I once commented in an interview that eating for a review needs experiences. Although that small sentence generated some counter-responses that hoped to ridicule me, I still stick to my gun. One does really need to eat a lot so to compare the best from the rest. Think about wine critics, or coffee critics, for example. You will give more credits to those with longer experiences, right? So why not eaters with more experiences that you can listen?
For me, one cannot know if one is eating the best stuff until you have eaten enough to say so. I was lucky enough to be born in a family that cooks. My mom, a true vanguard of home cooking, cooked us simple and delicious stuff, staples of Thai meals that I realised when I grew up how lucky I was, especially when I came into this business of food eating/tasting and writing and saw many of those in the same business with no such background.:D And then there are friends who are also avid eaters and cooks. One of them is the best-ever cook of the intricate summer rice, or Khao Chae, the royal summer meal that has become the epitome of the Thai culinary’s delicacies. A good Khao Chae needs a lot of time and efforts to prepare and I was too lucky last year when I was invited over to have this fabulous meal prepared by this lovely friend.
First, if you are not familiar with Khao Chae, allow me spin a yarn here. Khao Chae is a meal of rice served in iced aromatic water and its special trimmings that include all things that will take all the time in the world to prepare. The rice itself cannot be cooked like any other rice. And you cannot just use any other rice, either. The old rice (meaning the rice from previous year’s harvest) is preferable and you’ll need to boil it until just al dente. Then, you’ll need to rub the rice grain off its starch so that when you serve it with the iced water, the water remains clear and not smoggy. When you get the rice right, then it is time to get the water perfect. Clean, pure spring water is not enough, you’ll need to perfume it with Thai’s famous flowers. Traditionally, they use dok chommanad (bread flowers), but then, some people love the aromas of jasmine and ilang ilang, hence additional flowers to be put into the concoction.
This process alone might take you a half or full day if you are lucky, efficient and well-versed in Khao Chae. But there are many more items you need. Read on.
Since to eat the rice by itself would make a bland and boring experience, the royal summer meal has its own intricate trimmings. There are 1. stuffed green pepper (steamed, fried and then blanketed with hand-swung egg net), 2. hand-rolled seasoned shrimp paste (shrimp paste mixed with dried fish and herbs, rolled into small balls, deep-fried with light egg batter), 3. stuffed shallots (stuffed with seasoned dried fish, deep-fried with egg batter), 4. ultra sweet pickles of radish (radish pickles, stir-fried with palm sugar until aromatic and sweet), 5. shredded and sweetened fish (in this case my friend uses the tough parts of stingray’s fin. She soft-boils the tough meat, hand-pounds it and then stir-fries/simmers it with palm sugar) and 6. salty pork balls fried in egg batter..
And if that list alone has already made you dizzy, read on. There’s more. Much more.
When you have the savouries that are a bit tasty, salty and oily, you’ll need to balance them with the freshness of vegetables and fruits. But this is a royal meal and the vegetables and fruits cannot just remain in their original states, hence the fresh composition includes: 1. fresh green mangoes that are mature but not ripe, hence a balanced tastes of tangy and sweet. The mango, cut into a palm-shaped wedge, is then carved to assimilate a leave; 2. Spring onion – the uniquely and aromatic bite of this ubiquitous herb is needed to give the eater a break from the oily stuff, so that they can finish this huge meal. But then, the spring onion, as you will see from the pix below, is then cut and curled and beautified to give you a dramatic effect while munching; 3. Gilingale, or lesser gingers or finger roots (or krachai) that are scraped off its skin, then cut into the shape of a champac. In the case of my friend, she also carves the fingers into mini flowers that you can use your hand to break it for each fragrant bite. Also in that set is big red chilies that are also cut and curled into flower shapes.
It took us just 20 minutes or so to eat the whole thing that my friend probably took almost a month to prepare. You might think that I am exaggerating, but if you are keen, you will notice the painstakingly insane uniformity of her food. The rice is perfect, the stuffed green peppers are perfect (they are in even shape and forms), the egg nets are perfect (hand swung into a hot wok using a magic combination of duck and hen eggs), the shrimp pastes are heavenly and perfectly balled, the shallots have some elegant tails and light coating of the egg batter, and the fruits and vegetables are truly sublime. This is the royal of the royal and I was too lucky to be there as I had, for too many times already, mentioned.
Sadly, my friend is not making these for sale. She used to do it (for sale) for two weeks when a top food magazine was ranking the country’s best Khao Chae. “I was just doing it for fun. I was curious how mine was going to be when compared to others,” she said not too long ago when I asked her for this blog post’s interview.
I have no idea how that magazine ranked the food made from the heart. I mean, looking at these stuff and I appreciate every bit of it. EVERY SINGLE BIT. I actually do not care if the shallots are of the same shapes and have the equal length of tails. Also, I give zero hoots about the lightness of the egg batter, that she intended to use au lieu the flour batter to showcase the beautiful red skin of the shallots. But then, I could feel the love. Eating this fabulous meal added into my stocks how great foods taste. I realised that I would have no idea how great a food can be if I have not tasted the best of it all.
So, if you think that experiences do not count when eating for a review, just go on, eat whatever you want, and stay ignorant. For me, having the experiences of the best food, best prepared are not just a tool (do I sound like a mechanic and not a food critic?) for me to compare this meal to others, but also an up-close, heart-to-heart effect I receive from the person who makes this fabulous meal. Thank you ka Phi Gung, for this lovely, lovely, and lovely Khao Chae. For me, yours are the best :D
Hope you are enjoying Thailand’s famous summer. :D