Biryani, Bangkok style

ThaiDay, 11/05/06
Lifting the lid off 'khao mok,' a popular Thai variant of a world-famous dish.

I can still recall a conversation I had with a friend before visiting Thailand for the first time. We were sharing what precious little we knew about the country, and he was enthusiastically going on about how much he loved Thai food, “Especially that peanut sauce,” he said, mentioning the famous accompaniment to sate. As is the case with many Americans, and indeed, many Thais, neither of us was aware that several of the dishes one associates with Thai cooking are actually Muslim in origin.

Although Muslims form less than 5% of Thailand’s population, they have nonetheless had an immense influence on Thai food. Popular dishes such as sate, grilled skewers of meat served with the aforementioned peanut sauce, the fried ‘pancakes’ known as roti, and perhaps the most lauded Thai curry of all, kaeng masaman (literally ‘Muslim curry’) are all Muslim in origin, having been brought to Thailand by Muslim traders several hundred years ago. Thai-Muslim food is generally characterized by the use of dried (as opposed to fresh) spices, and many dishes tend to be quite sweet and savory, rather than spicy. Thai-Muslim food is, like other Muslim cuisines around the world, largely meat-based, and dishes must be halal, meaning that cooks must follow certain religious precepts regarding the slaughter of meat, and the avoidance of pork and alcohol, among other things.

One of the most common Thai dishes of Muslim origin, and a dish that combines nearly all of the elements above, is the spiced rice dish is known in English as biryani. The dish is thought to have its origins in India, and variations can be found around the world, ranging from the Central Asian pilaf and the Indian biryani, to the more distant Spanish paella and the jambalaya of New Orleans. Thai biryani, called khao mok (literally meaning ‘buried rice’) is known for its bright yellow color, a result of the use of turmeric, and is typically served with chicken that has been cooked in the rice, along with sides of sliced cucumbers and a sweet and sour sauce. Formerly a dish associated with Muslims, khao mok is today made by Buddhist Thais as well, and can be found in virtually every part of the country.

A dish of khao mok, a Thai version of the Indian dish, biryani.

Despite its ubiquity, khao mok is a notoriously difficult dish to make, and is almost exclusively eaten in restaurants. I was curious to learn more about the making and the history of this unique dish, and was fortunate enough to share this interest with David Thompson, the Head Chef of London’s Nahm, the Michelin-starred restaurant that is arguably the most acclaimed restaurant in the world serving Thai food. Mr. Thompson is currently in Bangkok working on a Thai cookbook, his second, and was also interested in learning more about khao mok.

We begin our research at Yusup, a popular Muslim restaurant located along the Kaset-Nawamin highway, north of Bangkok. The restaurant’s near-perfect khao mok is its major draw, and includes versions made with beef, goat and the standard chicken, as well a version made with fish. It is this unusual latter take on the dish that interested David and me, and we asked if the shop would be willing to show us how to make khao mok plaa, fish biryani. They agreed, and a couple weeks later, accompanied by David and his partner Thanongsak, I met with the restaurant’s owner and namesake, Yusup at the newest branch of his restaurant in Bang Na.

Before going directly into the cooking, we began with a meal of several Thai-Muslim specialties including sup hang wua, a deliciously sour broth of oxtails; kurma kai, a thick curry of chicken that, as Thompson points out, is also Indian in origin; kaeng karii kai, a watery coconut milk and dried spice-based chicken curry; and of course, khao mok plaa. As a side we were also given a small bowl of ajaad, a condiment consisting of sliced cucumbers and chilies in a mixture of syrup and vinegar, that, as Thanongsak suggested, did an excellent job of cutting through the predominately heavy and oily main dishes.

Ajaad is a common condiment in Thai-Muslim cooking.

Moving to an improvised kitchen, Yusup began his cooking demonstration by sautéing a thick curry paste in a large pot. “You have to fry it until it is almost burnt,” he explains. “Otherwise it won’t taste good.” When I ask what the ingredients are, he says sheepishly that this is his “secret”, and admits only to the use of milk and dried spices. Thompson, intrigued by this, tastes and smells the mixture, giving me his take on the ingredients (“There’s definitely some cardamom in there, something sour, maybe vinegar…”). Yusup reveals only that most of the ingredients he uses are available in Thailand, and that some have to be ordered from Egypt. He continues by adding chopped tomatoes and coriander, and additional dried spices, stirring the mixture with a giant wooden paddle.

I ask Yusup about his cooking background and he relates simply that he “loves making food.” He confesses to being largely self-taught, having learned mostly from books and trial and error, and claims that it took him more than two years of experimentation to reach a khao mok recipe that he was satisfied with. While he is talking he adds a small amount of chicken broth to the mixture, followed by several hearty steaks of plaa insee, Spanish mackerel. He closes the lid, and moves to another large pot of boiling water. Into this he adds several cups of rice, a handful of lentils and some dried spices. He explains that he is going to par-boil the rice before adding it to the curry paste and fish mixture. “This is my own step,” explains Yusup, “Others don’t do this, and this is part of what makes my khao mok different.” Thompson explains to me that this step leaves the rice half-cooked, with a translucent exterior and solid core—perfect for absorbing more spices, yet able to avoid becoming soggy.

When the rice is ready, Yusup strains it from the water and adds it to the curry paste mixture, which by now how has reduced considerably. “You have to do this step quickly, or else the rice will overcook,” he explains. He drizzles the rice with melted butter and deep-fried shallots and replaces the lid. “When steam starts coming out, that means it’s done,” he explains confidently. After only a few minutes steam does start emerging from the pot, and it is as this point that Yusup removes the lid and declares the khao mok done. I glance into the pot and am surprised to see that the rice hasn’t yet obtained its characteristic yellow color. Yusup carefully removes the fish steaks, and using the paddle, gently stirs the rice, which has the effect of turning the entire mixture yellow. He tastes the khao mok, and his excitement is almost tangible. “Wow!” he exclaims calling his staff over to smell and taste the result, “This is even better than the stuff we usually make!”

Michelin-starred chef David Thompson turns to restauranteur Yusup to learn the secret of his delicious khao mok.

We sit down to eat this still-warm khao mok, and it is indeed sublime; hearty and fragrant enough to be eaten on its own without the traditional sauce. “This is a dish that’s always disappointed me until now,” explains Thompson, going on to describe how khao mok is too often simply rice adulterated with copious turmeric and topped with rubbery fried chicken. Yusup’s khao mok plaa has seemingly inspired Thompson, who is thinking out loud about the possibility of a khao mok with lobster. Perhaps it is only a matter of time until diners at one of London’s finest restaurants are greeted by a dish of Muslim origin with a long history and a particularly yellow hue.

Yusup is located along the Kaset-Nawamin Highway (known to taxi drivers as sen tat mai, the ‘new road’), in Bangkok’s Bang Khen district. The shop is on the left-hand side before the first stop light.