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Thai (Sweet) Snacks – Khanom Wan

Michael Babcock, Sunday, October 25th, 2009

One of the joys of Thailand is the wide variety of snacks, or, in Thai, khanom, available in all the markets. A recent blog entry by Kasma that included a recipe for a very tasty Thai pudding, Tapioca Black Bean Pudding, got me thinking about Thai khanom. In the title above I’ve used khanom wan, wan being the word for “sweet,” since I’ll focus on sweet snacks here and there are savory snacks as well). (Picture is from Kasma’s class.)

Tapioca black bean pudding

Tapioca Black Bean Pudding

Kasma tells me that Thai people traditionally didn’t eat sweets for desserts; if they had a dessert at all, it was fruit of some variety. Something sweet might be eaten an hour or so after eating or it might be eaten at any time during the day. This is not so different from how the Thai people treat food in general; for instance, they don’t really have any specific breakfast foods. Breakfast is considered just another meal and anything that is eaten at any other time of the day will also be eaten for breakfast.

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

Sticky rice treats in jackfruit

Sticky rice treats in jackfruit

Thai markets are full of khanom – I’m actually fairly amazed by the variety of Thai desserts and snacks. On our market walks we’re always seeing something that I swear I’ve never seen before. They are part of what I think of as a “grazing culture” – a Thai will eat any time of the day or night. Sometimes these new snacks don’t last – the sticky rice treats in jack fruit pictured here appeared one year at Aw Taw Kaw Market in Bangkok but the next year they were not there. Too bad, they were tasty!

The Tapoica Black Bean Pudding is representative of Thai sweets in many ways. One, it includes a salty component. Two, it is coconut based. Three, it contains ingredients that are healthy for you (black beans, coconut milk).

Making Grilled Coconut Hotcakes

Making Grilled Coconut Hotcakes

Thai sweets and snacks are seldom just sweet and, as a rule, are less sweet than American Desserts. They often have a salty component to play off the sweet taste. Kasma was very amused a few years back when the New York Times ran an article about the “new” way of making desserts that included a salty component. She wrote a letter and pointed out that in Thailand and all over Asia they’ve combined sweet and salty  for hundreds of years.

A great many Thai khanom are coconut based. Although coconut can be used in any form, such as shredded meat as used in Khanom Paeng Jee Grilled Coconut Cakes – more khanom use coconut milk. The Tapioca Black Pudding is one example and Kasma’s dessert recipes include three all time favorites: Coconut Flavored Sticky Rice with Mango (Kao Niow Mamuang), Grilled Coconut-Rice Hotcakes (Khanom Krok), and Coconut Egg Custard (Sangkaya). (The picture above of a vendor making Khanom Krok was taken at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) in Bangkok.)

Steamed Pumpkin Cakes in Banana Leaf Cups

Steamed Pumpkin Cakes in Banana Leaf Cups

Another characteristic of Thai khanom wan is the presence of healthy ingredients – coconut milk, taro, squash, corn, to name just a few. Coconut milk is actually a very healthy food indeed, despite the efforts of the American oil industry to convince us otherwise. I’ve written an article The Truth About Coconut Oil and perhaps the best article on the subject is Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century by Mary Enig, Ph.D. We’ve also got a page with numerous links to information about coconut oil.

The quick story is that coconut oil does not clog your arteries or contribute to heart disease and it is full of healthy fats, such as Lauric Acid and Caprylic Acid, which have a beneficial effect in the body by helping you fight off bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungus. It is what is called a “functional food,” defined thus: “a functional food provides a health benefit over and beyond the basic nutrients.” (See Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century by Mary Enig).

Ruam Mitr without the ice

Ruam Mitr without the ice

One of my very favorite Thai snacks is a coconut-milk based snack called ruam mitr. Kasma, in her classes, calls it “Iced Sweet Coconut Soup with a Mix of Various Tidbits.” It’s basically a sweet coconut soup to which up to a dozen or so various tidbits such as jackfruit, green noodles, young coconut meat, water chestnut  and corn have been added. The picture above, before the ice is added, gives an idea of the variety of ingredients. It is topped with shaved ice and on a warm day is a delightful combination of coolness, taste and textures. It is very cooling and refreshing. (Picture is from Kasma’s class.)

Asian Pumpkin in Coconut Cream

Asian Pumpkin in Coconut Cream

There are numerous examples of khanom that contain something served in a “coconut soup,” such as Taro Cubes in Coconut Milk, Asian Pumpkin Simmered in Pandan-Leaf-Scented Sweet Coconut Cream Sauce (Gkaeng Buad Fak Tong) (picture from Kasma’s class), and the “Ordained Bananas” – Bananas Simmered in Jasmine-Scented Coconut Milk (Gkluey Buad Chi). (So-called, because nuns, in Thailand, wear white: the bananas have been “ordained”  in the white coconut milk.)

Coconut milk is also used in other desserts, such as Khanom Tuay – Steamed Coconut-Rice Cakes in Small Dishes and Sticky Rice and Corn Pudding (Kao Niow Bpiak Kao Pohd). And of course the khanom krok mentioned above.

Steamed Banana Cakes

Steamed Banana Cakes

Bananas are another common and well-loved ingredient. Of course, in Thailand there are many different varieties of bananas, all of which make the kind we find in United States supermarkets taste very bland indeed. In addition to Ordained Bananas, here are just a few banana-based desserts taken from Kasma’s class menus:

  • Grilled Plantain Bananas, Glazed with Sweet & Savory Coconut Cream Sauce,
  • Fried Bananas (Gkluay Tawd)
  • Stewed Bananas Topped with Coconut Cream Sauce (Gkluay Kai Cheum)
  • Steamed or Grilled Banana Leaf-Wrapped Sticky Rice Stuffed with Banana and Black Beans (Kao Dtom Pad)
  • Southern Thai Muslim Banana-Ginger Griddle Cakes (Gkalabpaeng)
  • Steamed Banana Cake Wrapped in Banana Leaf Packages or in Banana Leaf Cups (Kao Dtom Pad) (picture from Kasma’s class)
Sticky Rice Balls in Ginger Broth

Sticky Rice Balls in Ginger Broth

Other snacks have more of a Chinese influence – indeed, they are found on Chinese menus all over the world as well as in restaurants and markets in Thailand:

  • Sticky Rice Balls Stuffed with Black Sesame Paste in Warm Sweet Ginger Broth (Bua Loy Nahm King) (picture from the Krua Andaman in Nakhon Si Thammarat)
  • Sweet Potatoes in Ginger Broth (Man Dtom Nahm King)
  • Young Coconut Agar Jelly (Woon Maprao Awn)

Cassava, or yucca, is another ingredient often seen, as in these snacks:

  • Steamed Cassava Strips Rolled in Shredded Coconut (Khanom Man)
  • Caramelized Stewed Cassava (Yucca) in Syrup, Topped with Coconut Cream Sauce (Man Cheuam)
  • Cassava Custard Topped with Coconut Cream (Dtakoh Man Sambpalang)
Crispy Peppery Sweet Glazed Shells

Crispy Peppery Sweet Glazed Shells

Here are just a few other snacks you may come across:

  • Crispy Peppery Sweet Glazed Shells (Krawng Kraeng Gkrawb) (picture from Kasma’s class)
  • Chewy Sticky Rice Balls Stuffed with Smoked Sweet Shredded Coconut (Khanom Dtom Kao)
  • Southern Thai-Style Sweet Roti (Muslim Fried Bread) sprinkled with sugar and condensed milk and/or stuffed with sliced banana). Although these originated in the south, you’ll find roti vendors all over Thailand.
  • Steamed Pumpkin Cakes in Banana Leaf Cups (Khanom Faktong)
Khanom Buang Thai

Khanom Buang Thai

Another type of sweet you may encounter has a bright orange appearance, the color coming from egg yolks. One example of this is Khanom Buang Thai, a Thai crepe whose filling includes meringue and sweetened egg yolks. These particuler snacks can be traced to the influence of Marie Guimar, the half-Japanese, half-Portuguese wife of a Greek minister (Constantine Phaulkon) to the Siamese royal court in the 17th century. Marie worked her way to the position of head of the royal kitchen and introduced the use of eggs in making desserts and other sweets.

Bakery cakes in Nakhon Panom

Bakery cakes in Nakhon Panom

One trend that I’ve noticed over the years is an increase in western-style desserts in Thailand. It is fairly common to see bakeries that have decorated cakes and there’s one restaurant chain (S & P) that is famous for their cakes. In markets and malls you’ll find cookies, cakes and donuts.

And there are the exceptions to Thai snacks being less sweet than western desserts. On one memorable evening, a Thai friend took us to a trendy khanom shop that served nothing but extremely sweet, multi-colored syrups on white, puffy bread. I suppose the western-style bread makes this a fusion dessert. The place was absolutely packed.

Cassava cakes from Sontepheap Market

Cassava cakes from Sontepheap Market

In the United States, I’ve not seen much of a variety of Thai snacks at Thai restaurants: you’re lucky if they have sticky rice or fried bananas. Where I’ve seen a greater variety of snacks, somewhat more representative of what you find in Thailand, are at some of the Asian markets we frequent, such as Khanh Phong on 9th Street in Oakland or (especially) Sontepheap market on International Boulevard an 14th Street in Oakland. You’ll find the snacks by the check-out counters. If you’re not in the Bay Area, make a trip to some of the Southeast Asian markets in your area. (See Shopping at Asian Markets (for Thai Ingredients).

Chiang Mai Snack Vendor

Chiang Mai Snack Vendor

We’ll finish with this picture of a young woman vendor outside of Worarat Market in Chiang Mai. She’s making Grilled Coconut Cakes (Khanom Paeng Jee), Fried Yam Balls and Fried Bananas (Gluay Tawd).


If you want to eat Thai khanom your best bet is to travel to Thailand and be adventurous in the markets. If you want to learn to make khanom you can do so in Kasma’s classes.


Written by Michael Babcock, October 2009.