Culinary castaways

ThaiDay, 04/05/06
Koh Kret - a time capsule for long lost treats.

In recent years Western fast food has had an immense impact on the eating habits of the people of Thailand. Rarely do Thais crave such traditional snacks such as miang kham, wild tea leaf ‘packages’ filled with fresh herbs, or kai sarong, savory balls of chicken wrapped in noodles and deep-fried. Today, most Thais would probably rather buy a bag of chips at one of countless 7-11’s, or fried chicken at a nearby KFC. This drastic change in diet and the resulting homogenization of a once diverse cuisine means that many traditional recipes stand the risk of being lost forever.

Thod man nor ka laa, deep-fried battered herbs and flowers that are a speciality of Koh Kret.

Thankfully there are a few places in Thailand that have chosen to preserve this rich culinary heritage. Once such place is the island of Koh Kret in Nonthaburi province, north of Bangkok. This ‘island’ is actually the result of a canal dredged to shorten an oxbow bend in the Chao Phraya River nearly 300 years ago. The area is also home to a community of Mon people that have lived in the area since the capital of Thailand was moved to Thonburi from Ayuthaya, and today Koh Kret is a stronghold of Mon culture in Thailand. This, coupled with the island’s relative isolation, have made it an excellent place to sample the obscure but delicious food of the Mon people, as well as a variety of old fashioned central Thai fare.

Koh Kret is known for its pottery, which is often used to serve coffee and other drinks.

To experience these diverse tastes, I paid a visit to the island on a recent Sunday. Koh Kret is an extremely popular destination on weekends, when urban Thais come in droves to eat and shop, and the day I visited was no exception. I boarded a very crowded boat at Wat Sanaam Nuea for the brief ride across the Chao Phraya River and set off to explore the culinary possibilities of this tiny man-made island.

Virtually the first thing one encounters after disembarking from the boat, and probably the commonest dish on Koh Kret, is a snack of Mon origin known as thod man nor ka laa. Thot man usually refers to a dish of deep-fried patties of ground fish, however this particular version consists of various fresh herbs, colorful flowers, mushrooms and nor kalaa, an aquatic vegetable, battered, deep-fried until crispy, and served with a sweet and sour sauce. The result is both delicious and attractive, particularly considering the rare pleasure of eating such colorful flowers. The thot man nor ka laa are, like many other dishes on Koh Kret, served in traditional banana-leaf cups called krathong, although nowadays the krathong are held together by a staple, rather than the bamboo toothpick of the past.

Khanom bueang, an old-fashioned Thai sweet.

A variety of Mon dishes are can be found on Koh Kret, including khanom jeen, fermented rice noodles eaten with a variety of different curries, and the rice dish known as khao chae. The latter is an improbable but delicious combination of camphor-scented rice in chilled water with savory tidbits, and is particularly popular during the Thai summer, as it is considered to have cooling properties. I stop by Khao Chae Khun Daeng, probably the most popular of the numerous khao chae restaurants on the island, and am given the requisite rice along with a dish of candied strips of daikon coupled with savory dried pork. The odd combination of sweet and savory somehow works, and the coolness of the rice leaves me feeling refreshed and ready to continue my culinary tour.

Other than Mon food, Ko Kret is also known for its khanom, sweets, and khong waang, savory/sweet snacks, and most visitors to the island leave clutching bagfuls of both. This wealth of sweet food is due to the fact that sugar palms grow very well in the fertile soil of the riverbank, thus supplying the people in the area with ample raw materials. Many of the sweets sold on Koh Kret are of high quality, but are generally easy to find on the mainland, and much more interesting are the khong waang, many of which are rarely made or eaten nowadays. These include miang kham, wild tea leaves topped with a do-it-yourself mixture of fresh herbs and a thick, savory/sweet sauce, and pan sip, tiny deep-fried “turnovers” filled with a mixture of shredded fish, ground peanuts and black pepper. Another delicious snack one rarely sees nowadays is kai sarong, minced chicken wrapped in egg noodles and deep fried, resulting in crispy golden balls.

Koh Kret is home to a variety of old-fashioned snacks, such as these griddled quail eggs.

This emphasis on antiquated food extends to meals too, and many of the restaurants on Koh Kret specialize in dishes that have fallen out of favor. Driven by the intense heat of midday, I stop for lunch at a such a curry stall where I order phat phrik khing, long beans fried with pork and a sweetish curry paste, and kaeng phet, a coconut-milk curry, in this case made with pork and hearty chunks of pumpkin. Another old-school Thai dish available on Koh Kret is a soupy curry known as kaeng bon. Similar to the central Thai favorite kaeng som, kaeng bon differs in that it includes kaffir lime zest and krachaay, an indigenous root similar to ginger, added to the curry paste. The curry is thicker than that of kaeng som, the result of the addition of the pounded flesh of grilled fish.

Koh Kret is a fertile island, and during the course of the day I see numerous vendors selling the various agricultural products grown on the island. I was delighted to see that many of these were indigenous Thai fruits and vegetables, such as kaffir limes, buap (a kind of gourd), tam lueng (a leafy vine) and fresh herbs, such as Thai basil, cha om (a pungent leafy herb) and the aforementioned nor ka laa.

Enjoying lunch near the Chao Phraya River, Koh Kret.

By the time I come to the end of my culinary tour it is late afternoon and the crowds on Koh Kret seem to only be getting larger. I decide to leave, but first I indulge in a particular specialty of Koh Kret: freshly brewed coffee. Countless stalls selling coffee prepared the old-fashioned way dot the island, and as Koh Kret is also known for its pottery, the drinks are served in large clay cups produced on the island. As I sit enjoying an iced coffee among the throngs of visitors, I’m reminded that in many cases, tourism is often a destructive phenomenon. However in the case of Koh Kret, tourism has given the locals incentive to continue culinary traditions that might otherwise have died out, something that left a very good taste in my mouth.

This article is also available at ThaiDay's website here.