On the suface, khanom jeen, thin, round, freshly-made rice noodles, look simple. But the process of making them can take as many as five days, and involves an astonishing amount of labour. That’s why I was surprised when David Thompson, Head Chef at Bangkok’s nahm, told me that for the last several months his kitchen has been making the noodles in-house. Perhaps sensing that I was incredulous, he invited me to stop by the restaurant’s kitchen and document the process.
The first step in making khanom jeen involves soaking uncooked rice in water. I was told that ‘old’ rice (rice harvested in previous seasons or years) is required for this, as it has a low water content and doesn’t tend to get ‘sticky’ during the subsequent stages. After three days of soaking, during which the water is changed each day, the soggy mixture is ground to a coarse paste. At nahm, they use an old-school hand-powered granite mill to do this. The resulting dough is bundled and pressed overnight, extracting much of its water.
The next day, the crumbly dough is divided up and shaped into small logs:
which are then boiled for 15 minutes:
leaving the exterior soft and translucent and the interior largely uncooked:
The still-hot dough is then transferred to a huge wooden mortar — actually a hollowed-out tree stump — where it is vigorously pounded with heavy wooden mallets:
This process takes two people and as many as 30 to 45 minutes, and I was told that the goal is to pound until the dough has stopped sticking to the wood.
At the end of this process, the dough has the appearance and texture of shortening or marshmallow creme:
A lid is thrown on it, and the mixture is kept at room temperature overnight. I was told that this stage can vary in duration, depending on how sour the noodles are ultimately meant to be.
The next morning, the dough is stirred thoroughly to provide it with an even consistency and to eliminate air bubbles. In batches, it’s inserted into a small sieve with a plunger device, and extracted into simmering water:
Upon contacting the hot water, the dough solidifies, and voilà: you have khanom jeen.
The threads are fished out and rinsed in a couple baths of cool water before being allowed to drain:
After all this time and effort, it’s hard to believe that khanom jeen generally must be consumed within the same day, otherwise the noodles tend to go off or become too dry.
There are several different ways to eat khanom jeen in Thailand, but most commonly they’re topped with one of several types curry-like dishes and eaten with sides usually including herbs and vegetables, and sometimes including meat, egg and fish:
Nahm do some really excellent curries, including the mild ‘coconut and turmeric curry of minced prawns with banana blossoms and asian pennywort’ (pictured at the top of this post), and what is possibly my all-time favourite nahm dish, the almost comically piquant ‘spicy smoked fish curry with prawns, chicken livers, cockles, chillies and black pepper’.
Khanom jeen is available at nahm for lunch, Monday through Friday.
Metropolitan Hotel, 27 Th Sathon Tai
02 625 3388
Noon-2pm Mon-Fri & 7-10pm daily
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It’s January, which means once again, I’m back in Thailand’s most northwestern province, Mae Hong Son. I’ve been visiting the area since 1998, and for the last five years or so, have made a point of trying to spend at least a couple weeks here every winter. During this season, in some parts of the province, temperatures edge close to freezing, and the cold weather is undoubtedly one thing that draws me here year after year.
I’m also drawn to the scenery. The shot below:
was taken in Ban Huay Pha, a village about 16km from Mae Hong Son city. It’s just one of several beautiful vistas one encounters on this short drive, which toward the tail end of the cold season is painted in shades of red, purple, pink and orange by the changing leaves of the teak trees.
And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t come for the food. The majority of people in Mae Hong Son are Thai Yai, the Tai ethnic group also known as Shan, and have a distinct cuisine. Conservative tastes, a palpable Burmese influence, a reliance on emblematically local ingredients — sesame, tomatoes, soybeans, turmeric, garlic and shallots come to mind — and relative isolation have left their dishes staunchly local and virtually unavailable outside of the province.
I was reminded of the particular uniqueness of this food while in Ban Huay Pha — a short walk from where the photo above was taken — where I encountered a small group of people making khao puk ngaa (ข้าวปุกงา), a Thai Yai sweet made by pounding freshly-steamed sticky rice with sesame.
As pictured at the top of this post, this was done in a heavy wooden mortar, and with long bamboo poles functioning as pestles. While the men pounded, the woman would toss in spoonfuls of black sesame seeds. After several minutes of this, the rice emerged as a warm, soft, rather dark blob. A chunk was pulled off and offered to me; I was told to dip it in melted sugarcane. Eating the sweet, I was struck by the fact that this experience, from the setting — a tidy Thai Yai village perched at the edge of a mountain valley — to the unique flavours — those of sticky rice and sugarcane from the valleys, and sesame seeds from the hills — could really only be had in Mae Hong Son.
I’ve lined up a few more posts on the food of Mae Hong Son and look forward to sharing more about this area’s unique countryside, people and flavours.
A while back, I blogged about the various places in Mae Hong Son city to get the local dishes of khao sen, thin rice noodles served with a pork and tomato broth, and khang phong, crispy deep-fried fritters. I thought I’d covered everywhere in town until this most recent visit, when I was pointed the direction of Paa Khon.
Every morning, in what is little more than a dark shack under a large tree:
Paa Khon serves the noodle dish known elsewhere in Thailand as khanom jeen nam ngiaw. Like other local versions in Mae Hong Son, the broth is largely meat-free, has a tart flavour due to the addition of tomatoes, and is garnished with cilantro and deep-fried crispy garlic. Unlike elsewhere, Paa Khon supplements her broth with chopped bits of yuak kluay, the pithy stalk of the banana tree, resulting in a soup that’s thicker and heartier than most, with a bit of crunch.
Another highlight is her delicious khang pong. She does the green papaya version:
a staple here in Mae Hong Son, but seemingly continuing on the banana theme, she also does an unusual version using hua plee, banana blossom:
She explained that she uses the firmer blossoms of wild bananas, which are sliced thinly and deep-fried raw. Both versions come out of the wok golden, crispy and lightly seasoned — salty, spicy and herbal — and are served with a sour/sweet, cucumber-studded dipping sauce.
Come lunch, Paa Khon also does a short menu of northeastern Thai dishes including grilled chicken and papaya salad.
Khao Sen Nam Yuak Paa Khon
Th Makha Santi, Mae Hong Son
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A while back, I blogged about the sweets available from Pa Ni, a vendor here in Mae Hong Son city. Suay thamin, alawaa, alwaa jung and peng mong are Thai Yai/Shan standards, available across the province, but the versions sold by Pa Ni are exceptional; I eat the stuff on a daily basis when I’m here, and everybody who’s ever joined me in Mae Hong Son — foodie types and otherwise — have all been blown away by them.
Yet despite having known Pa Ni for several years now, it wasn’t until this trip that I learned that she isn’t in fact the one who makes the sweets. Instead, her husband, Phaithoon, is the man in the kitchen. But Pa Ni appears to run the show, and upon request, granted me and Oregon- and New York City-based restaurateur Andy Ricker permission to spend a morning in her kitchen and watch how the dishes are made.
Arriving on a chilly Mae Hong Son morning, we met a friendly and welcoming Phaithoon, who told us that he’s the third generation of his family to make Thai Yai sweets. When I asked if there would be a fourth generation, he explained that his daughter, who currently works at a bank in Chiang Mai, plans to take over the business when he’s no longer able. “She’s been making the sweets since she was young, and is very talented,” he adds.
Until then, Phaithoon will continue to wake up at 4am every morning — except Buddhist holidays – to make sweets.
Starting work at 4am seems a bit extreme until you consider that Phaithoon does virtually every step of the process himself. Despite the apparent differences between each of the four sweets sold at Pa Ni, they’re all essentially made from the same thing: some sort of carb (rice, rice flour or wheat flour), which is supplemented with salt, sugar (cane and palm) and coconut milk. The latter is probably the most time-consuming ingredient, particularly since Phaithoon makes it himself, starting with raw coconuts:
which he husks and grates:
before mixing the grated flesh with warm water:
and squeezing it in a manually-powered press to extract the coconut cream (the first pressing) and the coconut milk (the second):
“I used to have to do this by hand,” explains Phaithoon, while making the motion of wringing a bag with his hands followed by an exasperated laugh.
With the essential ingredients ready, Phaithoon can start making sweets. One of the more intriguing (and delicious) dishes he does is something called alawaa jung (อาละหว่า-จุ่ง). Unlike the others, wheat flour is the base for this one, which beforehand, Mr Phaithoon dry-roasts in a wok over coals
After it’s been lightly toasted, the flour is then sifted:
and combined with the other staple ingredients: coconut milk and cream, salt, golden cane sugar and palm sugar. This mixture is then continuously stirred over a low heat for about 40 minutes:
Towards the end of this process, Phaithoon throws in a pretty awe-inspiring amount of butter. He explained that, when it’s available in Mae Hong Son (generally only during April), he’ll also add fresh durian.
After the mixture had reduced and was sufficiently smooth, he scooped a bit out, drizzled it with fresh coconut cream, and gave it to us to taste:
Eaten at this stage, the dish was warm, soft, rich and just slightly sweet. It reminded me a lot of Indian-style carrot halwa — a dish with which I suspect alawaa shares both a culinary and etymological link.
But Phaithoon wasn’t done yet; all of his sweets are finished via a unique flourish.
After spreading the still-warm alawaa into a shallow pan, Mr Phaithoon covers the entire surface of the sweet with a thin layer of rather watery coconut cream. The pan is then covered with a sheet of metal, which is stacked with a pile of coconut husks. These are ignited:
and allowed to reduce to coals, causing the top layer of the sweet to firm up, the liquid in the coconut cream to evaporate, and ultimately, a topping that’s deliciously rich and thick, and intermittently and seductively charred:
It’s a clever, resourceful and delicious technique:
and one that will hopefully continue for several more generations.
9 Thanon Singhanat Bamrung, Mae Hong Son
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