The past few weeks have been the height of summer, and it has been too hot for most people to even think about eating (that excludes me, of course). In the olden days (but not so olden days, because we didn’t have refrigeration until the past century), people cooled off by putting ice in their bowls of rice. This gave birth to khao chae–variously described as “summertime rice” or “cool summer rice”, but never “a bowl of rice with a giant ice cube in the middle”, which is a shame, because that is what it actually is.
The dish, which has its roots in the rice-rich Central plains, has evolved over the years into something that has become quite elaborate, with side dishes that are considered necessary to the enjoyment of this iced bowl of rice. Balls of kapi, or shrimp paste, are deep-fried; sweetened beef is deep-fried and shredded; preserved cabbage is stir-fried and mixed with egg; salted eggs are also fried; Thai shallots are stuffed with minced fish and, uh, deep-fried; a banana pepper gets similar treatment with minced pork, plus a tempura-like batter coating. Khao chae connoisseurs (yes, they do exist) judge the proficiency of the cook by the intricacy of the tempura batter netting over the pepper, and the uniformity of the fried shrimp paste balls. It is a time-consuming dish, and only served during the hot season for lunch, which is why it is easy to be disappointed.
Done well, it’s a lovely dish all the same, all about harmony and the different parts working together, unusual in these politically troubled times: the rice water is perfumed with the scent of jasmine, and the accompanying vegetables–painstakingly carved to look like leaves–not only cool you down but freshen your breath, too. That is why I was slightly shocked to learn recently that some Thais have never tried this clever, and very central Thai, dish. A shame: the first rains fell today, which means summertime rice won’ t be on the menu for another year.