Walk through just about any authentic food market in Thailand and you’ll notice vendors selling plump portions of something hidden under hearty dark banana or bamboo leaf wrappers. Sometimes (as I once found out unwittingly) these leaves contain grilled fish or fish curry cakes, but more often than not a sweet or savoury sticky rice treat emerges from beneath the wrapper.
Thais have been crafting these traditional treats since at least the Sukhothai era, and while they come in many varieties, the most well-known are probably khao niaow bing. Some individuality is involved in creating khao niaow bing – they come in many shapes and sizes including stumpy pyramids and long rounded rods — but all contain sticky rice (khao niaow) that’s been heated with coconut milk to add a subtle sweetness and moistness to the glutinous grain. The rice is then wrapped around a sweet ingredient — banana, taro and sweet black bean are usual favourites — before being fire roasted on a grill. While cooking, the banana leaf wrapper adds an earthy undertone.
If done right, the end result is an addictive hunk of goodness with a slightly sweet flavour, soft texture and toasty outside. Personally, I like my khao niaow bing on the well done side; not only does this make it taste better (in my opinion), it also renders the rice less sticky to the touch. If you’re lucky enough to catch a perfectly cooked khao niaow bing hot off the grill, the warm and gooey inside and crisp, fire-roasted outside can honestly be a highlight of a trip. At least, it was for me when I bumped into the master who sets up in far south Thailand’s Satun night market.
Similar to khao niaow bing but each with its own distinct characteristics, several other sweet sticky rice sweets can be found in most markets. Khanom jat typically consists of strips of coconut meat mixed with sticky rice flour and wrapped in a particular long and narrow palm-like leaf called pai jat before being grilled. Khao lam also contains sticky rice tempered with coconut, but usually with the addition of peanut and sweet black bean, all of which is stuffed inside hollow strips of bamboo and grilled over open coals. The roasted bamboo adds a distinct smokiness, and khao lam were once a favoured travel food of Thai soldiers and explorers.
Then there’s khao thom mat, which is similar to khao niao bing in terms of internal ingredients, but is steamed rather than grilled and is virtually always found with two pieces tied together by strips of coconut husk. Thanks to the “two in one package”, khao thom mat are a staple food at Thai weddings, where they’re said to bring good luck to the newly joined couple. In terms of texture, however, the steaming makes for a gooier and messier eating experience than the grilled khao niao bing.
While the majority of Thai sticky rice treats contain coconut or some other type of sweet ingredient, not all are made to satisfy the sweet tooth. One popular breakfast food that was first adapted by the Chinese in Thailand is khanom pat jang, which includes a mix of sticky rice, grilled pork and spices along with added ingredients dependent on the preference of the chef such as pork sausage, preserved duck egg, shiitake mushroom, sweet bean, taro, and gingko biloba. In khanom pat jang, ingredients are kneaded together into fist-size pyramids before being wrapped up in bamboo leaves and steamed. The result is a savoury snack that’s filling enough to be a lunch all by itself.
And there are many more treats, such as the sweet pudding-like coconut and rice flour bites called khanom tieng, the sweet and savoury specialty that features strips of fried pork atop a mound of plain sticky rice known as khao niaow moo tort, and a grilled sticky rice snack found in south Thailand that looks just like khao niaow bing but contains a peppery filling of curried crab or shrimp. Now that you know the basics of these authentic Thai snacks, why not head out to a real Thai market to see, and taste first-hand what surprises are hiding under those leaves?
By David Luekens
Last updated on 28th July, 2012.