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Gingko Nuts

Kasma Loha-unchit, Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

My Mother and Gingko Nuts

Today is the first anniversary of my mother’s passing. I spent the morning cracking and peeling gingko nuts – a nourishing, medicinal food that mother absolutely loved. During the last several years of her life, she was frail and unable to walk or stand for very long. So every time I went home from across the ocean to visit her, I would bring a big bag of gingko nuts and we would spend precious hours together sitting by the dining table after breakfast cracking and peeling them.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Cracking Gingko Nuts

Cracking gingko nuts

Using a stone pestle, I would gently tap the ridge of the pistachio-sized nuts to crack them and mother would peel off the shell and as much of the paper-thin membrane encasing the kernels as she could. The shelled kernels were then soaked in water to loosen the parts of the membrane that tightly hugged the soft, edible flesh. After the nuts were all cleaned, they were boiled in water sweetened with a little bit of raw sugar or wild honey and that would become her late afternoon snack or a light dessert after a light evening meal. Simply prepared, the nuts retained their delicious flavor and delightful, soft-but-chewy texture. There would be plenty left for many more servings over the course of my visit. Mother always looked forward to her bowl of gingko nuts – they gave her tremendous satisfaction and comfort, while at the same time, nourish her in the evening of her years.

Gingko Nuts

Gingko nut close-up

Cracking and peeling gingko nuts took time, but what better way to spend countless, precious hours with my elderly mother that I would always treasure. We talked and laughed and told stories, but most of the time, we were just silent, cherishing every moment of just being with one another. This activity was the last food prep and cooking activity I shared with my mother, and whenever I crack and peel gingko nuts, I will always remember the many timeless mornings spent with her preparing one of nature’s great healing foods – as well as all the times in my life that I had spent with her preparing nourishing foods for the family and, in the process, learning from her the secrets of cooking, which I now share with my cooking students.

Like my mother, I love both the taste and the texture of fresh gingko nuts. When cooked right, they are soft and chewy, somewhat remiscent of sticky rice. Although the nut has a slightly bitter taste, to her and me and everyone else who loves gingko nuts, it is not unpleasant and is a reminder of its medicinal properties.

Gingko Nuts

Gingko nuts soaking in water

Technically speaking, gingko nuts are not really nuts but the seeds of the gingko tree (Gingko biloba, commonly known as the maidenhair tree). They bear no resemblance whatsover to other nuts in texture, flavor or nutrition. They taste more like some kind of legume or vegetable. Although many Asian markets in the Bay Area carry refrigerated, vacuum-sealed bags of peeled and cooked gingko nuts, these taste awful and should be avoided. Buy only the whole, unshelled gingko nuts from dried goods stores in Chinatown. They look a lot like pistachio nuts in size, color and form, but are pointy at one end. In fact, during her first trip to the United States some forty years ago, mother almost mistook pistachios for gingko nuts. She was very excited to see what she thought were cracked gingko nuts in a supermarket, until she took a closer look. Of course, she quickly learned to love pistachios as well.

Cooked Gingko Nuts

Cooked gingko nuts

I prefer to buy gingko nuts from bulk bins, rather than already bagged in net bags in some Asian grocery stores. That way I can see the individual nuts more clearly and select ones that are large and white and not broken, discolored, moldy or mildewy on the outside of the shell. When cracked and shelled, the kernels inside should be plump and cream-colored; after they’re cooked, they turn a lovely bright yellow color with a radiant sheen. It takes a little work to crack and peel gingko nuts, but it’s well worth the effort and, to those who like to cook and eat healthy foods, this prep work can be a therapeutic activity.

Gingko nuts were introduced into Thailand by the Chinese and all gingko nuts sold in the country are imported from China. Thailand is too hot and tropical a country to grow the temperate-climate gingko tree. The city of Bangkok, which had its beginnings as a Chinese trading post a few hundred years ago, is said to have the largest Chinese population of any city outside a Chinese country (i.e., China, Taiwan, Singapore). In the Old Market (Talad Kao) of Bangkok’s Chinatown, there are many stores selling gingko nuts, both whole unshelled and peeled and cooked. (See picture, below right.) They are also available in many of the city’s shopping centers and marketplaces which have stores or stalls that carry Chinese goods. Chinese restaurants around the city feature dishes made with gingko nuts, including stews, soups, stir-fries and desserts. Often, gingko nuts are cooked in a rice congee along with chestnuts, lotus seeds, red dates and medicinal roots, bark and herbs. They are not only delicious but very nutritious.

Gingko Nut Dessert

Gingko nut dessert - Oni Pae Guay

Gingko nuts have made their way into a few Thai sweet snacks and desserts, which are adapted from the Chinese. One such dessert, called Oni Pae Guay (using the same Chinese name of a common Chinese dessert), is often on the dessert menu of many large Thai restaurants. It takes the form of a creamy, smooth and sweet, mashed taro paste (but less sweet than the Chinese version), topped with slices of cooked Chinese red dates and a few gingko nuts, with the added Thai touch of a salty-sweet coconut cream sauce. Another sweet snack is a soupy pudding of job’s tears (another healing food native to most of East and Southeast Asia – a grain reminescent of barley and often called “pearl barley”), accented with gingko nuts and strips of slivered young coconut meat, cooked in young coconut juice flavored with pandan leaves (a medicinal herb in traditional Thai herbal medicine prevalently used to flavor and color many Thai desserts). This fusion Thai-Chinese dish is both a delicious and healthy snack/dessert. In tribute to my mother and her love of gingko nuts, I introduced this dessert just a little over a week ago in my new Advanced I evening cooking series to commemorate her passing a year ago this month.

Gingko Nuts

Gingko nuts in Bangkok's Chinatown

Gingko nuts are a medicinal food in much of the Orient. They are an excellent antioxidant, rich in vitamins, micronutrients and amino acis, and have become known for their anti-aging properties. Other benefits include improving circulation to the coronary artery and the brain, sharpening of the memory and aiding in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, gingko nuts have been used for thousands of years to strengthen the lung and kidney meridians. They are used as a “yang” kidney tonic to increase energy, reduce the frequency of night-time urination and incontinence, relieve bladder irritations, and reduce excess mucus in the urinary tract and excess vaginal discharge. A tea made from boiling the nuts is used to treat lung weakness and congestion, including coughing with an excess of phlegm, wheezing, and asthma. They are also used to treat hearing loss, dermatological disorders and psoriasis. I particularly like this passage in an article on Chinese healing herbs: “Long-term consumption helps nourish yin, maintain youth, fight aging, expand capillaries, improve metabolism, promote ruddy and healthy look, provide extra energy and grant longer and healthier lives.” But there is a caveat: don’t eat the kernels raw and don’t eat too many in one sitting (7 for children and 15 to 20 for adults) as they can have a toxic side effect for some people.

Now, whenever I peel gingko nuts, I will always remember my mother, who taught me how to cook, who taught me how food is medicine and the first line of defense against illnesses, and who introduced to me a host of exotic ingredients that I still use today and pass on to my cooking students. Her legacy lives on.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit on October 9, 2013

Salted Mackerel – Pla Kem

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Among highly salted fish, my personal favorite is salted mackerel – pla kem. If you like preserved anchovies, you will most likely fall for salted mackerel, too.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Salted Mackerel 1

Vacuum-packed salted mackerel

Salted Mackerel 2

More vacuum-packed salted mackerel

Look for narrow oval steaks of salted king mackerel either vacuum-packed in plastic and either frozen or in a refrigerator, or stuffed in glass jars covered with oil. Pan-fry in a small amount of oil for a couple of minutes on both sides until well-browned and flaky. Drain from oil and sprinkle with thinly sliced shallots, thin rounds of Thai chillies and fresh lime juice. Because it is very salty, only a small bit of the mackerel is mixed and eaten with plain steamed rice. My mother and I share a fondness for salted mackerel and just a tiny piece can help us polish up a big pot of rice, feeling very satisfied!

Salted Mackerel

Salted mackerel

Salted mackerel is also used as a flavoring ingredient, such as in the Chinese steamed chopped pork with salted fish. Use it as you would salted anchovies. It makes a particularly tasty flavoring for stir-fried Asian broccoli, or broccoli rabe (see recipe below). Flake the flesh of pan-fried salted mackerel and toss in with the greens. Instead of salted mackerel, small pieces of fried, dried salted mudfish may also be used.

When working with any kind of dried and salted fish, beware of the strong fishy odors likely to be released during cooking, especially frying. Make sure there is plenty of ventilation in the kitchen to disperse the lingering fumes.


Asian Broccoli with Salted Mackerel (Ka-nah Pla Kem)
Recipe by Kasma Loha-unchit

Prepared Asian Broccoli

Prepared Asian broccoli and garlic

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch Asian or Chinese broccoli (ka-nah)
  • 1/4 cup peanut oil
  • 1 small piece (about 2 oz.) salted mackerel (pla kem)
  • 10 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 3-4 Tbs. Thai oyster sauce
  • 2-3 tsp. fish sauce (nam pla), to taste

Method

Starting from the stem-end, cut the Asian broccoli at a very sharp slanted angle 1/2 inch apart to make pieces about 1 1/2 inches long. Peel the bottom of the larger, more fibrous stems before cutting. For pieces with leaves attached, cut the leaves into 2-inch segments. Do not make it a point to detach the leaves from the stems; there should be pieces of stem with some leaf attached. Keep the pieces from the bottom half of the stems separate from the more leafy upper half.

Frying Mackerel

Frying salted mackerel in oil

Fried Salted Mackerel

Fried salted mackerel

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok over medium-high heat until it begins to smoke. Fry the salted mackerel in the oil for 2-3 minutes on each side until well-browned. Remove from wok.

Stir-Frying

Stir-frying the Asian broccoli

Asian Broccoli Cooking

Continuing to stir-fry

Increase heat to high and swirl in the remaining oil. When it is smoking hot, add the chopped garlic, stir for 10-15 seconds, then toss in the bottom stem pieces. Stir-fry half to one minute before adding the leafy pieces. Continue to stir-fry until the leaves have mostly wilted. Sprinkle with oyster sauce and 1 tsp. of fish sauce, stir and mix well.

Broken Salted Mackerel

Salted mackerel in chunks

Adding Salted Mackerel

Adding salted mackerel to the stir-fry

Break the mackerel into small chunks and toss in with the vegetable.

Stir-fry a little while longer until the broccoli is tender, but still crisp, and a vibrant green color. Taste and add more fish sauce as needed to the desired saltiness. Stir well and transfer to a serving dish.

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

Finished Dish

Asian Broccoli with Salted Mackerel

Close-up of Dish

The finished dish, up close

Notes and Pointers:

A very nutritious bitter green vegetable readily available from most Oriental produce markets, Asian or Chinese broccoli has insignificant flower buds and is prized for its deep green leaves and firm, crisp stems.

Select a bunch with small tender stems. If the stems are large, the bottom half may need to be peeled to remove the tough fibers. Cutting the stems at a very sharp slanted angle helps break up the fibers that run the length of the stalks, giving them a more tender texture. The sauce can also penetrate the vegetable better through the longer cut that exposes the interior of the stems.


Slideshow on Salted Mackerel

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

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

Salted Mackerel 1
Salted Mackerel 2
Salted Mackerel
Prepared Asian Broccoli
Frying Mackerel
Fried Salted Mackerel
Stir-Frying
Asian Broccoli Cooking
Broken Salted Mackerel
Adding Salted Mackerel
Finished Dish
Close-up of Dish

Salted mackerel in a vacuum-pack, one variety

More vacuum-packed salted mackerel

Salted mackerel, removed from the package

Asian broccoli, cut at a slanted angle, plus chopped garlic

Frying salted mackerel in peanut oil until brown

Fried salted mackerel, browned and ready for the next step

Stir-frying the Asian broccoli and garlic

Continuing to stir-fry the Asian broccoli and garlic

The salted mackerel is broken into small chunks

Adding the chunks of salted mackerel to the stir-fry

Asian Broccoli with Salted Mackerel (Ka-nah Pla Kem)

A close up of Asian Broccoli with Salted Mackerel (Ka-nah Pla Kem)

Salted Mackerel 1 thumbnail
Salted Mackerel 2 thumbnail
Salted Mackerel thumbnail
Prepared Asian Broccoli thumbnail
Frying Mackerel thumbnail
Fried Salted Mackerel thumbnail
Stir-Frying thumbnail
Asian Broccoli Cooking thumbnail
Broken Salted Mackerel thumbnail
Adding Salted Mackerel thumbnail
Finished Dish thumbnail
Close-up of Dish thumbnail

Note: This blog originally appeared on pages 42 to 43 of Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood, published in 2000 by Simon & Schuster. All text is Copyright © 2000 Kasma Loha-unchit.

All photographs are Copyright © 2011 & 2013 Kasma Loha-unchit


Written By Kasma Loha-unchit, 2000

Banana Blossom – An Interesting Thai Ingredient

Michael Babcock, Monday, July 15th, 2013

Banana blossoms are one of the many unusual ingredients found in Thai cooking. On the surface, this appears to be an unlikely ingredient – when eaten by itself, it has an unpleasant astringent bite. This taste, however, disappears when accompanied by a creamy coconut sauce and this is how the blossom is often served.

The Thai word for banana blossom is หัวปลี (hua plee).

Banana Blossom 1

Blossom on the plant

Banana Blossom 2

Blossoms at a market

The outer layers of the blossom are a rich purplish red color and are quite tough. The best parts for eating are the light ivory leaves in the center.

To prepare the blossom for use in cooking, the outer red layers are peeled off. Then the inner ivory colored layers are typically cut into wedges and then soaked immediately in water with a bit of salt or lime juice: this is to prevent the sap from turning the heart and leaves black.

Prepping Banana Blossom 1

Opening up a banana blossom

Prepping Banana Blossom 3

The ivory inner leaves

Directly above we see a banana blossom being prepared for use in a Thai dish. Once the dark red outer leaves have been stripped down to the inner ivory-colored ones, we can cut it into wedges.

Prepping Banana Blossom 4

Cutting into wedges

Soaking Banana Blossom

Soaking the inner leaves

If we didn’t soak the leaves in salt-or lime-water, they would turn black (and unappetizing!) from the sap.


Crab Dip

Blossoms with a crab dip

One typical way to serve banana blossoms is as an accompaniment to a dipping sauce, such as Salted Crab Coconut Cream Sauce – Loen Poo Kem. In addition to salted crabs and coconut creme, this sauce may include ground pork, chopped fresh shrimp, tamarind juice, palm sugar, and salt. This tasty, creamy sauce mellows out the flavor of banana blossoms. The way the sauce and the banana blossom combine to create a unique taste needs to be experienced: it can’t really be described. Besides the banana blossom, a variety of other vegetables choices are on the platter accompanying the sauce.

You can learn about salted crab as an ingredient and also try Kasma’s recipe for Loen Poo Kem in her blog: Salted Crab – Boo Kem (or Bpoo Kem)

Mee Kati Noodles

Blossom served with noodles

Banana Blossom Salad

Kasma‘s Banana Blossom Salad

Banana blossoms may also accompany the noodle dish Mee Kati – Rice Vermicelli Cooked in Spiced Coconut Cream Sauce. Again, the creamy coconut sauce coating the noodles tempers the astringency of the banana blossom to make a delicious taste in the mouth.

Banana blossoms are also made into salads in Thailand; Kasma teaches a Banana Blossom and Chicken Salad with Toasted Coconut. Peanuts and Roasted Chilli Sauce – Yum Hua Plee. Once again, coconut cream provides the medium to mellow out the astringency. This salad is delicious and a favorite among many of her students.

Isan Banana Blossom Salad

Isan Banana Blossom Salad

Banana blossoms can also be cooked as a vegetable in a spicy, rich curry sauce.

If you’ve tried cooking with banana blossom but haven’t had luck making it taste good, try the suggestions we’ve made above, or sign up for Kasma’s cooking classes where you’ll learn to make use of many exotic ingredients that are both nutritious and delightfully tasty when prepared right.

In the S.F. Bay Area, we are able to find fresh banana blossoms in many of the Southeast Asian markets and also at the Berkeley Bowl, particularly during the warmer months. If the fresh blossoms are unavailable, banana blossoms are also found already cut into wedges in cans or bottles where they are packed in brine; no need to soak these in salt- or lime-water after shredding. They won’t have a crisp texture and fresh taste, however, like the fresh blossoms to when they are shredded and eaten raw in a salad.


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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

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.