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Khao som means ‘sour rice’, and is a snack beloved by the Shan people, particularly by those living in Myanmar’s Shan State. There, the dish is made from rice that has mixed with turmeric (and sometimes potatoes), kneaded into thin disks, drizzled with fried garlic and garlic oil, and served with a side of crunchy, pungent leek roots:
In Mae Hong Son, home to a significant Shan population, the dish takes a slightly different form. There, the rice is mixed with tomatoes and tamarind and/or turmeric, and is shaped into balls or small disks. It’s typically served with a type of salad made from green beans, young jackfruit or both, garnished with deep-fried crispy garlic and dried chilies fried in oil, and drizzled with garlic oil. Regardless of where it’s made, khao som is generally not as sour as the name suggests, and instead emphasises savoury, garlicky and earthy flavours.
I’d been taught how to make khao som on a previous visit to Mae Hong Son, but until this trip, I’d never really noticed much of it for sale. My favourite version was probably that available at the covered area next to the Jao Phor Khor Meu Lek shrine in central Mae Hong Son city:
An elderly vendor here sells the yellow, turmeric-heavy version, and the balls of rice come with a dollop of bean salad, a sprig of cilantro and half a disk of grilled thua nao, a condiment made from fermented and dried soybeans. It’s a tasty one-dish meal that set me back a total of 15B (about US$0.50).
Khao Som Vendor
San Jao Phor Khor Meu Lek, Th Singhanat Bamrung, Mae Hong Son
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Another good version of khao som can be found at the tiny lakeside market that pops up during Mae Hong Son’s tourist season, from approximately November to January. Most of the food for sale at this market isn’t that great, but during these months, Paa Add, one of my favourite vendors, sells a small variety of local dishes, including a good version of khao som:
Tomato heavy and almost meaty, her version of the dish has a lot of savoury flavour, and depending on what day you come by, it will be accompanied by green beans, tiny young fava beans (my personal favourite) or jackfruit.
Th Pradit Chong Kham, Mae Hong Son
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If you find yourself in Mae Sariang, in southern Mae Hong Son province, on a Sunday afternoon, you can get khao som at the tiny town’s Kaat Tit (Sunday Market):
A vendor here sells a version that appears to include both tomato and turmeric. The dish is drizzled with lots of garlicky oil, and unusually, the accompanying salad includes both green beans and jackfruit. The same vendor also sells the dish at the town’s morning market (pictured at the top of this post).
Kaat Tit (Mae Sariang’s Sunday Market)
Th Wiang Mai, Mae Sariang
Mae Sariang’s Morning Market
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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.
Most Thais are familiar with khanom jeen nam ngiaw (ขนมจีนน้ำเงี้ยว), the northern Thai staple of a pork- and tomato-based broth served over thin, fresh rice noodles. Yet few are aware of the variations the dish can take across the region. In Chiang Mai, nam ngiaw is often rich and oily, and is supplemented with the dried flowers of the cotton tree; in Chiang Rai the dish is hearty and meaty, and there’s even a variant made with beef; and in Mae Hong Son, khao sen, as it’s known there, tends to be thin and tart with very little meat.
Even Phrae, a relatively obscure province in northern Thailand, has its own version. On the surface, khanom sen nam muu (ขนมเส้นน้ำหมู), as the dish is known there, appears deceptively simple. But as served at Khanom Sen Paa Net, a 60 year-old restaurant in the eponymous provincial capital, it might be the most interesting and delicious version I’ve encountered — largely due to the broth:
This is made by simmering a shocking amount of pork bones with coriander root, garlic, salt and a bit of fish sauce over very low coals for as long as six hours (allegedly they start making the dish at 3am). The result is one of the most amazing broths I’ve encountered in Thailand — virtually clear yet profoundly meaty without any of the funky “porky” odour that pork-based broths tend to have. Towards the end of the cooking process, they toss in a few halved plum tomatoes and cubes of steamed blood; the broth is served over khanom jeen noodles, drizzled with a mixture of crispy deep-fried pork fat and garlic. The tomatoes offer barely enough acidic tartness to counter the rich meatiness, and the dish is served with optional sides of ground chilies toasted in oil, lime slices, chopped coriander, shredded cabbage and bean sprouts.
Given the work that goes into the dish, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the folks here — the third generation to run the restaurant — are extremely proud of the food they serve, using the best ingredients and taking great care with them — practices one doesn’t always encounter in Thailand. I was told repeatedly that no MSG or stock powder were used in the broth; even the chili condiment is made from chilies sourced from Ubon Ratchathani (“They’re better than the local chilies,” I was told).
Typically served alongside khanom sen in Phrae is khao som, tomato-tinted rice topped with a mixture of deep-fried crispy pork fat and garlic:
The tomatoes are steamed before being lightly fried with the rice and a bit of salt. The dish has a slightly sour (the som in the name) flavour, and upon request, they’ll scoop up some of the simmered pork bones to accompany it.
Other than som tam, Thai-style papaya salad, the only other dish served at Paa Net is dessert, which on the day I visited took the form of sago pearls and corn in barely sweet/barely salty coconut milk:
which, like everything else, was utterly simple yet utterly delicious.
Khanom Sen Paa Net
Soi Muang Daeng, Phrae
054 620 056
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I can be rather difficult to find Shan food in Myanmar’s Shan State.
At least it can do in the bigger cities or in the western part of the state, which seem to be dominated by ethnic Burmese. In Taunggyi, the administrative capital of Shan State, I only heard one person speaking Shan, and it was a day or two before I discovered any Shan food, in a stall in the city’s night market.
Daw Than Kyi serves what the Burmese call nga htamin, ‘fish rice’, long-grain rice kneaded with turmeric and topped with flakes of freshwater fish (in Shan/Tai, the dish is known as khao som, ‘sour rice’). The warm rice is kept in a cooler and to order is squashed into a thin disk, topped with the fish, drizzled with chili and turmeric oil, and sprinkled with crumbled deep-fried noodles and green onions. It’s distinctly oily and savoury, but supplemented with sides of a small dish of pickled vegetables and a very Burmese side of dhal (lentil soup), as well as optional sides of pork rinds, tiny cloves of raw garlic, chives and peppery leek roots, it becomes a dish that runs the gamut of tastes and textures.
The flavours were authentic, and the dish was even tastier than versions I’ve encountered in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, and in the more traditionally Tai areas of eastern Shan State, and other similar dishes available at the stall include wet tha chin, a meatier version involving rice steamed with chunks of fatty pork and blood in a banana leaf packet, and one with chicken.
Daw Than Kyi
Tabin Shwe Htee St, Taunggyi, Shan State
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I arrived in Kengtung (also known as Kyaing Tong and Chieng Tung), Myanmar, just in time for the lunar New Year. I wasn’t able to avoid getting soaked, but I did meet some interesting people and got to eat some interesting festival foods.
If visiting Kengtung from Thailand, it’s obligatory to be accompanied by a guide, and I was fortunate enough to end up with Sai Leng, a native of Kentgung.
Like vast majority of the inhabitants of Kentung, Sai Leng is ethnic Tai (Tai Nuea, to be exact). His village, located just outside Kengtung, could easily be mistaken for a Dai community in the Xishuangbanna region of southern China:
His neighbours are predominately Shan and Tai Nuea, and as is the case with all Tai peoples, food plays a significant part in their traditions and celebrations. Eating at a neighbour’s house on the first day of the New Year celebrations, we had some very local-style drinking food (illustrated at the top of this post): starting at 12 o’clock and moving clockwise, there was deep-fried pork; homemade potato chips seasoned with salt and chili, similar to what I’ve eaten in Yunan; pickled phak kum, a local veggie, served with lots of chili and garlic; pork fried with pickled phak kum and more garlic; a steamed cake of ground peanuts with a delicious chili-oil dip; and in the centre, threads of pork fried with ginger and garlic, similar to the Mae Hong Son dish nuea tam.
While we snacked, the same family was also busy preparing aeb khao, sweets of sticky rice flour, sugarcane sugar, coconut and nuts, strongly associated with Shan New Year:
The next morning, after they’ve been steamed, the sweets are given to monks:
When the snacks were depleted, we moved onto lao khao phueak, the local name for rice whiskey, with more neighbours:
We sat drinking and chatting in a mixture of Thai, English and Shan. The latter, although related to Thai and having many cognates, I found essentially unintelligible. Or maybe it was the lao khao phueak? Either way, when the booze was gone, we then made the next logical step: to the side of the road:
After this… Well, to be honest, Sai Leng’s impromptu concert and my dancing soaking wet on the side of the road are pretty much the last things I remember. I woke up in my hotel room at about 10pm having apparently bought some expensive souvenirs on my way home, and in desperate need of something to eat. I headed over to the town centre, where near a stage erected for the festival, at least eight vendors were selling yet another local festival food, khao som:
the dish of rice, meat and blood steamed in a banana leaf known as khao kan jin in northern Thailand.
Meaty and oily – quite possibly the Shan equivalent of the post-hangover burger.
If you’re thinking of visiting Kengtung and need a guide, Sai Leng speaks English well and has a deep knowledge of Shan/Tai culture. He can be contacted at +95 94903 1470 and firstname.lastname@example.org.