Unfortunately, Leela didn’t like caramel corn, although I made her eat at least three handfuls before I turned away and she could chuck her present somewhere else. Poor Leela. But I thought back to that caramel corn when I traveled to Hua Hin last week to sample some edifying sticky rice desserts that play with the sweet/salt balance that Thais are so fond of.
Long before Werther’s Originals, way before Guy Martin started making ice cream out of fennel and black olives at Le Grand des Vefours, eons before Gramercy Tavern was turning out caramel tarts sprinkled with sea salt, Thais were turning sugar and salt into dessert. And this salt does not come in the form of a hit of peanut butter, or a slip of fleur de sel: shrimp, dried fish, kaffir lime leaf, cumin — these are the ingredients of many a traditional Thai dessert, including khao niew sarapat (sticky rice with toppings and steamed in banana leaves). It is hard to find in Bangkok but readily available in the beachy (and very crowded) resort town of Hua Hin.
These sticky rice offerings, bought at the central Chatchai Market opposite the Meechai Hotel on Petchkasem road (you cannot miss this main road, mainly because you will be stuck in traffic there next to the rest of Bangkok on the weekends), involved black rice, which is mixed with coconut juice to sweeten and soften it (white sticky rice is often mixed with cumin to turn it yellow and contrast it nicely against the red or brown toppings). The toppings themselves were myriad and intriguing: minced, sweetened shrimp; sweet, sticky dried fish; sankaya (coconut milk custard); gracheek (shredded, sweetened coconut) and shredded glauy, a type of root vegetable that is apparently a bitch to prepare — it is dug out of the jungle floor and alternately washed under running water and dried for 15-20 days. If not prepared correctly, it can make you drunk.
The effect of the seafood-topped desserts was strange and illuminating: the salt actually enhanced the sweetness of the rice, added sugar and coconut milk, while the fishiness added a titillating savory edge.
There are other ways to play with seafood-y desserts. Meechai, a mango sticky rice stand next to the Meechai Hotel, sells a sweetened shrimp topping you can put on your own mango sticky rice, or to eat on its own if you like it that much. While many vendors bulk up their minced shrimp with shredded coconut due to the expensiveness of the shrimp, Meechai serves it full-on, with a bit of chiffonaded kaffir lime leaf for flavor. It adds that extra bit of danger to your mango or sankaya sticky rice — even if that danger comes in the form of lines that stretch down the block for a trifling bit of dessert.