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Cha-Om – A Delicious and Nutritious Tropical Acacia

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, May 13th, 2011

Cha-om, a tropical member of the acacia family (Acacia pennata) native to mainland Southeast Asia, is a well-loved herby vegetable among Thais, Cambodians and Laotians. The parts that are eaten are the ferny young leaf shoots and tender tips before the stems turn tough and thorny. It has a particular fragrance that may seem unpleasant at first to the unaccustomed, but when it’s cooked up, it’s so tasty that most people can’t stop eating it and the aroma is just part of the package and soon becomes quite likable. This happens a lot whenever cha-om is cooked up in my cooking classes.

Click on an image to see a larger version.
There’s a slide show with all images in this
post at the very bottom (scroll down).

Fresh Cha-Om

Fresh cha-om from Mithapheap

More Fresh Cha-Om

Prickly thorns on lower stepms

De-stemmed Cha-om

De-stemmed, ready to cook

Cha-om is a small shrub with prickly thorns on its branches and stems, though I hear breeders have come up with a thornless variety I have yet to personally come across. In tropical Southeast Asia, it is a fast-growing shrub that puts out new shoots year-round and most robustly during the rainy season. People in some regions, particularly the North, prefer to eat cha-om in the dry season since cha-om grown during the monsoon season tends to develop a tartness and has a much stronger smell. Growers prune the shrubs regularly to harvest the young shoots, wearing long gloves to protect themselves from the nasty thorns. A mature plant can put forth enough shoots for cutting every three days or so. In the more temperate climate of northern California, growth is less profuse and the plants need protection from the cold. They stop producing new shoots when temperatures dip in late fall and stay semi-dormant through the winter.

Cha-om Egg Squares

Cha-om egg squares

The most common way cha-om is cooked is with beaten eggs, like in an omelette, which is then cut into squares or rectangles to serve with pungent nahm prik (hot chilli sauces, usually with fermented shrimp paste – nahm prik kapi in Thai) and fried fish (usually Asian mackerel, or pla too).(See Kasma’s recipe, Pan-Fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables with Hot-and-Pungent Fermented Shrimp Dipping Sauce – Nam Prik Pla Too.)

Nam prik pla too

Nam prik pla too

Thai Dipping Sauce

Nam prik with cha-om egg pieces

Cha-om Egg Rounds

Cha-om egg rounds

Cha-om Omelette

Cha-om omelette

Cha-om egg squares are also frequently cooked in a spicy sour tamarind curry with shrimp (kaeng som). One of my favorite restaurants, Mallika, located in the outskirts of Bangkok, makes a fabulous crispy fried cha-om in a ferny nest, topped with a hot-and-sour sauce containing squid, shrimp and chopped pork (yam cha-om gkrawb). It’s one of the first dishes people in my Thailand travel groups get to savor as I usually take them to Mallika for lunch right after picking them up from the airport. Most fall for cha-om and look forward to eating more of it in other dishes through the trip.

Cha-om in Curry

Cha-om egg squares in curry

Dish with Cha-om

Crisp-fried cha-om

Stir-fried Cha-om

Stir-fried cha-om with egg

Because of its fairly assertive flavor and higher price, cha-om is usually not stir-fried by itself like other leafy green vegetables, but is instead used much like an herb to flavor other things cooked with it. For these reasons, it is sold in small bundles in markets across Thailand. Eggs go especially well with cha-om and in my classes, we make a delicious stir-fried cha-om with eggs and bean thread noodles.

Cha-om for Sale

Cha-om at Hua Hin market

Cha-om Bundled for Sale

Cha-om at Krabi market

Cha-om for Sale

Cha-om at Mithapheap

Starting last spring, we’ve been lucky to be able to get cha-om fresh in the Bay Area during the warmer months beginning in April until the weather turns cold in the fall. Being a tropical acacia, cha-om needs warmth to enable it to put forth new shoots. However, there’s only one store I know of that carries the fresh shoots and that’s Mithapheap, a Cambodian market on International Boulevard in Oakland. [Update, May, 2014: Heng Fath Market on 23rd Street in Richmond, CA also carries it on occasion.] Last summer the store even had cha-om starter plants for sale. But the supply is very limited and disappears quickly in spite of its price (retails for around $15 a pound).

 

Cha-om Plants

Cha-om plants at Mithapheap

Sam, who owns Mithapheap, tries to carry as many of the tropical herbs and vegetables that his Southeast Asian clientele craves and misses after immigrating to this country. He’s made an arrangement with farmers he knows in Modesto to grow many of these exotic produce. Among them is cha-om. During the growing season, Sam drives down to the farm two to three times monthly, usually late in the week (often Thursdays) and the produce would be available over the weekend. Cha-om is usually gone within a few days. Since both Michael and I are very fond of cha-om, as are many of my students who’ve been introduced to it, Sam would call or email me whenever he’s been to the farm and brought back cha-om. As soon as I receive the message, I would dash down to the store to pick up some before it disappears and then shoot off a message to my students. Sam is the main fresh cha-om supplier in the Bay Area and many of his big Southeast Asian customers, including some restaurant owners, often place special orders with him and are among the people he would contact whenever he brings cha-om back from the farm.

 

Frozen Cha-om

Frozen cha-om at Mithapheap

Short of being able to get cha-om fresh, it is available for a lower price in 4-oz. packages imported from Thailand in the freezers of several East Bay stores (haven’t checked the Cambodian markets in San Francisco which most likely would have it). Mithapheap sometimes has frozen packages of de-stemmed leaves which make it easier to use and you get more for the same weight. But most frequently, the frozen packages contain cha-om still on the stems. The Laos International Market two blocks further down the same street also regularly carries frozen cha-om and a third store in the same vicinity to check is Thien Loi Hoa on East 12th Street at 12th Avenue.

 

Frozen Cha-om

Frozen Cha-om at Lao Market

Frozen Cha-om

Frozen Cha-om at Thien Loi Hoa

Not only is it delcious, cha-om is a nutritious vegetable, high in vitamin C and beta-carotenes. It is good for the heart and is known to be an anti-cancer agent. There’s nothing like a natural food that tastes great and, at the same time, is good for you!


Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow. You can also click on any picture individually and either scroll through the images using “Next” and “Prev” or start the slideshow at any image. Captions accompany the images. Clicking on a slide will also take you to the next image.


Kasma’s Cha-om Photo Slide Show

Fresh Cha-Om
More Fresh Cha-Om
De-stemmed Cha-om
Cha-om Egg Squares
Nam prik plah too
Thai Dipping Sauce
Cha-om Egg Rounds
Cha-om Omelette
Cha-om in Curry
Dish with Cha-om
Cha-om for Sale
Cha-om Bundled for Sale
Stir-fried Cha-om
Cha-om for Sale
Cha-om Plants
Frozen Cha-om
Frozen Cha-om
Frozen Cha-om

Fresh cha-om from Sontepheap market in Oakland.

Notice the prickly thorns on the lower part of the stems.

De-stemmed cha-om leaf shoots and tips ready for cooking.

Cha-om egg squares to accompany nam prik and fried fish in the next picture.

Nam prik plah too at Nong Beun in Inburi.

Nam prik with cha-om egg pieces at Mae Sa Valley Resort.

Cha-om egg rounds at Or Tor Kor (Aw Taw Kaw) market.

Cha-om omelette and fried mackerel at a rice shop in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Sour tamarind curry with cha-om egg squares at Chula in Sukhothai.

Crisp-fried cha-om with hot-and-sour sauce, Mallika.

Cha-om sold in small bundles at Hua Hin market.

Cha-om bundled with banana leaf in Krabi market.

Stir-fried cha-om with eggs and bean threads.

4- to 6-oz. packages of fresh cha-om, Sontepheap Market.

Cha-om plants for sale at Sontepheap.

4-oz. frozen packages of de-stemmed cha-om at Sontepheap.

4-oz. frozen packages at Laos International Market.

4-oz. frozen packages at Thien Loi Hoa.

Fresh Cha-Om thumbnail
More Fresh Cha-Om thumbnail
De-stemmed Cha-om thumbnail
Cha-om Egg Squares thumbnail
Nam Prik Plah Too thumbnail
Thai Dipping Sauce thumbnail
Cha-om Egg Rounds thumbnail
Cha-om Omelette thumbnail
Cha-om in Curry thumbnail
Dish with Cha-om thumbnail
Cha-om for Sale thumbnail
Cha-om Bundled for Sale thumbnail
Stir-fried Cha-om  thumbnail
Cha-om for Sale thumbnail
Cha-om Plants thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011

Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 2

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Jasmine rice is Thailand’s top export rice. In fact, most of the jasmine rice the country grows is exported to foreign markets far and wide.

Has Thailand always grown jasmine rice? When and how did it come about? To answer these questions, a little bit of history would be helpful.

(Note: This article is a continuation of the blog Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 1.)

Early History of Rice Cultivation in Thailand

Inscription

Sukhothai inscription

Agricultural policies from as early as the ancient Sukhothai period of Thai history through the centuries of bustling international trade of the Ayuthaya period and into the modern era have actively encouraged the people to develop land into rice fields, for the nation’s food and income security and as a strategy to extend and maintain ruling power. If you travel to the Chiang Mai area, you’ll see impressive remains and hear lots of mention of the old and glorious kingdom of Lanna (“a million rice fields”); and in the Sukhothai area where the first Thai kingdom was established more than seven centuries ago, you’ll hear accounts of the first example of the written Thai language in its best-known passage alluding to a prosperous kingdom where “in the water there is fish, in the fields there is rice…” ruled by a benevolent king. There’s evidence that irrigation canals (klongs) were already in place at the birth of the country in the 13th century. Today, irrigation still remains a crucial service the state provides to its people to grow rice. In the early part of the Rattanakosin modern era (late 18th, early 19th centuries), as much as 95 percent of farmland was allocated for growing rice and Siam prospered from exporting rice to China. Rice farming continues to be the primary farming activity nationwide and the Thai word for farmer, chaona, lterally means “rice field person”.

Archeological Dig

Archeological dig at Ban Chiang

Rice farming in cultivated fields has been done on the land that is now Thailand for at least five thousand years, one thousand years earlier than in India and China. Archaeologists have found traces of rice husks and chaff in the pottery excavated from ancient burial sites in northeastern Thailand that date back at least 5,400 years. At another site in the northwest, a thin stone tool in the shape of a knife for harvesting rice and pottery containing rice husks, dating back at least 5,000 years, have also been found. From the archaeological evidence, some researchers believe that the Asian rice species might very well have originated in the inland valleys of the northern parts of Thailand, the Shan state of present-day Myanmar and adjacent areas of Laos where the annual monsoons, warm humid climate and fertile lowlands offered an ideal environment for its domestication. In ancient times, it is likely that nomadic tribes began settling down to cultivate rice by selectively gathering wild rice from the forests and from swamplands to grow and gradually improving the rice strains by selective breeding.

Jasmine Rice in Thailand, 20th Century and Today

Rice Paddy

Flooded rice paddies

Around the turn of the 20th century, Thai rice was exported to Europe through rice traders in India. It didn’t sell as well as Indian rice since the latter had beautiful, uniform long grains while Thai rice was irregular in quality with much of the grains broken. King Rama V, in his extensive travels to many parts of Europe around that time, made an important observation. His Majesty noted that the irregularities in Thai rice most likely came about because Thai farmers planted too many varieties and there was no attempt to standardize and select strains with superior qualities to grow for export. To encourage the identification of superior strains that the country could promote to improve the quality of Thai rice exports, His Majesty inaugurated the first indigenous rice contest in 1907. In the ensuing years, several indigenous varieties with fine attributes were discovered, tested in field trials, then promoted by the government to farmers to grow for foreign markets. One of the strains was Pin Kaew, submitted by a woman from Sriracha in Chonburi province, which went on to win the coveted first prize at the World Rice Contest in Canada in 1933. It became Thailand’s top rice for many years.

But it wasn’t until the early 1950′s when a truly earnest campaign was carried out to collect native rice strains nationwide in search of other high-quality varieties to promote and export. Some 6000 samples were collected between 1950 and 1952. Promising samples from the Panat Nikom district of Chonburi province were planted alongside other selected strains from the north, northeast and central regions in field trials to compare quality. Of the 199 samples planted at the rice research station, several superior strains were discovered, among them jasmine rice 105 (dok maii 105, later known as hom mali 105), the number corresponding to the row the rice was planted in the trials. In 1959, a selection committee conferred on jasmine rice 105 the highest recommendation because of its pure white, long slender grains and sweet pandanus leaf fragrance (not jasmine fragrance as misled by its name, see Part 1). First cultivated by a farmer in Chonburi province in the 1940′s, jasmine rice 105 has since become an important breeding strain for other rices throughout Thailand.

Rice Field

Rice stalks heavy with grain

Jasmine rice is most commonly grown as an in-season rice watered by the monsoon rains, since it is a light-sensitive variety of rice. While there are varieties that would flower and set seed any time of year, light-sensitive strains will flower and set seed only when the length of the day is shorter than the length of the night. Farmers, therefore, prefer to plant such rice during the main monsoon season (July to October). Jasmine rice stalks begin to flower by October when the days are shorter than the nights. To many discerning Thais, in-season rice tastes better than off-season rice grown with irrigation water.

Today, with continued government support and stringent quality control standards, all rice destined for export must pass the government stamp of approval before it can be shipped. The active involvement of the government in the promotion of Thai rice abroad has placed jasmine rice in the spotlight on the world stage. Among discerning Asians in many countries, jasmine rice is considered the best-tasting rice in the world. As mentioned in Part 1, the Chinese, for instance, are so fond of the jasmine rice grown in northeastern Thailand, especially the provinces of Surin, Yasothon and Roi Et, that they would like to have a monopoly on all the rice grown here. The jasmine rice from these provinces is particularly fragrant and has a better texture than jasmine rice grown in other areas. I, too, prefer the jasmine rice grown in the northeast, and recommend it to my cooking students by advising them to buy the Golden Phoenix label, which consistently markets top-grade jasmine rice from this region and has won the Prime Minister’s Export Award.

Variations in Jasmine Rice

Threshed Rice

Offering to Mother Spirit of Rice

Besides where the rice is grown, the fragrance, texture and flavor can differ depending on the age of the rice. Jasmine rice is softest and most fragrant when newly harvested. As it ages, it gradually loses fragrance and becomes firmer and dryer, requiring more water to cook (see Steamed Jasmine Rice). If the bag of jasmine rice you buy in a supermarket here in the States seems to take a lot more water to cook than usual, has a hard texture and doesn’t seem to have any fragrance at all, then it’s likely that the rice is old and may have been sitting around in warehouses for a long while. For this reason, it’s worthwhile to make it a habit to check the date of harvest, if there’s any, shown on the bag (with many brands, it’s more likely to be the date of shipping, or date of expiration, which isn’t as good an indicator of the rice’s age). On larger bags of rice from ten pounds up, the label may include “New Crop” on the top, but make sure this is followed by the current year (i.e., “New Crop 2011″). The primary rice harvest season is between October and December in main rice-growing regions in Thailand and new rice is shipped out starting in November.

With Golden Phoenix being a reputable premium label and a favorite among Asians, there’s usually a high turnover in busy Asian markets, so you most likely will get new rice or rice not older than a year. For high quality rice, such as Golden Phoenix’s, even a year-old to two-year-old jasmine rice stored under proper conditions can still retain good fragrance and a texture that’s deliciously firm and chewy – perfect for making flavored rice dishes such as the Muslim yellow rice (kao moek gkai) and the popular chicken fat-flavored rice (kao man gkai). If texture is more important to you than fragrance and you like your rice al dente firm and chewy, then an aged rice of one to two years may suit you better than the new rice Asians prefer. For a good mix of firm texture and delectable fragrance, about a six- to ten-month old rice would be ideal – i.e., a bag labelled “New Crop 2011″ would be at this stage from July on.

Importance of Rice for Thailand

Temple Mural

Temple mural, women grilling rice

While China by its sheer size is the world’s largest producer of rice, Thailand has led the world as the largest rice exporter since the 1960′s, owing much of this status to jasmine rice. Even with a population of 67 million, each consuming an average of nearly a pound of rice a day (in various forms besides steamed rice, including rice noodles, desserts, crackers, snack foods, rice liquors, vinegar, etc.), half of the rice Thailand grows is exported. Jasmine rice makes up half of the country’s rice exports with China being the biggest buyer of this deliciously fragrant rice, though Europe and the United States take a big share as well.

Rice is an intrinsic and inseparable part of Thai culture and there is no other food crop that receives blessings in every stage of its life cycle in rituals that parallel the life cycle of human beings. From annual royal rituals dating back seven hundred years (i.e., the Royal Ploughing ceremony, the Rain-Pleading ceremony, the merit-making ceremony to honor the Mother Spirit of Rice) to age-old folk rituals still performed before cultivation, at the time of planting, during the period of maturation and at the time of harvest, different spirits are asked to protect and nurture the rice crop. Rice is always present in one form or another as ceremonial foods in religious and important civil celebrations and at cultural festivals in all regions of the country. These foods often appear in the murals of local temples. Rice is so much a part of Thai identity that it is frequently used as metaphors in figures of speech. Not a day passes in the life of a Thai in which rice does not play a role.

A new movement in rice consumption is picking up steam in Thailand: the return to heirloom, location-specific whole-grain rices and GABA or germinated rice. I hope to write about this new trend sometime in the near future.

Note:

Did you know that rice feeds one in three people in the world and 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in Asia?


Much of the information contained in my two blogs on jasmine rice was gleaned from two books published in the Thai language — Kae Roi Samrap Thai and Kao – Wattanatham Haeng Chiwit — and a few articles from Thai newspapers.


See also:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2011.

Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali – Part 1

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

Thai Jasmine Rice – Hom Mali – Thailand’s best-known rice, is something increasing numbers of people are becoming familiar with and have come to love eating, as the popularity of Thai food continues to soar worldwide. In fact, it has become so widely distributed and so synonymous with Thai cuisine abroad that some people have developed a misconception that jasmine rice is the only rice most Thais eat on a daily basis. This is not so as Thailand grows and consumes many other good-eating varieties and some regions of the country actually prefer other kinds of rice to jasmine rice.

Threshing Rice

Farmers threshing rice

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

I read in a book on Thai food history that Thailand has some 3,500 varieties of rice within her borders, both wild and cultivated. Wow! that’s astounding! But wait till you hear this: The same passage reveals that there are as many as 120,000 varieties, both wild and cultivated, worldwide! Now, that’s unfathomable to the average citizen of Middle America who may know rice only in the form of Uncle Ben’s converted or that highly processed stuff called “Minute Rice”.

Different Varieties of Jasmine Rice

Winnowing Rice

Farmers winnowing rice

Vastly different topography, weather patterns, soil conditions, and consumption preferences combine to determine the varieties grown in each of Thailand’s many regions. For instance, in the mountainous north, the monsoon rains come early and end quickly, so varieties that grow and ripen fast are cultivated. Northerners prefer to eat sticky rice, so little jasmine rice is grown for local consumption. On the other hand, growing conditions in the northeastern region are ideal for jasmine rice and lots of it is grown there, but like northerners, people in the northeast prefer sticky rice, so little of the jasmine rice they grow is consumed there. Most of it is trucked off to Bangkok for shipping to foreign markets, where it fetches a good price to earn the country a good chunk of foreign exchange each year. In each of the regions, there are varieties indigenous only to small pockets and these are strains that native peoples of the area are likely to grow for their own consumption. Indigenous rices are easier to grow and are pest-free as they have selectively adapted to the conditions in particular areas – perhaps over centuries or, possibly, even millennia. They are also usually higher in nutrients than introduced hybrids.

Harvesting Rice

Farmers harvesting rice

Even with jasmine rice, there are varying strains developed for cultivating in different areas to match local growing conditions, ensuring a bountiful harvest of the best rice each locale can grow. This may explain why the jasmine rice you buy in your local market in America can differ considerably from label to label – in fragrance, texture and flavor. The Chinese, who are very fond of jasmine rice, know this and can be very selective when buying rice from Thailand. For instance, Hong Kong would only buy the jasmine rice grown in northeastern Thailand, particularly in the provinces of Roi Et, Yasothon and Surin. The jasmine rice from this area is much more fragrant and softer in texture than jasmine rice from other parts of of the country. As for the jasmine rice grown in the much more temperate climates of Florida and Texas, you might as well forget it – it simply is no longer jasmine rice. (See Kasma’s article Thai Jasmine Rice – Kao Hom Mali for her experience with Texas Jasmine Rice). Thailand holds the patent for jasmine rice, so it’s unlikely anyway that the rice grown in these two states can claim to be true hom mali jasmine rice.

Last year a food agent wanted me to try out a “super-premium jasmine” rice imported from Vietnam in hopes that I would recommend it on my website. He sent me a 25-pound sack. I cooked it once and that was quite enough! The rest went out the door with my Vietnamese kitchen helper who was very happy since this was the rice she’s used to eating. By no stretch of the imagination is it jasmine rice and I find it very misleading for an inferior rice with absolutely no fragrance, a hard texture and a greyish tint to be called jasmine rice, or super-premium for that matter.

Street Vendor of Rice

Street vendor at Thong Lo Market

People who are into food know that the same variety of red delicious apple grown in the Sierra foothills will taste different from the fruit grown in their own backyard in the Bay Area. The soil here is different and the climate is different, so it should not be surprising that the fruits don’t taste quite the same. Those of us who love good food know from experience that such and such a place grows the best this and that and, if we have a choice, we would buy a particular food from the place where it grows best. Take farmer’s markets, for instance. Why does the produce from some farms taste much better than the same produce from other farms? Is it the soil? micro-climates? cultural practices? Bing cherries are not just bing cherries, concord grapes are not just concord grapes, Santa Rosa plums are not just Santa Rosa plums, and so on. The same is true with rice, which being pretty much like grasses might have even the greater ability to morph into something completely different when conditions are far from ideal. Jasmine rice is, therefore, not just jasmine rice: where it is grown is very important. The Chinese know this and Thais know this, but many Americans have yet to understand the difference.

Another example: the Napa Valley is known for its perfect climate for growing wine grapes, so the wines produced here can naturally be expected to be much, much better than any Thailand can produce with the grapes she can grow in her humid tropical climate. I don’t recommend wine connoisseurs drink Thai wine just as I don’t recommend foodies to eat American-grown jasmine rice. And with rice just as with wine, not only does where it come from matter but its age and how it is stored before it makes it into your kitchen. (For more information see Jasmine Rice – Part 2.)

Buying Rice in Thailand

Rice at Or Tor Kor

Rice for sale, at Or Tor Kor

Buying rice in fresh, open-air marketplaces in Thailand is a much different experience than buying rice in American supermarkets. Vendor stalls usually carry a large assortment of Thai-grown rice and sell them bulk from big opened sacks, baskets, buckets or tubs. You can touch, feel, see and smell the grains without a plastic covering or paper box being in the way before you make your decision which to buy. Signs identify each rice by the variety name, but usually also tell you where it is grown, whether it is new or old rice and, sometimes, how the rice cooks up (i.e., soft, not hard when cold, etc.). For whole grain rices sold in more health-conscious markets, the health attributes of the particular grain may also appear on the sign. Big rice vendors often carry several kinds of jasmine rice and, if you examine closely, you can compare the quality by their appearance and aroma. Depending on the strain, age, place of cultivation, time of maturation (i.e., rice maturing early is “light”, maturing late is “heavy”) and time of harvest (i.e., whether it is an in-season rice watered by the monsoon rains, or off-season rice grown during the dry season with irrigation water), as well as how the grains are milled for white rice, quality and price can vary. Discerning Thais claim to be able to taste the difference between rice harvested at different times of year, much like a gifted wine connoisseur can distinguish between wine vintages.

Rice for Sale

Another Or Tor Kor vendor

The photo to the right shows a rice stall at Or Tor Kor (pronounced Aw Taw Kaw) market in Bangkok carrying five different kinds of white and whole-grain jasmine rices – the four sacks in front, with the leftmost bag being new-crop jasmine rice from Chiang Rai, and the leftmost bag on the top row, which is new-crop jasmine rice from Yasothon. Signs for the three whole-grain jasmine rices in the front row identify the varieties and describe what they are good for (i.e., the sack with the red sign is new-crop pink whole-grain jasmine rice that can treat numbness and is a tonic for the bones). (See our blog on Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) Market in Bangkok.)

Why is it Called Jasmine Rice?

What is jasmine rice anyway? Its name may be misleading to unknowing westerners thinking that the rice is infused artificially with the essence of jasmine blossoms. In actuality, the rice is naturally fragrant but the aroma is not that of jasmine flowers but closer to that of “pandan” leaves (or bai toey in Thai). When the native rice was first discovered around 1950 (more in part 2, coming soon) and brought into cultivation by a farmer in Chonburi province, it was cherished because the grains, when milled, had a beautiful long shape, a shiny translucence and were white like jasmine blossoms, accompanied by a distinct sweet aroma (the rice does contain a substance also found in sweetly fragrant pandan leaves). Initially, it was given the name “white jasmine blossom rice” (kao kao malin or kao kao dok mali), but sometime later people mistakenly began calling it “fragrant jasmine” (hom mali) rice and the name somehow stuck.

How did jasmine rice come about to become Thailand’s most famous rice? First, some history would be helpful. So check out my next blog post – Jasmine Rice – Part 2.)


See also:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, April 2011.

Selecting & Using Coconuts

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, March 4th, 2011

How to buy a coconut at the store? Most Americans know coconuts primarily as the highly processed, sweetened products they’ve had sprinkled over coconut cakes or in mixes for piña coladas. Neither is a fair representation of what fresh coconuts really are like with their rich and nutty taste and mild, naturally sweet flavor.

Brown Coconut

Brown coconut in U.S.

Though supermarkets routinely carry coconuts, most people do not have the slightest clue of how to select one, much less what to do with it once they have brought one home. They try to poke holes in the eyes to drain out the liquid, then take a hammer to it to crack it open, sometimes accidentally jabbing or banging their own hands.

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

After taking the trouble to get inside the hard shell, nothing is more discouraging than to find that the flesh has turned rancid. Such an experience is sure to deter a novice from ever bringing another one home, resigning herself to the packaged stuff on the shelf.

Coconut Eyes

These eyes don't look fresh

But wait! You should give it another try. Here are a few tips to get you started again, keeping in mind that the rich, nutty flavor of a good, fresh coconut is hard to beat.

Unlike nuts such as almonds, coconuts are more delicate than most people realize and do not have an indefinite shelf life, especially after the outer husks have been removed. Without the protection of the spongy husks, the shells bang against each other in transport and often crack and develop leaks. The eyes on one end are also exposed and subject to puncture and air seepage, or mold growing inward. Air and mold entering the coconut make the rich flesh spoil quickly. That is why when purchasing a coconut, take care to choose one still heavy with juice.

White Coconut

White, cooked coconut

Shake it, and if it seems dry, chances are there is a crack or leak in the shell, or it may have sat on the shelf too long, the juice having all but evaporated through the thin membranes of the eyes. Check the eyes, they shouldn’t look dark or moldy. Though often sealed with wax to prevent leakage, this does not guarantee that it has not occurred.

When looking for a coconut to buy, search first for a batch with an overall appearance suggesting freshness. If there are several that are moldy or cracked, try another store. From a fresh-looking batch, choose the best-looking one, and if you wish to be doubly sure, take home an extra as a back-up.

If you are not going to use the coconut right away, store in a cool dry place with good ventilation, or unwrapped in the refrigerator so that the shell does not become damp from condensation.

Two Coconut Halves

Halves, ready to be heated

Because the eyes are small and the surrounding shell thick and hard, draining the juice by poking holes in the eyes, as suggested in some cookbooks, may not be as easy as it sounds. The slow trickle may soon tax your patience.

A quick and easy way to crack and drain all at the same time is to use a cleaver. Holding it with one hand such that the “midriff” rests in the middle of your palm, with the tip on one end and the eyes on the other, whack the coconut hard with the dull side of a cleaver a few times until it cracks just enough to drain the juice, but not enough to split open. Do this over a bowl in the sink if you wish to save the juice. If the juice tastes fresh, then the flesh is still good. (Check out Kasma’s video on How to Crack a Coconut.)

Coconut Meat

Coconut meat, after heating

After draining, stick the whole coconut into a hot oven (400-450°) for about 20 minutes. Then cool sufficiently to handle before cracking it open into smaller sections. The heat of the oven would have loosened the meat from the shell, making it easier to pry out with a small knife, spoon or clean screwdriver. Cracking and draining the coconut before placing in a hot oven will prevent it from exploding, an experience you most certainly want to avoid!

Peel off some of the brown skin if you wish. Cut into smaller chunks and shred or chop in the food processor to the fineness desired for making your Thai desserts. To try out your coconut skills, try Kasma’s Grilled Coconut Cakes (Kanom Paeng Jee).


Kasma’s recipe page lists many Thai desserts using coconut or coconut milk.

You might enjoy:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March, 2011

When Chillies are Too Hot

Kasma Loha-unchit, Sunday, December 12th, 2010

How do you deal with a burning mouth from a very hot chilli pepper?

Many people do not realize that the hotness of chillies, which comes from the natural chemical capsaicin, is not water soluble. Have you ever noticed that when your mouth is on fire, no matter how much ice-cold water or beer you drink, the burning sensations linger? Water or beer only temporarily relieves the burning while you are drinking it, but as soon as you stop, you find the hot flames still leaping.

Chopping Chillies

Chopping chillies

Instead of water, try milk next time, or something that contains cream or oil— capsaicin is oil soluble. A dessert with coconut milk can end a spicy meal nicely as it douses out the fire in your mouth. Some people have also found a full-bodied red wine to help during a meal, more so than white wine. Chewing and swallowing mouthfuls of plain warm rice is another way to wipe away traces of capsaicin in your mouth—better yet, rice mixed with sauce from non-spicy stir-fried vegetables as it contains some oil.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk

If you have sensitive skin, you may wish to take precautions when working with chillies. When slicing the peppers, try not to touch the interior lining because it contains the highest concentration of capsaicin. Hold the peppers by the shiny skin and when de-seeding, use the blad of a knife instead of your fingers to scrape out the seeds. Or, you can simply avoid the seeds all together by slicing the peppers lengthwise around the inner core that contains the seeds and hot membranes. But if your mouth can take the heat, don’t bother to deseed the chillies at all.

Limes

Limes can help

If after taking these precautions you still find your fingers burning and throbbing, wash your hands several times with a soap that contains a high concentration of oil or cream. Fresh sap from the aloe vera plant and oil-based ointments of aloe, comfrey or calendula also help relieve some of the burn. Lime juice can be effective, too, and I have heard that a strong vinegar works equally well. When you prepare a big Thai meal, save the rind of the fresh limes squeezed for a sauce or salad; the remaining drops of juice combined with the essential oils in the zest will help clean your hands later of traces of capsaicin. If you have ultra-sensitive skin, wearing thin rubber gloves when working with chilli peppers is advisable. Just as people with fair complexions tend to get sunburned easily, I believe that they, too, are particularly susceptible to chilli burns.

Roasting Chillies

Roasting chillies

Whether or not you have sensitive hands, always remember that when cooking Thai, avoid rubbing your eyes with your hands at any time. Your fingers may not burn from touching chillies, but your eyes certainly will. Capsaicin is very easily picked up by your fingers, and even the minutest trace can burn the sensitive linings around the eyes. If this accident does happen, do not panic. Wash with the suggested antidotes and avoid rubbing; the burning will fade away in time.

When roasting chilli peppers, especially the dried variety, make sure there is plenty of ventilation. Dried peppers can burn easily (turn them frequently and watch them carefully), and burnt chilli fumes in the air are painfully irritating to the linings of your throat and lungs. For the same reason, when stir-frying with chillies and chilli pastes over high heat, make sure the fan over your stove is turned on.


See also:


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


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2010.

Chillies – Some Information

Michael Babcock, Friday, December 3rd, 2010

The classification of chillies is widely controversial. This is my attempt to discover some of the salient facts about chillies, an essential ingredient in Thai food. Since I’m not a botanist, I’m certain to offend someone or other with this post. Nonetheless, here’s my best effort at getting it correct. Comments gladly accepted: please keep it civil!

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

Origin & Cultivation of chillies

Chillies for Sale

Chillies at Khon Kaen Market

All varieties of chillies originated in Central, South and North America, primarily in Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico. The sometimes seen speculation that all chillies are descendants of an original “mother” chilli from Bolivia is unproven, called by one researcher “a highly speculative hypothesis.” (# 1.) It is possible that there are a very few Old World cultivars that are not found in the Americas. (cultivar: “a variety of a plant developed from a natural species and maintained under cultivation” – WordNetweb)

Chillies have been cultivated for millennia by Native Americans making them one of the oldest cultivated crops in the world. Chillies have played a part in Native American diets as early as ~8000 B.C.E. and were cultivated and traded as early as 6000 B.C.E.. Chillies were independently domesticated several times by several different prehistoric Native American cultures; traces have been found of this cultivation from the Bahamas to Southern Peru. At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, domestication was quite widespread throughout South, Central and North America, in virtually every soil and climate ranging from Argentina and Chile to the Southwestern United States. (# 2.)

We owe a huge debt to the Native Americans who cultivated (and continue to cultivate) chillies for thousands of years. This debt extends beyond chillies: foods first domesticated by Native Americans from an early date include corn, tomotoes, potatoes, squash, shell beans and manioc (also called cassava, tapioca or yuca – a common ingredient in Thai cooking). In 2007, five of the top twenty crops in the world (by tonnage) originated in the Americas (maize (corn), potato, cassava, tomato and sweet potato); of the top twenty-six crops, eight were crops domesticated by early Native Americas. (# 3.)

Reaching Thailand

Red Thai Chillies

Red Thai Chillies

Chillies made it to Europe with Christopher Columbus, returning from the New World after his 1492 voyage. Columbus was searching for a shorter route to India, source of the valuable spice black pepper. By the time of Columbus’s arrival in Cuba, there were probably hundreds of types of chilli peppers being raised. In 1492 Columbus saw some plants cultivated in Hispaniola (the second largest island in the Caribbean) by the Arawak Indians, (# 4.) who called them “axi,” which became “aji.” Chillies are a completely different botanical subclass, order and family than black pepper (see below). Nonetheless, Columbus, thinking he was in India, called them “red peppers.” He also misnamed the inhabitants “Indians.”

All chillies are of the genus Capsicum, generally used only for taxonomic discussion. (taxonomy: “a classification of organisms into groups based on similarities of structure or origin etc” – WordNetWeb) The common name comes from the Nahuatl (Aztec) “chil” or “chili”. Today, you’ll find three different English spellings for “red pepper”: chile, chili and chilli. Chile is the Hispanic spelling of the word; chili (one l) is the English (as spoken by the English) spelling; chilli (two ls) is used in Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Except when quoting, I use the spelling “chilli” (two ls) since that is Kasma’s generally preferred spelling. Columbus’s misnomer persists to this day and we still refer to chillies as chilli peppers.

After Columbus took the chillies back to Spain, they spread quite rapidly to all of Europe, Asia and Africa, carried primarily by the Portuguese. I came across two theories as to how they spread, though it does not seem to me that they are contradictory. One is that chillies spread to Asia, first via the Phillippines and then to India, China, Korea and Japan. The second is that the Portuguese began cultivating chillies in India and that they spread from there. However it happened, within 50 years of Columbus’s first voyage (by 1542) they were being cultivated in India, Japan and China. (# 5.) One primary reason that chillies spread so rapidly was because they had already been thoroughly domesticated by the Native Americans.

It’s unclear when the chili made it to Thailand – it could have been no earlier than sometime in the latter part of the 16th century. Whenever chillies did arrive, they have certainly become an integral part of Thai cuisine: the Thai people have a genius in incorporating new ingredients into their cuisine and making the result uniquely Thai. Check out Kasma’s blog Thai Food is Fusion Food.

It’s interesting that it’s now almost impossible to conceive of Thai food without chillies.

Prik Kee Noo Chillies

“Thai” Chillies

Chilli Peppers

More chillies for sale

Perhaps the most common chilli used in Thailand is called prik kee noo meaning mouse dropping chilli and usually called “Thai chilli” in English. (See Kasma’s Thai Chillies – Prik Kee Noo.) Nonetheless, despite the fact this type of chilli is raised in Thailand and used in Thai cooking, there really is no “Thai” chilli pepper. Prik kee noo is a garden cultivar of aji, the same chilli species found by Columbus; there are dozens of cultivars of this variety of plant in the Americas. The origin of the variety called prik kee noo is now thought to be Ecuador where it has been cultivated since 7000 B.C.E.. One can find many aji cultivars in the Caribbean and Mexico that are indistinguishable from prik kee noo.

Some chillies have retained the name of their place of origin; cayenne, another garden cultivar of aji, was named for a port in current-day Suriname (in South America). Elsewhere, as chillies were traded, they were renamed and new associations, some fanciful, once they took hold became fixed in popular usage; so prik kee noo have been given a fanciful name in Thai and in English translation are called “Thai chillies,” referencing the cuisine in which they feature. This changing of names can be seen even in some scientific names: Capsicum chinense means “Chinese chilli,” even though it, like all chillies, originated in the New World; chillies had spread so quickly that Europeans erroneously believed they had originated in the Orient. (# 5c.)

Prik kee noo are also called “bird’s eye pepper” and “bird pepper” as is the chilli called chilli pequin, although they are not the same plant. “Bird pepper” must have been an irresistible name to people who saw wild birds eating the spicy red fruit with impunity (birds are not affected by the heat in chillies). Chilies are not alone in the vegetable world in attracting birds and other animals who eat them and help disperse their seeds locally. According to a book on seed dispersal, “Birds are the primary consumers and dispersers of wild chillies.” (# 6.)

Biological Name

Dried Red Chillies

Dried red chillies

Note: The claffication of plants and taxonomy is clearly an immense field in itself. Classification of Plants explains how plants are classified. As for chillies, W. Hardy Eshbaugh says: “Determining the place of origin of the genus and each of the domesticated species is at best a problematic exercise.” (# 1.) Another article as recently as 2007 talks of “the general chaos concerning classification of capsicum species.” (# 7.)

As mentioned before, all chillies are of the genus Capsicum, which is one genus of many within the family Solanaceae (Nightshade). The complete taxonomic classification (taken from the USDA Classification) looks schematically like this:

Kingdom: Plantae – Plants

Subkingdom: Tracheobionta – Vascular plants

Superdivision: Spermatophyta – Seed plants

Division: Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants

Class: Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons

Subclass: Asteridae

Order: Solanales

Family: Solanaceae – Potato [Nightshade] family

Genus: Capsicum L. – pepper

Species: [various]

The letter L. following Capsicum stands stands for Linneaus, the botanist who named the plant; it seems to be often omitted when people give the botanical name. The family name, Solanaceae, means nightshade and includes potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant in addition to chillies.

There appear to be 30 or more species of capsicum (chillies). (# 8.) There can be many different varieties within each species. For example, the species Capsicum annuum (or C. annuum) contains chillies that are pungent (hot), such as Thai chillies, as well as chillies that are sweet, such as bell peppers. Genetically they are nearly identical yet a very small variation means a huge difference in the fruit. It is the amount of the chemical capsaicin (methylvanillyl nonenamide) in the chilli that is responsible for the heat (burning sensation in mouth).

Five species of chiles (though some would say those five species comprise only three species) are thought to have been domesticated independently in at least two regions of the New World: C. annuum and C. frutescens in Mesoamerica; C. baccatum, C. pubescens, and C. chinense in South America. Four species (although some would say three) are in general cultivation: C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense and C. pubescens. (# 9.)

Of these four species, Capsicum annum is the dominant pepper globally; this is in part because Columbus and other explorers discovered it first, so it was the first chilli taken to Europe, from whence it spread rapidly.

An example of a variety within the species C. annuum would be glabriusculum: C. annuum var. glabriusculum:

Family Solanaceae – Potato [Nightshade] family

Genus – Capsicum L. – pepper

Species – Capsicum annuum L.

Variety Capsicum annuum L. var. glabriusculum

Dried Chillies

Dried chillies close-up

Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum: As far as I can tell, the Thai chili belongs to Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum. This variety is native to Colombia, Central America, the Caribbean and parts of the Southern United States, including Florida, Texas, Arizona, Mexico. Everywhere else it is found (so in Thailand, for instance) it is naturalized (“established: introduced from another region and persisting without cultivation” – WordNetweb) or is cultivated. It is thought (by some, at least) to be the progenitor of C. annuum. Some of the common names for this species as given by the USDA listing are aji, bird pepper, chile pequin and chilipiquin and cayenne pepper. One way of referring to prik kee noo would be as a Thai cultivar of aji. The cultivated Thai chilli also could be called C. annuum cultivar, or C. annuum var. glabriusculum cultivar.

I’ve been told, but been unable to verify, that the IAPT [International Association for Plant Taxonomy] has reclassified the Thai chilli as C. annuum var. poquin.

Some other chillies that belong to C. annum are: bell pepper (called simply Capsicum annuum); Jalapeño peppers (Capsicum annuum L. var. annuum); and the Tabasco pepper (Capsicum annuum L. var. frutescens (L.)). (# 9b.)

Many websites give the botanical name of prik kee noo as Capsicum frutescens. This, apparently, is out-of-date and the Thai chili is now classified as C. annuum. The current thinking seems to be that C. frutescens and C. annuum are the same species and are grouped together under C. annuum. It also appears that C. annuum was sometimes misidentified as C. frutescens in scientific literature. (# 10.) I’ve been told that IAPT [International Association for Plant Taxonomy] considers C. frutescens as outdated and that it is no longer is use there, although I’m not a member so I’m unable to verify this.

Prik Kee Noo Chillies

Two “Peppers”

It’s interesting to compare the scheme for black pepper (Piper nigrum), the spice Columbus was searching for, with that of chillies. (Schema is from ITIS [Integrated Taxonomic Information System].)

Kingdom: Plantae – Plants

Subkingdom: Tracheobionta – Vascular plants

Division: Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants

Class: Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons

Subclass: Magnoliidae

Order: Piperales

Family: Piperaceae – Peppers

Genus: Piper L. – Pepper

Species: Piper Nigrum L. – Black pepper

It is obvious that the two “peppers” (Piper and Capsicum) belong to completely different botanical subclasses, orders and families. Piper nigrum is native to India. As mentioned above, members of the genus Capsicum are referred to as “peppers” by historical accident only, because Columbus did not understand what he had discovered.

Black pepper (Piper nigrum) in Thai is called prik Thai, which translates literally as “Thai pepper,” although in recipes it is correctly identified as black (or white) pepper as required by the recipe. (Note: black and white peppercorns are different forms of Piper nigrum – see Kasma’s article Peppercorns – Prik Thai.) Prior to the arrival of red peppers with the Portuguese, Thai cooking used prik Thai in their cooking, presumably arriving from India at some point. So we have the following:

  • prik kee noo (literally, mouse dropping pepper) is the spicy (hot) red chilli Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum; it is translated as “Thai chilli” in English.
  • prik thai (literally, Thai chilli) is the black pepper Piper nigrum; it is translated as “black or white pepper” in English.
Dish with Chillies

Chillies used in Thai cooking

This dish uses red chillies in the curry paste and fresh chillies for garnish

Some Articles Referenced

  1. W. Hardy Eshbaugh in the 1993 article Peppers: History and Exploitation of a Serendipitous New Crop Discovery.”Determining the place of origin of the genus and each of the domesticated species is at best a problematic exercise. In 1983, I stated that “it appears that the domesticated peppers had their center of origin in south-central Bolivia with subsequent migration and differentiation into the Andes and Amazonia.” This is a condensation of a highly speculative hypothesis (McLeod et al. 1982). From that hypothesis Pickersgill (1989) later suggested that I (Eshbaugh 1983) argued that all the domesticated taxa arose in Bolivia. Without question, I could have stated this idea more clearly. We (McLeod et al. 1982) have speculatively hypothesized that Bolivia is a nuclear center of the genus Capsicum and that the origin of the domesticated taxa can ultimately be traced back to this area. That does not imply that each of the domesticated species arose in Bolivia. Clearly, evidence supports a Mexican origin of domesticated C. annuum while the other domesticated species arose in South America. Nonetheless, the ancestry of the domesticates can be traced to South America. While McLeod et al. (1982) have hypothesized a Bolivian center of origin for Capsicum there is no evidence for a polyphyletic origin of the genus as now understood.”
  2. Three articles on early cultivation of chillies are: a. Domestication of Capsicum annuum chile pepper provides insights into crop origin and evolution; b. Americans Cultivated And Traded Chili Peppers 6,000 Years Ago; c. Precolumbian use of chili peppers in the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico
  3. From a.
    Wikipedia – Columbian Exchange; b. Foods that Changed the World (by Steven R. King, Ph.D.)
  4. The Smithsonian Magazine article What’s so Hot About Chili Peppers?
  5. See a: Wikipedia – Chili pepper; b. What’s so Hot About Chili Peppers? (page 2); c. Diffusion of Mesoamerican food complex to southeastern Europe (by Jean Andrews)
  6. From the book Seed Dispersal: theory and its application in a changing world, edited by Andrew J. Dennis. The authors reference (Tewksbury and Nabham, 2001; Levey et. al., 2006)” for this quote.
  7. T. Hietavuo Wild Capsicums & Domesticated Peppers. This article also says: “Categorizing plants can be very frustrating, and in case of peppers, it is almost a hopeless task.” Also: “The description of genus capsicum has been disputed and even partly questionable until these days. Because of this, most information sources still offer limited or downright false information about chile peppers and their backgrounds.”
  8. Number of species: Genetic variability in domesticated Capsicum spp as assessed by morphological and agronomic data in mixed statistical analysis (PDF file)
  9. a: Genetic diversity and structure in semiwild and domesticated chiles (Capsicum annuum; Solanaceae) from Mexico; b: Peppers – A Short Study; c: According to reference 7 above: “There are also 3 [to] 5 domesticated species depending on any given researcher’s opinion.” d. This quote us from T. Hietavuo Capsicum annuum var. annuum: “Capsicum annuum is a plant science, some degree of classification problem, because it consists of several genetically very closely related subspecies that different researchers have over the years classified as the most diverse ways. What is certain is only that, Capsicum annuum, chinense and frutescens subspecies is a common wild-stem form (C. annuum var. glabriusculum), which grows a rare region of northern South America at the southern USA.” [Note: this is a translation from the original Finnish using Google Translate.]
  10. a: Bosland in Capsicums: Innovative Uses of an Ancient Crop; b. in reference 1 above there’s an extended discussion on this issue under the heading “CAPSICUM ANNUUM VAR. ANNUUM–CAPSICUM CHINENSE”.

Written by Michael Babcock, November 2010