Sep 23 2013
Over the centuries, many Mon people have assimilated into Thai society, but isolated pockets of traditional Mon language, art and food persist. Perhaps the most noteworthy is Ko Kret, a four square-kilometre island that sits within the Chao Phraya river just north of Bangkok. In this refreshing enclave of countryside, fabulous Mon food can be scored at the riverside market.
We’d hardly stepped off the boat before stumbling on tort man pla, or savoury fried fish cakes with hints of curry, lemongrass, fingerroot and chilli plus deep fried kaffir lime leaves served on the side. Though the squishy bite-size cakes are popular throughout Thailand, the Mon of Ko Kret are known to produce particularly tasty ones that rely on locally grown ingredients. Along with a side of sweet and sour chilli sauce, a bulging bag cost us just 30 baht.
Many tort man pla vendors also sell deep-fried fermented eggs in a fish cake coating. Not-so-adventurous eaters might steer clear of this extremely pungent and salty delicacy that you won’t easily find elsewhere.
If you do give these fried fermented fishy eggs a shot, be sure to have a cool Thai iced tea or lemongrass, butterfly pea or sugarcane juice on hand to wash them down. Throughout the market, a range of beverages are served in traditional Mon earthen clay mugs that can be kept as souvenirs for an extra few baht.
Also in the deep-fried department, don’t miss dokmai tort, colourful arrangements of edible flowers and leaves stuffed into banana leaf bowls. Sold alongside the same spicy sweet and sour dipping sauce offered with tort man pla, the delicate bits are memorable mainly for the novelty of munching on flowers rather than any unforgettable flavours.
About midway through the market’s single narrow lane, the sublime scent of coconut treats being browned on skillets stopped us in our tracks. Known as khanom baa-bin, these mini pancake-esque snacks are created from a simple combination of rice flour, palm sugar, coconut milk and coconut meat. With just a hint of sweetness, they go great with coffee or tea.
For our main course, the intense scents of khanom jin tempted us into an open-air riverside restaurant. Often mistranslated as ‘Chinese snack’, the dish was actually created by Mon people who pounded twice boiled fermented rice into soft circular noodles as far back as the Ayutthaya era. In the Mon language, khan-om-jin translates as ‘twice boiled’. To top the noodles we chose nam-ya paa, a fish-based curry with no shortage of pungent spices, fish balls and tear-inducing heat from the chillies. Served with pickled cabbage and fresh holy basil, this Mon specialty is hugely popular in all corners of Thailand.
According to the locals, the number 0ne can’t-miss Mon dish at Ko Kret is khao shae, a mix of jasmine rice in icy water with a hint of fragrant jasmine flower. The dish is accompanied by stringy strands of pork, fish, shrimp paste, radish and green chilli that’s fried beforehand with sugar, egg and spices. Khao shae became popular among the higher echelons of Thai society when King Rama IV favoured it as a cool treat on hot days in the mid 19th century. The proper way to enjoy it is to sip a spoonful of the fragrant rice while chewing the meat and vegetable; the two elements should not be mixed together in the same bowl.
The Mon of Ko Kret are also famous for khanom wan, sweet and often colourful bite-size confections made from rice flour, coconut, palm sugar and other optional ingredients like mung bean, pandan leaf and corn, to name a few. Just across the river from Ko Kret, Khlong Khanom Wan is a canal flanked by old wood houses where families have been churning out the sweets for generations. Don’t fret if you miss out on a boat ride over to the canal; a dizzying array of khanom wan can also be found in Ko Kret market.
Ko Kret market stretches north from Wat Poramaiyikawat, less than 100 metres from where the ferry drops off at the island’s northeastern corner (see map). The narrow covered lane gets crowded at midday; we recommend traversing it on foot before renting a bicycle to explore the rest of the island. Though we’re partial to the outstanding Mon food, the market also features clothing, handmade health products, toys and the distinctive pottery that the Mon are known for.
The market is open from around 08:00 to 16:00 on Saturdays and Sundays only. Check out our previous post, Getting to Ko Kret from Bangkok, for info on the various transport options that can get you here.
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