fruit’s scent was objectionable and the cause of much family discord.

Durian Stall

Durian at Samrong Market

Of course, most durians are still sold whole today to satisfy the craving of several people in a family (it’s less expensive to buy whole fruits) and the ritual of selecting one still takes place as described. A difference from the past is that after a durian is bought, the vendor provides the additional service, it it is desired by the customer, of peeling and boxing the golden yellow chunks of the inner fruit in styrofoam or wrapping with clear plastic. One no longer needs to risk being jabbed by the nasty spikes just to enjoy the fruit.

Back in the Bay Area, satisfying a durian craving can be an expensive affair as fresh durians are sold only whole – for as much as $7 a pound! That’s exponentially higher than the approximately 100 baht (around $3) I have been spending the past few weeks on an already peeled package of absolutely divine tree-ripened fruit. There are, of course, less expensive frozen durians – whole as well as peeled in sealed packages, but any kind of frozen fruit loses a lot of its true character and durian is not the least of them. For durian lovers, a fresh durian is worth the price to satisfy a seasonal addiction.

Durian Sections

Durian sections at Seri market

Truck Vendor

Durian truck vendor

Peeling Durian

Preparing to peel durian

But of course, durians imported into the Bay Area, almost all of them from Thailand, tend to be picked quite green when there is little, if any, aroma detectable to foul up closed spaces during transport. This makes for quality that is less than ideal. For me, I take a closer look than if I were buying one in Thailand. The stem and exterior should look fresh and not dried out and there must be a distinctive durian fragrance coming through when I hold the bottom of the fruit up to my nose. Better yet, if there is a small split on the bottom of the durian, I am assured that the fruit has been picked closer to maturity and has continued to ripen in transit. But of course, if there is no smell at all exuding from the split, there’s the chance that the split might have come about from the fruit banging against other fruits during transport. If there is a faint fragrance, I would consider buying it and leaving the fruit at room temperature in the basement or garage for a day or two until the aroma becomes more prominent before prying it open. The split makes it easier for you to open up the durian.

Oakland Durian

Oakland durian

Twice this spring I came across durians at a small market in Oakland Chinatown that had all indicators that they were worth buying. And both Michael and I weren’t disappointed! There was enough in each fruit to satisfy us for a couple of sittings. At $6.59 a pound for an average five-pound durian, we ended up with only about a pound and a half of peeled edible fruit. An expensive splurge that’s for sure! For Michael, that would have to do for this durian season. For me, they were just teasers, as I knew I would certainly be indulging in more during my planned three-week trip to Thailand in June to visit my mother. And indeed I took every opportunity to satisfy my craving!


See also:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2012

Chatuchak Market in Bangkok

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, June 24th, 2012

Cooling Off and Filling Up at Chatuchak

Heading for Chatuchak Weekend Market – ตลาดจตุจักร – on the skytrain on a Saturday morning, I chuckled to myself, “I’m going to ‘church!'” It’s an inside joke Michael and I shared with my mother about a decade and a half ago when she was in her mid-70’s and still very active and mobile.

Food Stall

Food stall

One of my brothers had converted to the Seventh Day Adventist faith in his youth. Following father’s death in 1997, whenever he visited from Singapore where he lived and worked, he would try to persuade mother to go to church with him on the Sabbath. Having been a Buddhist all her life, Mom disliked going as she found Christianity to be irrational and narrow. So, whenever he’s in town, we would hurry off to Chatuchak on Saturday morning before he arrived at the house. We would say “We’re off to ‘church!'”

(Click images to see larger version. Slide show at bottom of page.)

And what a ‘church’ it is, well-attended by people of all persuasions, happy and enjoying their time at the huge bazaar filled with sights, scents, sounds and delightful tastes where there is something for everybody. It’s our own kind of earthly heaven and a great way to spend a day without any goal.

Squid Egg Stand

Squid egg stand

This is the third June in a row that I’ve come to Thailand – not for business but to visit mother who is now in assisted living at Mission Hospital in Bangkok. In between trips to see her, I try to squeeze in visits to some of my old haunts to check things out and see what changes have taken place. So today it’s Chatuchak* (see below for inconsistencies in the spelling of the market’s name) – Southeast Asia’s, if not the world’s, largest bazaar.

I like to arrive early as the shops are just opening and many of the stalls are still being set up. It can get very hot here by mid-day, even during the cool winter months, when the crowds swell and the narrow aisles get stuffy. Although shaded, the ventilation is poor with the cubicle stalls packed so closely together and spilling onto the aisles. But it’s what makes this bustling bazaar exciting!. By early afternoon, the heat and crowds are usually more than I can bear and my feet are achingly sore from hours of walking about, especially if I have acquired a heavy load of goodies to carry. Then it’s time to take an air-con cab home.

Coconuts

Various coconut treats

This June is especially hot and I’m already soaking wet with sweat by mid-morning. An iced cappucino made to order from freshly ground coffee beans from one of many stalls is my first attempt at cooling down while at the same time getting a jolt of energy to continue on. Much better than any Starbucks can make! A half hour later, it’s time for an ice-cold roasted coconut! Very refreshing and rejuvenating! There’s no shortage of choices of cold drinks besides ice-cold bottled water. The problem is there are too many choices!

Fruit Smoothies

Fruit smoothie stand

Grass jelly is cold and invigorating, made with an herb that has cooling properties for this hot, steamy weather. But wait a minute, there’s the tart, thirst-quenching roselle drink. made from a red hibiscus flower. Next to it is “bua bok” and I love “bua bok!” (pennywort, also labeled “gotu kola” – a very good herb for the capillaries in the brain and for internal inflammations). There’s also chrysanthemum with stellar cooling properties, especially when I’m this hot! A few steps further, my attention shifts from the innumerable jars of herbal drinks to a colorful stall with neatly stacked covered plastic glasses filled with various kinds of fruits. For a very cold and refreshing fruit shake, all one needs to do is select a glass with the fruit of choice for the vendor to put in a blender with ice and some syrup. I settle for a strawberry shake and it’s so cold my chest begins to ache!

The annex to the main market, called Jatuchak (their spelling) Plaza, has wider aisles and taller roofs and is less crowded, so I wander in that direction. It’s not quite as interesting a place to “window” shop though unless you are looking for home furnishings. I wish I could bring some of the beautiful teak furniture home but it’s too much trouble to deal with shipping. Beyond the plaza is the air-con JJ Mall which opens seven days a week unlike the main bazaar that’s open mostly only on weekends. I’ve never been in there before and decide to check it out – at least I can use some cooling off. It turns out to be a less-than-desirable move as the mall is waaaaayyyyy too boring. So after I’ve cooled off enough, I head back to the main bazaar area.

Grilled Pork

Grilled pork on skewers

All along the walk from main bazaar to plaza to mall, there’s no shortage of cold beverages and tempting foods to cool off and fill up on. For a quick bite, the grilled pork on skewers is delicious! So is the crispy skin roasted pork belly with hot dipping sauce! There are lots of other quick eats that don’t require sitting down and wasting precious shopping time. For those whose feet are tired and prefer to sit down, there are plenty of stalls with sitting areas all around the bazaar offering various kinds of noodle and rice dishes, salads and grilled foods. Some are small and get very crowded by the noon hour. For cool, air con comfort and more refined decor, there’s, of course, Toh Plue (see Michael’s blog on Toh Plue Restaurant in Bangkok.) where the food is good but comes at a price for the comfort. It’s well worth it if you have the time.

Coconut Ice Cream

Coconut ice cream

On this trip, I forego sitting down for a leisurely meal by myself. After all, all along my walk around the bazaar I’ve acquired a big selection of irresistible ready-made foods to keep me well-fed for days. But before I leave, I cannot miss out on the fresh-made coconut ice cream with a choice of toppings, including peanuts, palm seeds, cooked pumpkin, young coconut meat and sweet corn. I sit down on a stool in front of the stall shaded by patio umbrellas and savor every mouthful with great satisfaction. It’s my last attempt to cool off in this tropical heat before hopping on a cab to head home, leaving my earthly “church” in a state of contentment.


* The official spelling of the market’s name according to the signs in the market is “Jatuchak” but this presents an inconsistency as the same Thai alphabet is used to begin both the first and third syllables. So if the letter “j” better represents the Thai alphabet’s sound, the spelling should then be “jatujak.” I prefer to use “ch” to approximate the sound of the Thai alphabet which is neither “j” nor “ch.” The particular Thai alphabet is often represented by ‘ch” in many other instances in proper names.


Slideshow

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.
Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

Fruit Smoothies
Tangerine Juice
Coconuts
Coconut Ice Cream
Popsicles
Two Food Stands
Pineapples
Grilled Pork
Pork Belly
Food Stall
Noodle Stand
Soup Noodle Stand
Salad Stand
Squid Egg Stand
Grilled Squid
Potato Chips
Freshwater Prawns]
Grilled Prawns
Food Treats
Pastries
Dumplings
Prepared Food
Fish Curry
JJ Plaza Sign

For a very cold drink, customers select a glass with the fruit of their choice which the vendor empties into a blender with ice and some syrup to make a frosty, non-dairy fruit shake.

Bottles of fresh-squeezed tangerine orange juice sit in ice water to keep cold. To the left is a pile of roasted young coconuts.

Fresh young coconuts, roasted coconuts and coconut ice cream are all great on a hot day to rejuvenate tired bodies and give a boost of energy to shoppers.

Coconut ice cream, served in the half shell of a roasted coconut, comes with a choice of toppings, including cooked pumpkin, palm seeds, roasted peanuts, young coconut meat and sweet corn. Not to be missed!

Popsicles of flavored juices are made fresh on the spot in a popsicle maker.

A pushcart behind a "miang kum" vendor offers several different kinds of thirst-quenching and cooling beverages made from herbs, fruits and flowers, including roselle (hibiscus flower), pennywort (gotu kola), chrysanthemum, grass jelly and bale fruit.

A pile of delicious-looking pineapples is irresistible on a hot day!

Grilled marinated pork on skewers is an easy way to have a bite without needing to sit down and waste precious shopping time.

For carnivores, crispy skin roasted pork belly is hard to resist.

A stall selling rice dishes includes the common and well-loved stewed pork leg rice.

Customers wait their turn for the few seats around a "kanom jeen" stall where fresh rice noodles are served with a choice of spicy curries.

A soup noodle vendor offers a choice of pork, beef and chicken toppings in front of a large seating area shared with other food vendors.

These two northeastern women make different kinds of hot-and-sour salads in their large wooden mortars, including green papaya salad with a choice of fresh, dried, salted, pickled and dried seafoods.

Many of my cooking students who have cleaned squid in my kitchen should know how tasty squid eggs can be. They have a texture and flavor more like some kind of meat than fish.

Marinated grilled squid on skewers come whole (with egg sacs still inside) and in threaded pieces.

Have you ever had fresh-fried potato chips on a skewer?

Live fresh-water prawns are grilled to order for customers.

Freshly grilled, whole fresh-water prawns draw customers to this stand.

The covered walkway outside JJ Mall is lined with tempting treats being made right on the spot.

These round pastries are stuffed with various fillings, including taro, pumpkin, mung beans, red beans and pineapple.

Pork and shrimp dumplings are steamed on a special tray along with stuffed chive and bamboo shoot cakes.

For health food lovers, this stall makes delicious spicy salads and stir-fries with shitake mushroom stems – an "in" food trend of the health food movement.

This yummy-looking curry, made on the spot with featherback fish dumplings and bamboo shoots, is my favorite kind of green curry. I couldn't resist buying a bag to take home for dinner!

Sign pointing to Jatuchak Plaza

Fruit Smoothies thumbnail
Tangerine Juice thumbnail
Coconuts thumbnail
Coconut Ice Cream thumbnail
Popsicles thumbnail
Two Food Stands thumbnail
Pineapples thumbnail
Grilled Pork thumbnail
Pork Belly thumbnail
Food Stall thumbnail
Noodle Stand thumbnail
Soup Noodle Stand thumbnail
Salad Stand thumbnail
Squid Egg Stand thumbnail
Grilled Squid thumbnail
Potato Chips thumbnail
Freshwater Prawns thumbnail
Grilled Prawns thumbnail
Food Treats thumbnail
Pastries thumbnail
Dumplings thumbnail
Prepared Food thumbnail
Fish Curry thumbnail
JJ Plaza Sign thumbnail

Also see:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2012

Whole-Grain Rices Make a Comeback in Thailand

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, January 1st, 2012

In Thailand, the movement back to consuming whole-grain rice is picking up steam. Just a decade ago, it’s almost unthinkable that Thais would ever give up the white rice they have become so accustomed to eating and regard as a refinement of their taste for the rough-and-tumble brown rice relegated to a small subset of the rural population. I recall that in my childhood, my mother would buy whole-grain red rice mainly to feed our pet dogs since it was less expensive.

The Switch From Whole-Grain to White Rice

Whole Grain Rice

Red & pink jasmine rice

In generations past, before the days of mass cash-crop agriculture for export, farmers grew enough rice just for their own and for local consumption. The rice was de-husked by pounding with large wooden mortars and pestles, which retained the bran and germ. But as the country began to emerge on the world stage, government policy focused on increasing agricultural output for export to build up the country’s foreign currency reserves and wealth. Cash-crop agriculture was pushed and this large-scale mono-cropping necessitated the widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase and maintain yields.

Click on photos to see a larger image.

9 Kinds of Rice

Mix of 9 rice varieties

Government-sponsored field trials selected rice strains with superior attributes to promote for farmers to grow (see previous blog: Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 2). The advent of modern-day mills came about to handle the large tonnage of rice and standard polishing techniques were implemented to produce grains that were uniform and looked white, long and beautiful as the world market demanded. Because the fragile oil in rice bran could turn rancid easily, removing the bran with polishing enabled exporters to store the large tonnage of rice for indefinite periods of time without concern about spoilage until it was ready to be shipped abroad.

This development led to a change in domestic consumption patterns with white rice rapidly replacing hand-milled brown rice as the norm. With modernization bringing more sedentary ways of living, Thai people found white rice more palatable as its lightness and easy digestibility better suited their life-style and its neutral, mild taste and softer texture better complimented Thai dishes. Its long shelf life was also seen as a plus compared to brown rice which turned rancid and buggy easily – usually in only a couple of months under normal home conditions in the tropics.

The Health Food Movement

Rice Vendor

Or Tor Kor rice vendor

Things have changed quite a bit since then and mostly in the past half a dozen years or so as the health food movement marched in earnest to the forefront, propelled by widespread concerns about the rising incidences of modern-day diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in all segments of the Thai population.

Today, whether at open-air marketplaces with large rice vendors such as at Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw), mega warehouse stores such as Makro (similar to Costco), neighborhood fresh markets, or even upscale supermarkets and specialty health food stores in many of Bangkok’s glittery shopping complexes, it is exciting to see many varieties of whole-grain rices on offer in various natural colors, from light brown and pink to deep purple and black, alongside different kinds of polished white rices. They come in big sacks, bulk open baskets or specially packaged kilogram pouches slapped with labels touting the particular grain’s health attributes.

Bulk Rice Bin

Supermarket bulk rice bin

Also on offer are colorful mixes combining several different kinds of whole-grain rices. With research confirming a unique nutritional profile for each kind of whole-grain rice, these mixes are formulated to provide a broad range of nutrients as well as ensure a delicious texture and flavor combination.

What is astonishing is that the prices of many of these emerging whole-grain rices are relatively steep, especially those grown organically or are heirloom or improved native strains grown only in limited quantities in particular regions of the country. This is a far cry from a decade ago when there was little, if any, demand for them.

“Green” Markets

Rice for Health Sign

Sign says "Rice for Health"


Accompanying the health food movement, the past few years have seen the advent of “green” markets — sort of like farmer’s markets held once a week at several locations in major cities. Vendors offer not only fresh, organically grown produce, healthy snacks, ready-made take-home foods, and natural juices, but a wide range of natural products as well, such as herbal shampoos and natural cosmetics, herbal food supplements, and environmentally friendly household products. Of course, it is most interesting to me to see the increasing varieties of organically grown whole-grain rices being sold at these markets. Many of them are particular to micro-climates in different parts of the country and are OTOP (“One Tambol, One Product” – tambol refers to a district in a province) or village products, which earn villagers a good income. The word “OTOP” usually signifies a quality hand-made product — notice it on the sign of a rice vendor stall at Or Tor Kor (Aw Taw Kaw) market in the above left picture.

The Red and Black Whole-Grain Rices

Among the varieties of whole-grain rices that have become highly valued among the health conscious in Thailand are the red and black rices. They contain more nutrients than the lighter brown rices. (It’s interesting that researchers in America have recently found black rice to contain even more antioxidants than blueberries — see www.blackrice.com.)

Sanyot Red Rice

"Sanyot" red rice

Red rices have been popular among health-conscious consumers since the beginning of the health food movement. While there are many strains of them grown around the country, kao sangyot has emerged as one of the most highly regarded. A red rice native to (and only grown in) Phattalung province in southern Thailand, this heirloom variety saw a resurgence in its cultivation about seven years ago when local agricultural cooperatives designated it as a rice to be grown organically for the health food market. With a stellar nutritional profile, demand for it in recent years has surpassed the limited supply. In addition to all the vitamins and minerals found in all brown rices, sangyot red rice is much higher in iron and zinc than other whole-grain rices, owing to the mineral-rich soil and water where it is grown.

Red jasmine rice, on the other hand, is particularly high in vitamin E and is said to contain 30 times more antioxidants than common brown rice.

Among the black rices, the most popular is probably kao hom nin or fragrant purple rice. Developed by Kasetsart University (Thailand’s agricultural university), it looks black when raw but is actually deep purple when cooked. It is a delicious rice higher in iron, zinc, copper, calcium, potassium, vitamins A and B than brown jasmine rice. More importantly, it contains a substance called proanthocyanidin. which gives the rice its dark color, and is a more potent antioxidant than vitamins C, E or A. The iron in this rice has particularly small molecules, making it immediately available to the body.

Hom Nin Rice

"Hom Nin" Rice

Kam Doi Hill Rice

"Kam Doi" hill rice

Another highly nutritious dark purple rice is kao kam doi, cultivated in the hills of the north where it picks up

Rices Are Full of Flavor

Forget Husband Rice

"Forget Husband Rice"

The black rices are not only very nutritious but they are full of flavor. Perhaps the most flavorful is a glutinous variety given the common name of kao leum pua — literally “forget husband rice.” I was told by a friend that it got its name because any wife who cooked the rice would find it so delicious that she would eat it all up, forgetting to save any for her husband. It is an OTOP rice from Surin province and has become very popular.

I bought some to try out and found it indeed very delicious. Mixing just a quarter cup of this rice with two cups of brown jasmine rice turns the whole mixture a pretty purple color when cooked and adds so much flavor that it can easily convert white-rice eaters into brown rice lovers. My niece is one of them. She won’t touch brown rice, but when I mix it with the “forget husband rice” and cook it the way I usually cook brown rice (see How to Cook Jasmine Brown Rice for Maximum Nutrition) she just can’t seem to get enough of it!

Soaking Rice

Soaking rice (click picture)

Steamed Whole Grain Rice

Steamed whole grain rice

More to Come in the Near Future

Of course, there are numerous other varieties of very nutritious native whole-grain rices. Books (in the Thai language) have been written about them over the past couple of years. I am still looking for some of them in the rice markets, health food stores and “green” markets. Perhaps as more and more people are awakened to the health benefits of consuming whole-grain rices, many more varieties of these rices will become readily available. For me, consuming these native whole-grain rices not only contributes to my health but it, in turn, improves farmers’ earnings and helps return them to a more harmonious way of living on the land.

Surin Rices

Or Tor Kor rice stall

Whole Grain Rices

Several whole grain rices


Kasma’s Other Articles on Rice

Fool Proof Rice Recipes

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2011.