This is a Thai Yai/Shan dish that one sees for sale all over Mae Hong Son, and it combines ingredients essential to virtually every local dish: soybeans (both in the form of tofu and thua nao, disks of dried soybeans), garlic, tomatoes and turmeric. However, just like any other dish, there appears to be several different ways to make thua phoo khua. My neighbour claims that thua nao has no place in the chili paste of this dish, and that she normally uses fresh chilies. The ladies selling meat in the morning market told me that I have to use thua nao and dried chilies… I’ve followed the latter method, combined with a recipe from a Thai-language cookbook printed in Mae Hong Son.
Regarding the other ingredients, the people here prefer the small, slightly sour tomatoes – use these if you can get them. Also, try to get the firmest tofu you can get. And in place of thua nao you could use a tablespoon of tao jiaw, the salted soybean condiment popular all over Southeast Asia and China.
Thua Phoo Khua
Chili paste ingredients:
Garlic, 2 Tbsp
Shallots, 4 Tbsp
Dried chili, 25 small chilies
Thua nao, ½ disk
Quartered cherry tomatoes, 2 cups
Oil, 2 Tbsp
Turmeric, 1 tsp
Ground pork, ½ cup
Firm tofu, squared, 2 cups
Combine the chili paste ingredients in a mortar and pestle and grind until you get a fine paste. Add sliced tomatoes to chili paste mixture and blend thoroughly.
Heat oil in a wok over medium heat. Add turmeric and blend thoroughly with oil. Add curry paste mixture and simmer over medium heat until tomatoes have broken up completely and oil starts to emerge, about five minutes.
Add pork and cook, stirring, until no longer raw:
Add tofu and blend with curry paste mixture. Don’t be afraid to allow the tofu to crumble, although you don’t want a mush:
If the mixture becomes too dry, add water. Continue to cook until tofu is slightly broken up and heated through, about five minutes. Season to taste with salt. People here in Mae Hong Son will also sometimes add a bit of cha om, a pungent leafy vegetable, at the end.
Serve with hot rice.
Khao ya koo is the Shan/Thai Yai name for a type of sweetened sticky rice. Other than simply being a sweet snack, the dish has strong associations with celebration, as it’s only made on certain holidays. It also has ties with community, and as you’ll see, is one distinctly local method of making merit (kwaa loo in the local dialect).
The process begins by steaming lots of recently-harvested sticky rice:
At the same time, blocks of raw sugarcane sugar are melted with coconut cream:
When throughly blended, the sugarcane mixture is added to the still-warm sticky rice:
The rice/sugar mixture is then stirred with large wooden paddles (also shown at the top of this post):
I only saw men doing this, and the process took as long as a half hour, giving the rice a creamy, almost oily texture. Towards the end of the stirring process (called kuan in Thai) crushed peanuts are added:
The rice is then allowed to cool slightly, and is divided into plastic bags or banana leaf packages:
And it is at this point that the merit part takes place. The bags of khao ya koo are then loaded onto trucks:
and the villagers drive through the various districts of Mae Hong Son, handing packets of the rice out to everybody they see:
In recent years this has been accompanied by a parade:
But the most important thing is still giving (and getting) that rice:
I’m in very good culinary company here in Mae Hong Son. As soon the owner of the house I’m renting learned that I have an interest in the local food, she started bringing me local sweets and snacks on a daily basis. This morning she went out of her way to bring me a local dish of sticky rice steamed with coconut milk and turmeric and served with local-style meatballs (more on this later), something that I had mentioned the previous day. My next-door neighbour, Phii Laa, is equally generous, and possibly even more enthusiastic. Once she learned that I was interested in the local eats she’s been in my kitchen every morning since, sharing a new recipe.
The first recipe Phii Laa shared is one I only came across recently. Khao som literally means ‘sour rice’, and is local a dish of balls of rice made sour by the addition of tomato and tamarind. The dish is traditionally served with yam thua, ‘bean salad’, the recipe for which can also be adapted to make any sort of local salad where the main ingredient, which here can range from tender fern shoots (a popular local ingredient) to sour leaves, is first par-boiled. In my next blog I’ll demonstrate how to make a saa, another type of local salad centred around fresh (as opposed to par-boiled) greens or veggies.
The ingredients required for khao som and yam thua are pretty basic and I imagine all are generally available even in the west, except for nam phrik phong:
a mixture of thua nao (disks of dried soybean), dried chili, salt and MSG, all ground to a fine powder. If you’re determined, I’d suggest just substituting a pinch of finely ground dried chili flakes and some salt, although the dish will be missing a truly local flavour in thua nao.
And if you haven’t done it before, making crispy deep-fried garlic and garlic oil is a snap:
Simply get your hands the smallest cloves of garlic you can find, chop them up coarsely (skin and all), and simmer in a generous amount of oil over medium heat until the garlic is just beginning to become crispy. When this happens remove mixture to a heatproof container and allow to cool.
And as always, ingredient measurements below are estimated; Phii Laa, like most Thai cooks, doesn’t use measuring utensils, instead cooking by taste and feel.
Khao som & yam thua (Sour Shan-style rice and bean salad)
Uncooked rice, 2 cups
Strained tamarind pulp, 1 cup
Chopped tomatoes, 2 cups
Salt, 1 tsp
Turmeric powder, ½ tsp
Sugar, 1 Tbsp
Shrimp paste, 1 Tbsp
Nam phrik phong, 2 Tbsps
Ground roasted white sesame seeds, 4 Tbsp
Shallots, sliced, 4
Garlic oil & crispy deep-fried garlic
Deep-fried dried chilies
Cook rice with at least three cups of water (the rice is supposed to have a soft consistency). When cooked, allow to cool slightly.
Combine tamarind pulp, tomatoes, salt, turmeric and sugar in a wok over low heat. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to a thick paste:
about 10 minutes. Set aside.
Prepare beans by removing the strings and chopping:
Par-boil beans until just cooked, about a minute, and shock in cold water. Set aside.
In a wok over medium heat, dissolve shrimp paste in ¼ cup of water. When shrimp paste is fully incorporated, add nam phrik phong and sesame. Combine thoroughly and turn off heat. Allow to cool slightly, add sliced shallots and beans and mix thoroughly. Remove to a serving dish and top with crispy fried garlic and garlic oil.
When rice is cool enough to handle, combine ¾ of the tamarind mixture with cooked rice.
Taste and season with remaining tamarind mixture and/or salt if necessary.
Coating hands in a bit of the garlic oil, shape rice mixture into golf ball-sized balls:
Arrange on a plate and drizzle with plenty of crispy garlic, oil and deep-fried chilies.
Serve dish, as illustrated at the top of this post, on individual plates with a generous serving of the bean salad.
Yesterday, Phii Laa, my neighbour, came over with the tray of ingredients pictured above and a desire to share her recipe for saa, a local type of yam or Thai-style ‘salad’. I was excited about this because in Mae Hong Son there are several variations on the standard Thai yam that I’ve yet to get my head around: there’s the type I mentioned in the previous blog, that uses par-boiled veggies; there’s sanaap, which apparently combines par-boiled veggies and a rather different dressing; and finally there’s saa, which appears to revolve around fresh greens.
The most common greens used to make saa range from tender mango or tamarind leaves to shredded lettuce. In this recipe Phii Laa used yot thua lantao, the tender young leaves from a type of pea, which she has growing in front of her house. If you’re making this at home, I reckon you could use just about any salad-type green.
Regarding the other ingredients, keep in mind that the type of sesame oil people in Mae Hong Son use is made from raw, not roasted sesame seeds. The flavour is significantly subtler, and if you can only get the more ubiquitous Chinese-style roasted sesame oil, I’d suggest diluting it with equal parts plain vegetable oil.
And many cooks here protein up their saa with bits of plaa thoo, steamed mackerel, but a few still do it the old-school way: with bits of deep-fried pork rind.
Saa (Shan/Thai Yai-style yam using fresh greens)
Fresh greens, sliced thinly, 1 large bunch
Shallots, sliced thinly, 3
Tomatoes, seeded and sliced thinly, 3
Steamed mackerel or pork rinds
Roasted peanuts, ground coarsely, 3 Tbsp
Nam phrik phong, 1 Tbsp (see previous blog for a description of this ingredient)
Sesame oil/garlic oil, 1 Tbsp
Salt, to taste
Combine greens, shallots, tomatoes and fish or pork rinds, in a large bowl. Top with peanuts, a pinch of salt, oil and nam phrik phong:
Mix thoroughly by hand:
and season to taste. Serve on its own as a snack or with rice.
Khun Yay (‘Grandma’), my landlord’s mother, is originally from Ayuthaya, but moved to Mae Hong Son when she was 14 – more than 70 years ago. ‘It took us three months to walk here from Ayuthaya,’ she explained to me, adding that part of the journey was done on elephant back. After seven decades here she’s essentially a native of the city, and even used to earn extra money by selling Thai Yai/Shan sweets. She can also make the local savoury dishes, and everybody in the family agrees that she makes a mean hang lay.
Kaeng hang lay is a rich curry based around pork belly (hang lay is a corruption of the Burmese word for pork curry). The dish is found all over northern Thailand, and because it’s easy to make in large volumes, is often associated with communal eating. ‘If you come during a festival they’ll make the dish using tens of kilos of pork,’ explained Khun Yai, while pounding the curry paste in a mortar and pestle. Her version is a variant on the local version of the dish that usually forgoes the chili paste altogether (she decided to include a basic one here), and which also highlights the local obsession with tomatoes (here in the form of ketchup). She explained that if you substitute chicken for pork, and leave out the ginger, tamarind and garlic, you’ll have the recipe for kai oop, another popular local curry.
Kaeng Hang Lay
Small chilies, 10
Salt, 1 tsp
Shallots, sliced, 2
Shrimp paste, 1 Tbsp
Garlic, sliced, 1 Tbsp
Bork belly, including fat and skin layer, 1kg
Bottled chili sauce, 1 Tbsp
Ketchup, 2 Tbsp
Sweet soy sauce, 1 Tbsp
Turmeric powder, 1 tsp
‘Marsala’ powder*, 2 Tbsp
Vegetable oil, 2 Tbsp
Shallots, peeled and quartered, 12
Small cloves of garlic, peeled and left whole, 20
Ginger, peeled shredded, ¼ cup
Tamarind pulp, to taste
Sugar, to taste
Salt, to taste
*Known locally as phong maksalaa, this is a spice mixture used in Mae Hong Son.
Combine chili paste ingredients and grind to a paste using a mortar and pestle:
Wash pork and cut into chunks about 4cm long. Combine with chili paste, chili sauce, ketchup, soy sauce, turmeric powder and ‘Marsala’ powder:
Heat oil over medium heat in a deep saucepan. Add pork mixture and allow to seal, stirring only once or twice, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Add enough water to cover the pork:
reduce heat and allow to simmer until almost all the water evaporates, the fat rises and pork is tender, up to two hours. If water evaporates too quickly, add more.
Add shallots, garlic and ginger:
and allow to simmer until tender, about 10 more minutes. Season to taste with tamarind pulp, sugar and salt, and serve with hot rice and an acidic salad; Khun Yai suggested a local salad of green mango.
A vendor of Burmese goods at the town’s morning market
but I think I might have to draw the line at Mr Cooker brand tinned beef curry from Myanmar.
Although I reckon it can’t be much worse than the canned chili I grew up eating?
The bloggers at EatingAsia recently pointed out that northern Thais love their meat. This is certainly true, but I’d also add that they love their oil just as much. Deep-frying is something of a cult in northern Thailand, and Mae Hong Son is no exception. I’ve never eaten so many deep-fried foods as I have in the last month, in particular for breakfast, a meal for which I’d almost totally avoided deep-fried foods — up to this point at least.
But let me start at dessert. The donuts above are called khanom wong (’round sweets’), and are deep-fried rings of sticky rice dough that are dipped in sugarcane syrup, the making of which can also be seen at this EatingAsia post. Unfortunately I’ve yet to find them served hot from the deep-fryer, and haven’t really enjoyed them.
Deep-fried foods can be taken at lunch or dinner too. Sticky rice and nam phrik (chili-based ‘dips’) are the staple foods of northern Thailand, and are typically eaten with deep-fried meats:
These can range from deep-fried chicken heads, salted fish, fermented sausage, or my personal favourite, pork rinds:
Not surprisingly, deep-frying is also a popular way to prepare snacks in northern Thailand. Here in Mae Hong Son one of my favourite snacks is khang pong, a local dish of battered and deep-fried strips of green papaya and shallots:
The vendor above sells khang pong at Mae Hong Son’s evening market and she seasons them with the perfect balance of salt, turmeric, lemongrass and chili. The result is equal parts spicy, salty, crispy and hot.
Which brings me to breakfast, as khang pong is also a popular way to start the day here:
In the mornings it’s served with the local version of khanom jeen naam ngiaw, a pork and tomato-based noodle soup. Many of the vendors who sell this dish also sell thua oon, a type of noodle soup served with a thick gooey gram bean ‘porridge’. The same gram bean stuff is also steamed into shallow cakes and yes, deep-fried:
The bane of my breakfast. They look and taste astonishingly like fast-food French fries and are served with a deliciously sour tamarind-based dipping sauce. The other deep-fried dishes are, at 2 o’clock, deep-fried tofu, and at 5 o’clock, fritters of ‘black’ soybeans. I enjoy all of these very much, and have adapted to eating them for breakfast, but only allow it every other day. Guess I could never be a real northern Thai.
Jin lung are a local type of meatball, rich in fresh herbs and often yellow in colour from the addition of dried turmeric powder. They’re most commonly made from pork, but beef and fish versions can be found on occasion. In Mae Hong Son’s morning market they’re sold in Indian-style pots in a generous amount of the yellow cooking oil, and when ordered, two or four (the serving sizes here are really small) are bagged up with a drizzle of the oil and some deep-fried crispy garlic.
The source of today’s recipe, Khun Yai, although a resident of Mae Hong Son for longer than most of us have been alive, is originally from Aythaya, and adds a couple central Thai touches to this dish. ‘The people here don’t put Kaffir lime leaf in jin lung,’ she explained, ‘but I like it!’ She’s also partial to shrimp paste (the locals tend to use dried soybeans), and explained that in the old days the dish was traditionally served with sticky rice boasting a bright yellow hue from the addition of turmeric, and rich and oily from the addition of coconut milk. Unfortunately few people eat it this way any more, and according to my landlord, the remaining person in the town’s morning market to make jin lung and the rice, stopped making both last week.
Jin Lung (Shan-style meatballs)
Small dried chilies, 10
Salt, 1 tsp
Shallots, sliced, 6
Lemongrass, white section sliced thinly, 2 stalks
Garlic, peeled, 12 small cloves
Coriander seed, 1 Tbsp
Shrimp paste, 1 Tbsp
Ground pork, 500g
Dried turmeric, 1 Tbsp
Tomato, seeded and sliced thinly, 3
Kaffir lime leaf, sliced thinly, 2
Oil for deep-frying
Deep-fried crispy garlic
Make chili paste by grinding chilies and salt in a mortar and pestle. Add coriander seed, lemongrass, shallots and garlic. Grind until you have a fine paste:
Add pork, turmeric and tomatoes to chili paste mixture. Work finely using mortar and pestle, pounding to blend mixture thoroughly and tenderize pork:
The mixture should have fine, silky texture and ingredients should be thoroughly amalgamated. When you have reached this texture, add the eggs, stirring with a spoon to combine thoroughly.
Heat a generous amount of oil in a wok over medium heat. Form one small ball and test:
If the oil is too hot the jin lung will cook on the outside but will still be raw inside. Deep-fry at a low heat until jin lung are cooked inside, and golden outside — this should take a few minutes. Serve drizzled with a bit of the oil and some deep-fried crispy garlic, with hot rice.
This morning I took a drive along Hwy 1285, an isolated road that twists 15km between mountain valleys to the village of Huay Phueng, not far from the Burmese border. It’s getting warmer in Mae Hong Son, but driving a motorcycle at 7am, in the shadows of the hills, it was so cold I quickly lost the feeling in my hands.
One sign of the approaching hot season, as the image above illustrates, is the changing colours of the leaves. Known locally as bai tong tueng, the huge leaves fall to the side of the road and are gathered and spliced together to be used as roofing. They’re also a serious fire hazard during this time of year, so you’ll also see people sweeping them into large piles to be burnt. Running over them on a motorcycle results in an extremely satisfying crunch.
The most scenic spot along Hwy 1285 is the tiny Shan village of Thung Masaan. The village is located on a slight cliff overlooking a stream and a perfectly flat mountain valley where people grow rice, garlic and soybeans:
At the far end of this field is the village temple:
and if you ask me, this simple house at the edge of the valley has one of the nicest views in Thailand: