Masters of Rice

_DSC5367-Edit The places where predominately ethnic Tai people live -- southern China, eastern Myanmar and northern Thailand -- are also some of the earliest known areas of rice cultivation. The Tai may not have been the first people to grow and consume rice, but it's safe to say that they've been doing it for a while now. Yet aside from simply boiling or steaming the grains and eating them with other food, they have also come up with a variety of creative ways of preparing rice.

This became clear to me in Kengtung, in Myanmar's Shan State, a place were many of the dishes continue to be very Tai, and largely untouched by the influences of Chinese, Muslim or western cooking styles, providing a unique insight into an ancient diet.

Perhaps the most obvious examples of this is rice noodles, known in Tai/Shan as khao soi.


To make these, a batter is made from rice flour and water, which is steamed then sliced into long strands.


I'd assumed that the word khao soi had its origins in the Burmese hkauk hswe, which also means noodles and is pronounced very similarly, but my Shan guide insisted that the term is actually Tai in origin. It would require some linguistic research to verify this, but given that khao soi can be translated as cut (soi) rice (khao), not to mention the Tai people's long-standing history of rice cultivation in the area, I wouldn't be surprised if the term could be linked to them.

A fascinating variation on rice strands is khao soi song chan ('two layers of khao soi'), a seasoned and filled noodle -- as far as I can recall, the only seasoned noodle I've encountered in Asia. The dish is made by combining a batter of rice flour and several seasonings -- soy sauce, MSG, sugar, chili oil, peanuts, garlic oil, chili in vinegar and chili in oil -- which are steamed in a thin pan floating in simmering water (shown at the top of this post). When firm, the steamed rice sheet is topped with vegetables and herbs including shredded cabbage, morning glory, lettuce, green beans and green onion, folded in half, and served with a drizzle of garlic oil:


You can even throw an egg in, if you want. Either way, it's spicy savoury, nutty and garlicky, and requires no additional seasoning.

A variation on the dish is khao soi khaep, in which the unseasoned noodles are stuffed with a minced chicken mixture (not unlike bánh cuốn), sliced, then topped with the same vegetables and seasonings as the previous dish:


resulting in a something of a noodle-based salad.

Blurring the line between cooked rice grains and noodles is khao pheun, thick hand-cut noodles made from a type of rice cake. In Mae Hong Son, a similar dish -- there typically made from chickpea flour -- is known as khao raem feun (ข้าวแรมฟืน), 'rice resting by the fire', so called because of the final stage of the cooking process.

To make the dish, uncooked rice is soaked in water for a couple hours. After it's been ground to a paste, a bit of water is added and the mixture is simmered until thick. A coagulant -- usually lime -- is added, and the mixture is allowed to sit until it's cooled and has become a solid, somewhat jelly-like mass:


To order, chunks are cut off by hand and mixed with a sweet/sour dressing, pickled mustard greens, shredded cabbage, and seasoned with chili and soy sauce: