What’s Cooking: Coconut ice cream

Homemade coconut ice cream in a homemade Hawaiian bun with sticky rice and roasted peanuts

I love to complain on this blog, but I feel like I have not been complaining enough lately. It is not for lack of things to complain about; one need only look at the newspaper headlines to see for sure. When everything is going to shit out there, I suppose it’s best to keep things buzzing in harmony in the places over which I exert complete control, ie. this blog.

So the one thing I will say is that foie gras burgers ruin both foie gras and burgers, a duo that, when left to their own devices, can shine, but when combined, serve to ultimately cancel each other out (also see: tempura-fried sushi. I like tempura? I like sushi? Why do that to tempura and to sushi?)

I used to feel the same way about ice cream served in a hot dog bun, the ice cream sandwich in its most literal embodiment. This is something that I did not grow up with in the States, where we had ice cream on waffle cones or in cups like the ice cream gods intended.

I did not know then that the ice cream gods were Chinese gourmands who, in 200 BC, mixed milk and rice and froze it, creating the world’s first rudimentary scoops. It is Marco Polo who is credited with bringing those ice cream recipes back home to Italy where they took on entirely new flavors. I’m not sure when ice cream reached the blessed shores of Siam, but I can say that the iterations that have seized hold of menus here are just as delicious, if not more so, than anything I have tasted in the gelato parlors of Europe.

Young coconut ice cream topped with palm seeds in syrup at Nuttaporn Ice Cream

However, I must say that I’ve had a problem in the past with the combo of ice cream + soft bun. This is because they are essentially the same to me: comfort + comfort, as opposed to ice cream + cone (comfort + hollow crunch) or even Western ice cream sandwich (comfort + less delicious comfort). I realize now that I think this because of my colonized mind, and that ice cream + soft bun is a genius flavor combo, especially if that bun is soft, sweet and salted all at once like a Hawaiian bread roll or hunk of Portuguese sweet bread. If a smudge of sticky rice can be found underneath your scoop like a cat hiding underneath the bed after he’s shredded all your toilet paper, all the better. Scatter some roasted peanuts on top right before you’re ready to dig in and you’ve got it made.

If you’re in Bangkok, these sweet buns can be found in traditional Thai bakeries like the “butter bun” at Patum Cake or, of course, at S&P. Villa Market sells a nice soft sweet-and-salted bun made from a company named LA Bakery. But when I had this ice cream made at home, my overachieving friend Chris made both the ice cream and his Hawaiian-style buns (pictured up top) from scratch. The following ice cream recipe is his — thank you Chris! Chris has plenty of other great recipes on his own blog christao.net.

For 6 people

Prep time: 10 hours (including freezing time), 1 hour active prep

Ingredients:

– 500 ml coconut milk (canned)

– 2 heaping tsp cornstarch

– 75 g sugar

– 3/4 tsp salt

– 2 tsp vanilla

– 6 sweet dinner rolls or hot dog buns

– roasted peanuts (garnish)

– sticky rice (optional)

– coconut milk (optional)

Separate out 1/2 coconut milk in order to make a slurry with cornstarch. Mix remaining coconut milk, sugar, salt and vanilla in saucepan and heat over medium heat (do not bring it to a boil). Take off heat and add cornstarch slurry. Stir until thickened (it only gets thickened slightly). Cool to room temperature. Put in airtight container and freeze for at least 3 hours. Take out, break into chunks, and put into blender. Blend to the consistency of a milkshake, then put back into freezer for another 6 hours or until firm. Serve with sweet dinner rolls or hot dog buns, preferably topped with roasted peanuts. You can also serve on top of sticky rice, or on top of sticky rice inside the bun. Drizzle with coconut milk if you wish.

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The Comfort Bowl

Rice noodles smothered in pork gravy at Rot Thip Yod Pak

I was hospitalized recently for salmonella and I gotta say, it’s like restaurants are taking revenge on me for writing about street food so much. It is the second time I’ve gotten seriously ill from food — not on the street, mind you, but in an air-conditioned dining room with a dress code and old aunties who look askance at your Uniqlo/Marimekko muu muu because hey, you just want to live your life. This time, it was guay thiew nuea sub (rice noodles with minced beef) topped with a nice raw egg that felled me. I spent the rest of my week eating plain rice porridge in a hospital room and feeling sorry for myself.

Needless to say, when I was finally discharged, I wanted to be really careful, because I was not eager to relive that experience. It wasn’t spending the whole day in the hospital that got me down, or even the loneliness, since nurses are bustling in at all hours to take your heart rate and oxygen levels. It was the gloom that descended when it got dark, and even though my husband was staying with me, I still dreaded falling asleep in that hospital bed. I don’t want to repeat my stay in the hospital any time soon. Time to head back out onto the street.

I am going over final edits on the third iteration of my Thai street food book. This was a book that was supposed to have come out earlier this year, but, as with most plans that were hatched for 2020, it was inevitably delayed. Going over the entries, I was struck once again by how many great places there are in Thailand still (and how many more could have been named). One such place that I had not been to for several years now is Rot Thip Yod Pak in Baan Mor (02-223-4562, open 8.30-17.00 daily).

Baan Mor is the old center for electrical appliances and car parts in Bangkok, and it still has that same chaotic, anything-goes vibe. Multi-colored wires hang into the street, pirated DVDs lurk past open doorways and bad techno music pounds the eardrums. It is like the Asian equivalent of Mos Eisley, but without any cool jazz bands or decent drinks. You can, however, find a vibrator and all the lady-focused porn your heart could ever desire. To get here, you simply need to exit the Old Siam shopping center from the McDonald’s side, cross the street, walk through the market for 50 meters, and turn left into the open shophouse room with the light blue walls.

Here at Rot Thip Yod Pak, the Chinese-inspired dish guaythiew lard na (rice noodles with gravy) is the typical calling card, although their khao na moo grob (rice with crispy pork) is also popular. The last time I went here, I focused on the lard na with crispy egg noodles (sen mee grob), but today, I want what would amount to comfort in a bowl. I order the lard na sen yai (thick rice noodles in gravy) instead. This is my comfort in a bowl, the thing I used to get when I was by myself in college and needed a taste of home in the only Thai restaurant near campus.

It arrives to the table like a soup, murky and gelatinous, a single slab of pork visible, obscuring the green fronds of Chinese kale beneath. Set out in front of me, it visibly jiggles. It resembles a nightmarish caricature of the Blob, only edible. Luckily, with a judicious sprinkle of pickled red chilies in vinegar, it tastes a lot better than it looks.

“The Coffin Dance” is blasting in the alleyway as I depart, but I don’t care. I leave in a better mood than when I arrived. I don’t even feel like I need to go to the hospital. Isn’t that all any of us ask for?

Winner’s crispy pork on rice with a dash of dark soy sauce and hard-boiled egg

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What’s Cooking: Sticky rice

My parents, celebrating my dad’s birthday and their Northern Thai heritage at Maan Mueng Restaurant

My father just turned 75, and to celebrate that day (after a COVID-caused delay) he booked out the restaurant Maan Muang, where my family believes the best Northern Thai food in the city is served. Being a Chiang Rai native, my father of course believes he is the expert on this subject, and that his hometown (and my birthplace, incidentally) serves local cuisine of a far superior quality, flavor-wise, to the more generic Chiang Mai. (Although the people at Maan Muang hail from Lampang, not Chiang Rai, I feel obliged to add).

I do love Maan Muang, although I would personally stick to the dishes that are, well, meant to go with sticky rice, and not the noodle dishes like khao soi (curried Northern Thai-style noodles) or kanom jeen nam ngiew (fermented rice noodles in a minced pork stew).

Fermented pork slices, pak waan (sweet vegetable) stew, green leaves stir-fried with egg, beef larb, and pickled cabbage stew, all with sticky rice

The sticky rice at Maan Muang is red and mildly glutinous, treading the fine line between not too loose and not too gummy. This rice is a staple in the North and Northeast, where food is commonly rolled up into a ball with fingers (an act called pun khao or “rolling rice”) and dipped into the stew, soup, relish, salad or strip of meat (already parceled onto your own plate, of course) of your choice. Food scholars say sticky rice (khao niew) is and has always been considered the staple of the plebs, whereas jasmine rice (khao suoy, or “beautiful rice”) is the purview of the aristocrat. That may be so, but if I had to choose between the two, I would always choose sticky rice.

Many people think that sticky rice is a simple affair made in a rice cooker, but in my household, where this dish can make or break a meal, it is always cooked traditionally, in a huad or woven basket, set over a pot of boiling water and topped with a lid. It’s perfect for allowing air to circulate between the rice grains, ensuring that the grains are not soggy, and for grabbing at each end and tossing, mid-cook.

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A traditional Thai sticky rice steamer

But if you don’t have access to a huad, don’t despair. You can simply use a fine-mesh sieve, or a traditional steamer lined with cheesecloth. For the purposes of my upcoming book, I used a sieve, which the French very un-P.C.-ly call a chinois

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But before you get to that point, you have to soak your sticky rice grains overnight in room temperature water (or in boiling hot water for 20-30 minutes before cooking). Drain and wash three times before pouring a potful of boiling hot water to cover.

Stir grains to keep them from sticky together for 5 minutes or until grains are slightly translucent. Drain and set to steam in your sieve or lined steamer for 20-30 minutes over a boiling pot of water. Cover with a lid big enough to cover all the grains. If there is a gap between the edge of the pot and the lid because of the sieve, set a towel over the lid but beware of setting the towel on fire.

After 10 minutes, take off the lid and toss the grains or give them a good stir.

After 20-30 minutes (or when the grains are tender), spread over a wet flat surface like a tray to cool, making sure to turn occasionally with a rice paddle in order to get rid of trapped steam. This ensures the rice is not soggy.

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Your rice is now ready to eat. If you’re not ready, put it in a bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap, or even better, in your woven sticky rice holder, which has holes that allow steam to escape, but are not too big that the sticky rice will dry out. For such a simple food, it can be a bit temperamental.

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Enjoy your sticky rice! One of my favorite meals on earth is a gob of this with fried chicken and a good dollop of a garlicky, heady chili dip like nam prik tha dang (red-eye chili dip), especially if it comes from Midnight Fried Chicken in Chiang Mai.  

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