Cold Jasmine Rice in Hot Weather

Thailand’s hot season, which felt hotter than normal this year but according to the weather service was not, is just winding up. One of the few positives to the hot season is that many restaurants serve a seasonal specialty known as khao chae (ข้าวแช่). Tawn and I joined a few friends to sample this delicacy.

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We dined at Lai Rote, a old-timey restaurant located on Sukhumvit Soi 39 across from Samitivej Hospital. It is a traditional Central Thai restaurant and its name means “many flavors.”

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Making khao chae is a three-day process. The rice is parboiled, which leaves it with a “toothier” texture than is typical for jasmine rice. It is then soaked with jasmine petals in a container that has lit jasmine candles floating in it. The delicate floral flavor permeates the rice. Finally, the rice is served in ice water, a cool treat during hot season.

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The side dishses are the real attraction, though. They vary depending on the house’s specialties but what you see above is pretty typical. It includes (working clockwise) elaborately carved green mangoes, cucumbers, grachai (fingerroot), hua hom yat sai (fried stuffed red onion), prik yuan sod sai (young banana peppers stuffed with pork and wrapped in a crispy, eggy shroud), muu wan (sweet dried shredded beef), plaa wan (sweet dried shredded fish), pad hua chai po (thin strands of dried pickled radishes stir-fried with egg), and luk kapi pad (fried fermented shrimp paste balls).

Unlike most Thai food, the khao chae side dishes are quite bland and not spicy at all. It derives from so-called “palace cuisine,” the types of elaborate food traditionally served in the Thai royal palace. In addition to the khao chae, we ordered some other dishes:

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khao tang na tang – Fried rice cracker with a minced pork and peanut topping.

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khanom pang na gung – little toasts with shrimp pate and sesame seeds served with plum sauce.

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yam tua pluu – a spicy salad of wing beans and toasted shallots with a peanut and roasted chili dressing.

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For dessert, I had a less-common dish called khao maow grob. It features grains known as meang lak (hydrated lemon basil seeds) served with syrup and crushed ice, topped with toasted rice grains coated with palm sugar.

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Here’s a close up of the palm sugar coated toasted rice grains. Just like very crunch Rice Krispies. One of the more interesting Thai desserts I’ve had.

The meal was a refreshing break from our hot weather. Thankfully, by the time I’ve gotten around to writing this, rainy season has started to arrive and the heat is breaking.

 

Dining in Bangkok: Krua Apsorn

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my friend Chow for lunch at Krua Apsorn.  Chow, who is the author of Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, was researching restaurants for an article in an Australian airline’s inflight magazine and needed an extra mouth to help her evaluate the food.  Who am I to shirk my duty as a friend?

Krua Apsorn is a Central Thai style restaurant that has garnered much attention in recent years.  With a homey charm, decent food, and a slightly obscure location, it is the type of place that makes foreigners feel like they’ve stumbled into a secret cave of culinary treasures.  While it is worth a visit, I wouldn’t necessarily put it on my list of “must-visit” restaurants.

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The original location of Krua Apsorn (there are now three) is on Samsen Road, which runs north from the Khao San backpacker district towards the Dusit Palace.  Located a little ways past the National Library, the restaurant is off the beaten path for most visitors but not terribly difficult to reach.  The chef used to cook for the King’s now-deceased mother and older sister and when this restaurant opened, Princess Galayani was known to visit it.  Six years ago, the Bangkok Post named it one of Bangkok’s best restaurants and you can now find it listed in nearly every guide book. 

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Lunch reservations are recommended as this location is popular with large groups of office workers.  The interior is modest and the emphasis is on the food rather than the decor.  The staff is friendly although rushed and it took a while for us to get their attention to order and then again to get the bill at the end of lunch.

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To ensure we gave the restaurant a fair sampling, we brought tremendous appetites, ordering and (for the most part) finishing more dishes than you would think two people could eat.  We started with a classic Central Thai appetizer: miang kana.  These make-it-yourself appetizers feature a variety of sweet, sour, spicy, savory, and salty tidbits that you wrap in a kailan (or Chinese broccoli) leaf with a splash of tamarind sauce.

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Can you spot the following items?  Shallot, lime, white ginger, peanut, dried shrimp, and fried pork rind.  Combined with the tamarind sauce, this appetizer exemplifies the typical flavor profile that Thai dishes aspire to, a balance of different flavors that leave you very satisfied.

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While I’m leery of ordering mussels thanks to a bad experience years ago in Seattle, we couldn’t pass up this dish that sat on nearly every other table.  Called hoi malang puu pad chaa, these super fresh mussels were stir-fried in basil, fish sauce, and chilies.  At first they didn’t seem too spicy but trying to avoid the chilies was a challenge and eventually you just had to give in and enjoy them.

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Another dish was gaeng kiaow waan luuk chin plaa, green curry with fish balls.  Green curry is one of the more accessible types of curry for foreigners’ tongues.  This one was passable but the taste was watered down.  

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The rice arrived molded into the shape of a heart.  Na rak maak! (Very cute!)

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A dish for which the restaurant is famous is neua puu pad prik lueang – crabmeat stir fried with yellow chilies and long beans.  The portion of lump crabmeat is generous, fresh, and sweet.  The sauce itself is also a little sweet, almost tasting as if it had ghee added to it, although I doubt it does.  The long beans were a little undercooked for my taste – reminding me of how when I brought my now-deceased paternal grandmother to eat Thai food once, she commented on a dish of stir fried vegetables, “My, they certainly like their vegetables crunchy.”  All in all, this was a well-made dish, though, and one I would order again.

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A dish of pad yot pak maew – chayote stems fried with garlic – provided a simple and refreshing contrast to some of the other, more strongly flavored dishes.

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Another highlight from Krua Apsorn’s menu is kai fuu puu – crabmeat omelet.  Their version, however, is so unlike the omelets you see elsewhere that it really makes you take notice.  Cooked in a narrow dish rather than a broad skillet, the omelet gains a lot of volume, looking more like a souffle than a traditional Thai omelet.

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Cross section of the kai fuu puu – standing very tall.  That said, the amount of crabmeat in the omelet seemed skimpy when compared with, say, the amount of crabmeat in the stir fry with the yellow chilies.  Still, this was one of the best dishes.

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The final dish we ordered, this one from the daily specials menu, was puu lon pak sot or salted crab and coconut cream stew with fresh vegetables.  This is a dish that is less common for foreigners to try and one that I haven’t run across too many times.  It is made of salted crab, minced pork, coconut cream, and a variety of herbs and spices, boiled until thick.

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The dish is actually more of a dip than a stew, as it is served with a selection of fresh vegetables – two types of eggplants (including the white ones), tumeric root, cabbage, and cucumbers – with which you eat the puu lon.  I found the taste of the dish to be interesting, both complex and unusual.  It is a bit sour, a bit salty, and very herbal.  Chow didn’t care much for it because it has sort of a milky aftertaste but it wasn’t a problem to me.

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For dessert, we tried some of the homemade fresh coconut sorbet (which was refreshing but didn’t photograph well) as well as this saku biak tua dam – miniature tapioca with black beans, served in sweetened coconut milk.  This is one of my favorite Thai desserts because it is not overwhelmingly sweet and has a bit of saltiness as well as the heartiness of the beans.

What to think of the restaurant overall?  You have to start out by understanding that this type of restaurant serves aahan juut, literally “bland food”.  It is the type of food that appeals to your grandparents, comfort food that isn’t too assertive.  That’s not a knock on the restaurant itself, because the food is well prepared with a lot of attention to the quality of ingredients and the methods of preparation.  The flavors are relatively bland because that’s characteristic of Central Thai cuisine when compared with Northern, Northeastern, or Southern Thai.

With all that in mind, Krua Apsorn delivers a good dining experience and value for the money.  Is it worth seeking out?  If you are already near the restaurant, it is worth stopping by.  If you have to trek all the way across the city, there are probably other aahan juut restaurants closer by that will satisfy you just as well and, if you are visiting from outside Thailand, there are other restaurants I would recommend you try before you get to Krua Apsorn.

 

Food in Bangkok: Prik Yuak

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Bangkok’s Chatuchak Weekend Market is popular among locals and visitors alike for its almost endless maze of vendors selling everything from fashion to frogs, souvenir trinkets to silverware for your dinner table.  Shopping isn’t the only reason to visit the market, though.  Hidden amongst all these vendors are several restaurants that are worth a trip, even if you have no plans to shop.  A few weekends ago, we ate at Prik Yuak, a popular place whose good food and convenient location makes it worth a visit.

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Prik Yuak is a Southern Thai style khao gaeng place.  Khao gaeng refers to the prepared curries (and other dishes) that are served with rice.  I shared a bit about this type of food in the third volume of my “Great Eats in Bangkok” series. 

Ordering at Prik Yuak is both easy and hard: easy because all you need to do is point and they will plate the dishes up for you.  Hard because you have to figure out what each thing is.  My advice: so long as you have no allergies, religious dietary restrictions, or adverse reactions to chilies, go ahead and point away!

Portions are small – think “Thai tapas” – and this allows you to try many different tasty dishes even if you come to the restaurant by yourself or just one other person.

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The restaurant itself is modest, located next to the edge of the market, immediately adjacent to exit 3 of the Kamphaeng Phet MRT station.  In fact, make a u-turn to the right as you exit from the station and then continue back as far as you can go (40 meters or so) and you’ll have reached the restaurant.  Grab a table after ordering and they will bring the food to you.

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Plaa kem tod – The name of the dish refers to the salty fried fish that is the main flavoring ingredient.  In this case, it is being served along with broccoli, although it is also served with other greens.  Salted fish is a popular ingredient in Thai food, especially in the south, where it is an easy method of preservation for a region that is close to the sea.  For foreigners, the taste can take some getting used to because it is very salty.  The saltiness is balanced by the clean, unseasoned flavors of the vegetables, though.

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Kai palow – This dish of stewed eggs and pork belly is often prepared with a Chinese five spice sauce.  In this case, Prik Yuak uses a palm sugar caramel and soy sauce.  This dish is ordered to accompany spicier dishes, as the sweet richness of the dish helps to counter the spice.

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Kuag gling moo – Shredded pork fried with spices, most notably turmeric, with a garnish of thinly sliced kaffir lime leaf.  This dish, which is spicy hot, has very assertive flavoring, making your taste buds come alive.  The texture is also very fun to eat, small shreds of slightly crispy fried pork and fried shallots.

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Gaeng tae po – This vegetable dish features something known locally as “morning glory” – not related to the flowers – a tubular green that grows near the water.  It is served in a curry and is quite spicy but in a way that is very pleasant.

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Panang moo – Panang style pork curry, which is milder than many other Thai curries.  It has a heavy dose of coconut milk which provides some richness on the tongue, countering other spicier dishes.  What makes Prik Yuak’s version of this dish unique is that they braise the pork first before cooking it in the curry.  The result is a bowl full of very tender pork.

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Pad prik king gai – Shredded fried chicken, cooked southern style with a dry curry (i.e. no coconut milk).  At first glance, this appears similar to the kuag gling dish, above.  But the flavor profile is very different.  Instead of having turmeric and lots of spices, this curry is made mostly of chilies, ginger, galangal root, coriander root, and lemongrass.  It is much more herbal and has a kick to it.

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Kai tom yang matoom – A common condiment for the khao gaeng shops is boiled egg.  Here we have boiled duck eggs done to a soft, creamy yolk.  Again, the richness of the egg helps counteract the spiciness of several of the dishes.  It is also an easy source of protein.

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To provide some more veggies, a little crunch, and some cooling relief to your mouth, a platter of crudité is served.  From left: kamin khao (white turmeric), long beans, and cucumbers.

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And to drink?  How about a coconut bowl of the favorite local cola: Pepsi.  While I normally don’t drink sodas, it is a very refreshing accompaniment to a meal like this.

Conclusion: The food at Prik Yuak is first rate in terms of quality, price, and flavor.  Best of all, the small servings allow you to try so many different things.  I hope that as you read the descriptions, you noticed how varied the dishes are and how they complement each other.  Something spicy, something sweet, something salty, something rich, something astringent – this is the quality of a balanced Thai meal, a feature that is lacking in a lot of western cooking, particularly in fast food America.  When I go for too long without Thai food, I find that my palate is bored from the lack of different flavors in a single meal!

Riding Around to View the Flood

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Sunday morning, the city quiet as many residents have fled the flooding, I rode my bicycle for a first-hand look at the situation in the old city and along the river.  What I found was not as bad as flooding further north, but it left me with the realization that our relative dryness is a tentative state, one that could easily change.

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My ride took me west into the old city, around the Grand Palace, and then north along Sam Sen Road to the Rama VII Bridge.  Most of the way, I was on the road closest to the river, giving me a chance to evaluate the neighborhoods.  Like a checkerboard, some neighborhoods had water while adjacent neighborhoods were still dry.  The dry neighborhoods were taking no chances, though, with walls of sandbags or brick and cement erected in front of shops, buildings, and homes.

Location 1: The Emporium

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These photos were actually taken Friday night, when Tawn and I drove to the Emporium shopping center at Sukhumvit Soi 24 to watch a film.  Both parking structures were packed, not with shoppers’ cars but with cars that had been parked there for safekeeping.  Cars were double parked, left in neutral gear so they could be pushed out of the way.  To park in the only available space, we had to push six other cars out of the way.  I can tell you from this experience that classic Mercedes are very heavy and do not roll easily.

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We noticed that someone had parked a pale yellow Rolls Royce Phantom with an auspicious license plate with the numbers 9999 on it.  (The current king is Rama IX, so nine is considered a lucky number.)  Inquiring with the guard, I understand that the car’s owner is someone very high up in one of the government’s ministries.  The guard also shared that this person has parked 26 cars in the lot.  Perhaps the government’s scheme to encourage car ownership is working too well?

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All of these cars had a notice placed on them (after they were not moved at the end of the night) asking the owners to contact the management office before leaving the car park.  Presumably, there will be some sort of a fine for unauthorized long-term parking.  I would guess some people probably won’t have to pay that fine.

Location 2: Phra Nakhon District

The ride to Phra Nakon, the oldest district of Bangkok, was smooth as so few cars were on the road.  Along the way, streets were dry and canals were at close to their normal level.  When I came up to Khlong (canal) Khu Meuang Derm near the back side of the Ministry of Defence, I encountered the first flooding.  While not deep – about 10 cm (4 inches), it covered most of the blocks adjacent to the canal.

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I rode around the north side of the Grand Palace where the street had moderate flooding (the far two lanes in this picture) in some areas.  The entire road around Sanam Luang, the large field to the north of the Grand Palace, was flooded a bit more, with the entire road under about 15 cm (6 inches) of water.

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The Grand Palace was open for business (tourists note: the Grand Palace is open every day, no matter what any scam artists may try to tell you) but there were few visitors.  The entry gate, pictured here, was under about 30 cm (1 foot) of water, requiring visitors to balance on sand bags as they made their way inside.

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Around the corner from the Grand Palace, closer to the river, is Maharat Road leading to Thammasat University.  Flooding was more severe in this neighborhood and a barrier had been built in the street to contain the water.  Vendors were still working on the sidewalks and residents (and monks from the adjacent Wat Mahathat) were coming and going as best they could.  One vendor explained that the area had been flooded for the past four days.  When asked whether the water was still rising or was falling, he replied that it depended on the tides.

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One block away from the river, Na Phrathat Road runs along the west edge of Sanam Luang, passing the National Theatre and National Museum.  It was closed to through traffic and has about 15 cm (6 inches) of standing water.

Location 3: Sam Sen Road, Dusit District

Heading north from Phra Nakhon, I rode along Sam Sen Road through the Dusit District.  There, I found the same checkerboard pattern of flooding.  Some stretches I rode through the water that reached the bottom of my pedals, about 15 cm (6 inches) high, although waves caused by passing vehicles left me with wet shoes.  There were points where the roads were impassable, so I cut east one block, rode a few blocks north, and then returned to Sam Sen Road to find it dry again.

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The dry areas looked like they might not be dry much longer.  Here, I passed through an otherwise dry neighborhood and found water bubbling up through the manhole cover.  Passing motorbike riders gazed warily at the water, which ran across the road and into the storm drains.

Location 4: Bang Sue District

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Underneath two railway bridges just south of the Rama VII automobile bridge in the Bang Sue district, the river threatens to spill over its banks and an extra layer of sandbags marks a last line of defence.  The bridge belongs to the State Railways of Thailand.  Just to the right of the frame is a second bridge (to the right of the crane) for the under-construction pink rail transit line.

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To the left of the previous picture (of the bridge), the road comes immediately adjacent to the brimming river, right at the entrance to Khlong (canal) Sung.  The water gate for the canal is shut in order to protect the district from flooding.  Soldiers from the army were on hand monitoring the situation and adding sandbags as necessary.

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Just a short distance north, I rode across the Rama VIII Bridge and stopped to take pictures.  There were several people fishing from the bridge, but I noticed this man who was fishing from the waterfront park underneath the bridge.  Because of the flooding, it is hard to tell where the river ends and the park begins.

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In the same waterfront park, a boy ran through the water as buses passed on a moderately flooded frontage road.  After having pedaled about 30 km, I headed inland past the closed and sandbagged Chatuchak Weekend Market (which I’ve never seen closed on a weekend!), taking the Skytrain home from the Mo Chit station.

Conclusions:

While I didn’t travel further north into the more severely affected areas of the city, what I saw was enough to make me realize that even though we’ve passed this week without flooding in many of the central parts of the city, those areas that are still dry, remain so only because of luck and limited rainfall.  Water is bubbling up through the drains and seeping through the sandbags and dikes; it seems inevitable that some of those defenses will fail before the excess water is moved safely to the Gulf of Thailand. 

I suspect that the risk to the area I live in is relatively minimal, but I think we have another week or two before the city as a whole is out of the gravest danger.

 

Updated Final Time: Some Information about the Flooding

Updated – Third video added.  This is the last time I’ll time stamp this!  Tawn shared this very cute and informative 4-minute video clip with me, which explains what is happening with the flooding and why the risk to Bangkok is severe.  It is done with clever animation and is actually quite useful… which leads me to believe that the Thai government had absolutely nothing to do with it.

The best part is how they compare the flood waters with blue whales, which makes the whole thing much more comprehensible.  There are English subtitles, so please enjoy.

A second video was released Thursday, which further explains the situation and gives suggestions about how to assess the actual risk your home is at for flooding.

The government has announced that the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok will peak around 6 pm Saturday, so that is expected to be the point at which flooding, which has now spread into 5 districts in the city, will explan further.

The third video is out, this one listing the three steps you should take to prepare for the flood.  It really is so simple, right?

 

Thai Desserts

As we wait patiently for updates as to the flooding risk in Bangkok…

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It has been a while since I’ve done an entry about food, so I thought I would share with you the plate full of Thai desserts that Tawn brought for me a few weeks ago when I was slaving away all afternoon on the computer.

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The full plate – from left: rae rai, khanom tuay, khanom khii nuu (in the cup), and gluay bing.   First off, the term “khanom” is an all-purpose word used for snacks or sweets.  

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Item 1:This is khanom khii nuu.  I’m not sure you want me to translate the name as the literal meaning is pretty unappetizing.  This dessert is almost like a sweet cous cous made of rice flour instead of wheat flour.  The rice flour is mixed with jasmine water to make a paste, then it is pressed through a screen to make small granules.  These are then wrapped in a cloth and weighted to press out any extra liquid, then steamed until cooked. 

A simple syrup is made with more jasmine water, sugar, and (if desired) food coloring, which is then mixed into the cooked flour granules.  Finally, the whole thing is placed in a container along with a jasmine candle, which is allowed to burn to impart additional aroma.  It is served with a little bit of shredded mature coconut.  The flavor and texture are delicate, almost a bit too delicate.

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Item 2: Rae rai are basically rice flour noodles.  They are made by mixing two types of rice flour (regular and glutinous) with coconut cream and jasmine water until it forms a dough.  The dough is stirred over medium heat for about ten minutes until the flour is cooked.  Food coloring is added and the dough is separated into small balls (about the size of ping pong balls) and then extruded through a device that looks a bit like a garlic press.  The resulting noodles are steamed and then served with a combination of sugar and sesame seeds and a little bit of salted coconut cream.  Also a delicate flavor but a bit more substantial than khanom khii nuu.

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Item 3: Gluay bing, grilled bananas.  A semi-ripe starchy type of banana is grilled at a low temperature and then flattened.  It is then soaked in a mixture of coconut milk and palm sugar.  I’m not a big banana fan, so this wasn’t a particular favorite of mine.

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Item 4: Khanom tuay, literally a “cup snack”.  The dough is made of rice flour, flavored and colored with pandanus leaf.  These are steamed in small cup molds and, after being removed, are served with a palm sugar caramel with sesame seeds.

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Inside view of the khanom tuay, which has a consistent texture throughout, something similar to mochi, the pounded sticky rice that is common in Japanese cuisine.  This was my favorite, especially because of the texture.  I like the chewy texture of mochi, caramel, taffy, etc.

So there you have it – Thai desserts to tide you over while we wait for news about the flooding.  “The water is coming tonight,” said one of our guards as he inspected the wall of sandbags in front of our condo.  Let’s hope when I wake up tomorrow, everything is still dry.

Flooding in Thailand

You have perhaps heard that since August, Thailand has been coping with the worst flooding the country has experienced in 50 years.  From the far north in Chiang Mai and other mountainous provinces, through the central plains, and now down to the region closest to the Gulf of Thailand, the country has experienced widespread destruction.  At least 297 people have died, 700,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed, and estimates are that the waters could wind up costing the country US$5 billion, or about 1% of GDP. 

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The region currently affected is the southern half of the Central Plains, the rice bowl of Thailand.  Nearly 15 million acres have been flooded, of which 3.4 million acres are farmland.  The above graphic shows flooded areas in light blue.  As you can see, the province of Ayutthaya, home to the ruins of the second capital of the Kingdom of Siam, is the most severely affected.

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Many of the major ruins, temples, and historical sites in Ayutthaya have been affected by flood waters, some areas more than 2 meters deep.  The United Nations is sending teams to help survey the UNESCO World Heritage sites and offer assistance.

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The muddy waters of the Chao Phraya river cannot easily be contained, sweeping into cities and villages along its banks.  Most of central Thailand is low-lying land.  There are signs that those who live upriver from Bangkok feel that their land has been sacrificed in the name of keeping Bangkok safe.  Since the last major flooding in Bangkok in 1995, extensive measures have been put in place to reduce the risk of flooding for the capital.  One of those measure is the deliberate flooding of farmland in the provinces north of the city, the so-called “monkey cheeks” approach.  Without a doubt, the impact of flooding farmland is much less than the impact of flooding major cities.  Nonetheless, that is cold comfort for the familes directly impacted by those policies.

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Unfortunately, the flooding has not been limited to farmland.  Between Ayutthaya and Bangkok lie many industrial parks, home to manufacturing centers for companies from around the globe.  As an example, Honda’s factory, which accounts for some 5% of its global production, was flooded.  Pictured above, new Honda cars sit in the factory’s parking lot, some submerged and others partially floating.

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Fortunately, most of Bangkok has thus far avoided the worst of it.  Some of the northern districts, near the old Don Meuang Airport and Rangsit, have been affected, although not nearly as bad as elsewhere in the country.  Our neighborhood, which is near an area at risk for flooding, is bracing for the next five days or so, until the surge that is coming down the river has safely passed the city. 

A knee-high wall of sandbags has been erected around the base of our condo building.  We have stocked up on bottled water, canned food, and other necessities.  Supplies in the stores are low with many thinly-stocked shelves, a situation caused both by people stockpiling essentials but also because of disruptions in the supply chain.  In fact, Tawn reported today that Starbucks has run out of espresso beans, some cups, and napkins.  That, if anything, must be a sign of how bad it is!  (Only kidding…)

Fortunately, there was no rain today.  But there is an 80% chance of thunderstorms tonight and the rest of week looks stormy.  I hope it gets no worse and, for the more than half of Thai provinces affected by the flooding, that the situation rapidly improves.