It's khao chae season: How to eat Thailand's classic summer treat
As summer approaches, Thailand is starting to get unbearably toasty. One of the few redeeming qualities of the hot season is that restaurants all over the country will soon start serving the delicious but complicated summer dish, khao chae.
Khao chae -- which means "rice soaked in water" -- made its first appearance in the court of King Rama II as a means of relief during the hot season. In fact, Thai celebrity Chef McDang, who grew up in a Bangkok palace, argues that it's the only Thai dish that can truly be considered "royal Thai cuisine."
Khao chae was adapted from a simple Mon recipe into the complex, multi-dish variety found today. And though you don't need to be a member of high society to enjoy it, due to the elaborate process required to make the side dishes it's only widely available from mid-March until the end of April.
To help the uninitiated get a taste of this popular treat here's a quick guide to khao chae.
What is it?
There are three parts to khao chae: rice, jasmine-scented water (hence the floating flowers) and crushed ice. The rice is parboiled (boiled with its husk in tact) to keep its shape so it doesn't get mushy when immersed in water, making it chewier than regular cooked rice.
The side dishes are the real star in this meal. Recipes vary but the essentials remain the same. Most of the sides tend to be sweet, except for one: young green peppers stuffed with minced pork, which are then drizzled in egg and fried.
Another must-have khao chae component is deep-fried kapi (shrimp paste) balls, which are rolled in ground coconut, battered and then deep-fried to perfection. This also goes well with kra-chai, or fresh Chinese ginger, which is usually served along with other fresh vegetables such as cucumber, spring onions and strips of raw mango.
Shredded sweetened pork or beef and Chinese radish (chai pow) are also important. In most khao chae sets, the radish is caramelized to shine. In older recipes, however, it usually would only be lightly stir-fried with palm sugar and eggs.
Other less common sides include boiled salted egg, pla naem (powdered dried fish meat), deep-fried red onions and sun-dried chilis stuffed with pla naem.
How to eat khao chae
Don't treat khao chae like khao tom (boiled rice soup). You'll only insult it. Khao chae is an art, not only in the preparation, but also in the feasting.
Don't heap your bowl full with rice. Add just a third, followed by just enough jasmine water to cover the rice. Only add enough ice to cool things down.
Whatever you do, don't put the side dishes into your bowl of rice. Have a little bite of your side dish, chew a bit, then follow with a spoonful of the icy rice.
Don't forget to nibble on those fresh vegetables between each side to give your tongue a break from those sugar-overloaded bites.
Where to eat khao chae
April is the month of khao chae, which means the dish will soon be available all over Thailand, from five-star hotels to small family-run Thai restaurants.
If you find yourself hooked and want to eat it all year, here are some of the best places enjoy khao chae in Bangkok in the off season.
Sukhumvit Soi 49, opposite Samitvej Hospital. Open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. +66 (0)2 391 3193
Chaengwattana Road, Pak Kret 3 Road, Nonthaburi. Open daily, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. +66 (0)2 583 3748
37 Prachachuen Soi 33. Open daily, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. +66 (0)2 585 1323
Article first published April 2010, updated March 2012.