After going through the thousands (not an exaggeration, sadly) of photos I took on our trip to Thailand, I realized that I could not fit everything about Thailand into one post. So, I am breaking it up into three posts, the north, the south, and the center. Each post will be paired with a delicious Thai recipe (or in this case, two!) as an excuse for me to make, eat, and share as much tasty Thai food as possible. For this post, I’m sharing recipes for mango with sticky rice and bananas in coconut milk, but I put a little twist on these traditional desserts by making a Thai tea caramel with the palm sugar we bought on our trip. I used coconut milk instead of heavy cream for the caramel and steeped 1 tablespoon of Thai tea in it. But the rest of the caramel was pretty standard aside from the use of palm, or coconut, sugar, which is made from the sap of the coconut palm tree. You can get palm sugar at most natural food stores and there’s a ton of it on amazon, too. I really feel like I created something momentous with this caramel, you guys. Like a benchmark to hold all my other recipes up to. I’ve never tasted anything like it before, it has a rich, nutty, creamy flavor and tastes like a warm cup of thai tea that you added the tastiest butter and cream and sugar you could find to. If you enjoy caramel on any level, it’s worth tracking down the palm sugar and Thai tea to give this recipe a go. And now, Thailand…
We began our journey in the north in a large city called Chiang Mai, where we spent about two and a half days. While that ended up being not nearly enough time to see all the amazing things the city had to offer (namely checking out this amazing elephant reserve that all the other travelers we befriended throughout our trip couldn’t stop raving about. You get to help bathe baby elephants. BABY ELEPHANTS, YOU GUYS.), that really just means that a return trip to Thailand is most definitely in our future.
We began our journey at the Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai, which was unlike any hotel either of us had ever stayed at before. The entire resort is modeled after an ancient city, complete with its own organic gardens and rice paddies.The entire property spans about 60 acres and employs a large portion of the local townspeople, so it really is like its own little functioning town. They even have a farmer’s markey every weekend where local craftsman come set up stalls and sell beautiful handmade goods and wares. Being on our honeymoon, we made sure to stop by the dhevi spa while we were there, since I’d never been to a spa before and figured honeymooning was probably the best time to visit one. We were immediately greeted with the tastiest glass of iced sweet ginger tea (still attempting to recreate this one), and then I went on to have a neroli jasmine body scrub, which kind of blew my mind. I’d never really believed in aromatherapy before that point, but afterwards I was pretty much sold, since I hadn’t felt that relaxed for nearly a decade.
We also had dinner at their Thai restaurant, Le Grand Lanna, where we ate a lot of amazing food. We had fried marinated black pepper prawn rolls, spicy pomelo salad with prawns and coconut, stir fried sweet and sour sea bass, yellow curry with cherry tomatoes and indian flatbread, wok fried broccoli with oyster sauce, and of course, coconut ice cream. You know, writing it out makes me realize what a huge amount of food we ate, but it was honestly so ridiculously good that we kind of just flew right through the dishes. Also, I think the jet lag sent my stomach into a bit of a tizzy and, since it didn’t know when it was supposed to be eating, it just decided “Hey! Since I don’t know what time it is, I’m just going to be hungry ALL OF THE TIME.” This lasted the first three days of the trip, which ended up being for the best, since the breakfast spread at Dhara Dhevi included pretty much any food you could think of, including sushi, curry, fresh baked bread, toasty waffles, dim sum, and homemade yogurt. I mainly got fresh fruit and yogurt every morning just because I was kind of overwhelmed by the choices, but I picked a lot of stuff of of Jeremy’s plate and it was all wonderful. After the first half day we spent wandering around the grounds of Dhara Dhevi, we ventured out into the city and countryside for another food-related activity.
Appropriately, we started our first full day in Chiang Mai (and Thailand!), with a jaunt in cooking school. We signed up for the Thai Farm Cooking School because it took place out on a farm in Northern Thailand and included an up-close-and-personal Thai ingredient tour at a local market and our on the farm. We met at the market on the outskirts of the city, and our guide took us through the winding pathways between the stalls, explaining various ingredients to us. I think what surprised me most was the incredibly wide variety of rice there was, (i.e. I never knew that sticky rice was actually a special variety of rice, I always thought it was just jasmine rice prepared in a way to make it sticky). Sticky rice is usually younger rice, since young rice is softer and mushier. Old rice is firmer in texture, but the texture can change depending on how long you steam it and and with how much water. Generally, the more water you steam it with and the longer you steam it, the softer and stickier the rice will become. So once you take into account the variety, grain length, age, and cooking time/water amount, there are a lot of factors that can affect the way the rice tastes, which is why it is important to use the exact type of rice called for in any given Thai recipe and to prepare it in the exact way indicated.
From the market, they took us an hour outside the city into the beautiful farmlands of Northern Thailand. The fields we drove past were mostly rice paddies, which were amazing to see up close because I didn’t realize that rice grew on stalks like wheat until I got face-to-stalk with them. They look almost identical, except the rice stalks are greener and instead of wheat kernels at the top it’s just little grains of rice. So neat!! Once we arrived at the farm, our guide took us around the property and explained the organic practices they used (composting ftw!) and showed us some of the Thai fruits and vegetables we’d be working with that day. It was really interesting to see how some of the plants grew, like the pineapple for example. I’d never seen a pineapple plant before and for some reason I thought they just grew on tall trees like coconuts, but they actually grow on a low-to-the-ground palm-like shrub and just kind of weirdly sprout out of it, which you can see above. Notice the adorable sprouting action, like it’s just kind of popping out to say “HEY! I’m a pineapple!!!” (which I imagine being said in this voice).
At the school, we were able to make a five-course meal and had three different choices of what to make for each course, which was great because Jeremy and I were each able to learn a different dish from each other, so that when we got back home we’d be able to teach each other the dishes we didn’t try out first-hand. I decided to make chicken and galangal coconut soup, red curry, fried chicken with basil leaves, pad thai, and bananas in coconut milk; but what I was most excited to learn about was making red curry paste from scratch. I’d tried to make it once before, but once I saw the mortar and pestle the class was using, I realized the one I was using back home was much too small and not gritty enough to really break down the pepper and seeds (that’s what I get for buying a stainless steel one instead of stone. NEVER AGAIN.) We had a bit of a competition to see who could break their ingredients down into a paste the fastest, which ended up devolving into jokes about who would make the best Thai wife, and our instructor kindly pointed to me since I was using the pestle with two hands (Ah, Thai humor! Just as raunchy as the American stuff.) We had a really great time with the people in our group, it was an incredibly enriching experience to cook with people form all over the world and talk to them about the dishes they like to make in their own countries.
At the end of the curry course, I was shocked at how much more depth of flavor there was to the curry made with the homemade curry paste than the curry I make at home with store-bought thai chili paste. And when we moved on to the pad thai, I made an especially exciting discovery. There is a signature smell to authentic pad thai, (those of you out there who are as addicted to this noodle dish as I am know what I am talking about), and the ingredient that brings that smell to the forefront is garlic greens. Yes, the green stalks that sprout out of a garlic bulb. You can’t really get them anywhere here in the states, but if you just let a garlic bulb from the store sit out long enough you’ll see some green poking out it the top of it. Break the bulb into the individual cloves and plant them, trimming the greens for kitchen use as you please. The texture of it is just like the greens of a green onion, but the flavor is wonderfully garlicky instead. Very much worth the minimal effort involved in maintaining it. We made several more dishes after the pad thai, including the banana in coconut milk I’m sharing in this post, and ended the afternoon with some iced tea and another brief walk around the farm. Once the class came to a close, they took us back to the hotel where we relaxed until the next morning, when we drove up into the rainforest for a bit of an adventure.
The northern Thailand rainforest is about a 2 hour drive outside of Chiang Mai, and in the middle of this dense brush of trees and palms, there’s a zip lining canopy called Flight of the Gibbon built throughout the tree tops. I’d never been zip lining before, and honestly didn’t really understand the process of it until we were actually there doing it (don’t know why I never thought to watch a video of it before the trip, buuuuut I just didn’t.) Basically, there’s a cable running from one tree to another, you’re in a harness, and your harness gets strapped to the cable, you walk off the platform, you get pulled along on the cable, and it just feels like you’re flying through the air from one tree to another. You’re so high up and you’re surrounded by such lush and vivid scenery, it’s an incredible rush. And because you can physically see that your strapped in to the harness and onto the cable, you feel very safe doing so. And I mean it, I am kind of a big baby when it comes to most adventurous things like bungee jumping and skydiving (i.e. I will never do either of those things). But with this, I really felt super safe, so much so that I didn’t worry about any of it once and just enjoyed the fresh air and scenic views. Also, we got to see actual gibbon monkeys in the jungle, which was AMAZING, and there was even a baby one!! That combined with the zip lining through the treetops made for one of my favorite days of the trip.
|Above images of the hotel and pomelo salad below provided by 137 Pillars House (’twas too dark outside for me to take pictures)|
Later that night we went out for dinner at the Palette restaurant inside 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai. 137 Pillars House is a boutique resort hidden inside the city that has a colonial east-meets-west vibe to it. The main structure that houses the restaurant and Jack Bain’s Bar was built in the 1896 out of teak, and rested upon 137 pillars, hence the resort’s name. Teak was the mainstay of the logging industry in Northern Thailand in the late 19th century, and the house was built by one of the largest logging companies in the area as a home for the company’s superintendent Louis Leonowens, whose mother was Anna from the famed historical tale and movie “Anna and the King“. The house changed ownership over the years and didn’t become the hotel it is today until 2002, when one of the present owners came across some property with a large old teak house still standing on it and had a vision for the resort. It was really amazing to eat an authentic Thai meal inside a building that had such an astounding amount of history behind it, and to see how beautifully they restored the structure was very moving. It honestly feels like you’re being transported back to 1898 colonial Thailand the moment you walk inside. If you’re really interested in historical structures, the resort offers a weekly guided tour of Chiang Mai’s historical buildings, another thing we’ve added to the docket for our next trip. The main house is surrounded by newer structures that contain the various rooms and suites of the resort, and each one has its own private outdoor rain shower (!!!!). Also, there’s gorgeous old trees all over the property because the current owner’s wife insisted they leave all the trees on the property intact during construction. A very smart woman, indeed.
For dinner, we had a pomelo and soft shell crab salad, a northern dry curry with lamb shank, wagyu beef cheek chili with hot basil and beef crackling, and mango sticky rice for dessert. I’m usually not a huge fan of beef, but the wagyu beef cheeks were so incredibly tender they *actually* disintegrated in your mouth. Wagyu refers to a type of Japanese cattle that is raised in Japan and known for its distinct meat marbling and its high amount of unsaturated fats. The combination of the marbling and the fat content results in very prized and flavorful cuts of meat. Kind of like the champagne-France argument, some people feel that wagyu isn’t truly wagyu unless the cows are raised in Japan, even though at this point wagyu breed cattle have been moved to and are being bred in the United States as well. I’d never had wagyu beef before, but this was hands-down the most amazing beef I’ve ever had. It really drove home the effect that the cattle’s breed and diet has on the flavor and quality of its meat. Their salad was also the first time I’d had soft-shell crab, which I ended up loving. For those of you unfamiliar with them, soft shell crabs are crabs that have just shed their old hard exoskeleton and their new one hasn’t completely formed yet, leaving the skin very soft. These crabs can be eaten whole when cooked, without the need to crack apart and remove the shell like you normally do with crab. Because I loved the pomelo salads I had at Dhara Dhevi and 137 Pillars House so much, I’m definitely going to be making one for a future post very soon. And there may even be soft shell crab in it.
Alas, so ended our final night in Chiang Mai. The next day we boarded our flight to southern Thailand, where elephants, canoes, sandy beaches, and even more food was waiting. Till next time…
Mango with Sticky Rice
1/2 cup water
1 ripe mango, pitted and cut into 1/2 inch thick slices
First, prepare the sticky rice. Begin by soaking the rice in a bowl that will hold twice the volume of the original amount of rice, making sure the water level rests at 3 inches above the top of the rice. Let the rice soak for a minimum of 4 hours and up to 24 hours. If you are soaking it for a shorter time, make sure to use warm water. Drain the rice and steam it for 30 minutes or until it is very soft. Remove the rice from the steamer and transfer it to a bowl, then fluff it gently with a wooden spoon. Set aside. Note: If making the sticky rice ahead of time, keep it in an air-tight container to keep it from drying out.
Bring the coconut milk and 1/2 cup of water to a boil in a medium-sized pot over medium heat. Add the sugar and continue cooking for 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add the salt and stir gently to combine. Garnish with the mango slices and serve immediately.
Thai Tea Caramel
Roasted Bananas in Coconut Milk
First, prepare the caramel. Steep the tea in the coconut milk in a small thick-bottomed pot over medium heat until simmering. Bring the heat down to low and allow to cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and allow to steep for an additional 10 minutes before removing the tea bag and squeezing out any excess coconut milk from the bag back into the pot. Discard the bag and set the coconut milk aside.
Now bring the palm sugar and tablespoon to a boil in a small pot over medium heat. Continue cooking until the sugar is bubbling and darkens to a deep caramel color (it should start to smell pleasantly nutty at this point, too). Remove it from the heat and immediately add the coconut milk, brown sugar, and butter and stir to combine (careful, it will spatter when you add these guys in). The sugar may turn into a clump, which is fine. Place the pot back over the heat and bring back to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and allow the mixture to simmer for 10 minutes, or until it thickens and coats the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the bananas in half both vertically and horizontally so that each banana is in 4 pieces, for a total of 8 banana quarters. Have the tablespoon of vanilla extract in a bowl and lightly brush each piece with a little of it, before rolling each piece in the 1/2 cup of cane sugar to coat it. Place each piece on a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper. Once all the pieces are coated and on the baking sheet, place the sheet in the oven and roast them for 15 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool completely.
Once they’re cooled, you can prepare the coconut milk. Bring the coconut milk, water, remaining tablespoon of sugar, and remaining 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract to a gentle boil over medium-low heat. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the banana pieces to the mixture and continue to boil for 2 minutes, then remove it from heat, add the salt, and stir gently to incorporate it. Drizzle with the caramel and serve immediately.