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.
Pa Ni 9 Thanon Singhanat Bamrung, Mae Hong Son 9:30am-3pm
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