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A Welcome Table : A kantoke dinner to ring in the Thai new year.

Northern Thailand’s kantoke dinner is a food lover’s dream--a collection of more dishes than you would ever order on your own.

If you tour a northern city like Chiangmai, you will probably spend one night in a large hall that stages Thai dance performances, accompanied by kantoke dinners. You will sit on the floor, jammed in with scores of other travelers, and your entire menu will be placed before you on a low round table. (Kantoke is the Thai word for this table.) You will have soup, salad, meat, chicken and/or seafood, dips and a vegetable, accompanied by rice and dessert.

If you eat it all, you can ask for more. At least that’s the way it will be at Chao Krung restaurant in Los Angeles, which will stage kantoke dinners Friday and Saturday. The occasion is Songkran, a festival that celebrates the Thai new year. The official holiday is Saturday, but Thais celebrate for more than one day. Along with visiting temples and feasting, they play water games, a welcome custom because April is extremely hot in Thailand.

The games are simultaneously restrained and raucous. Scented water is sprinkled respectfully onto the hands of elders, who then return a few drops as a blessing. Enthusiastic young merrymakers, on the other hand, may splash friends--and anyone who gets in the way--until they are soaked.

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In Thailand, the best Songkran celebration is said to be that of Chiangmai, and Chao Krung’s kantoke menu will center around Chiangmai dishes. One is nam prik ong, a dip composed of ground meat and tomatoes with a strong undertone of shrimp paste. Another is larb, a ground meat salad that is brightly seasoned with lime juice, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves. Larb is also popular in northeastern Thailand. There the meat may be only partly cooked, and the flavor spicy and strong compared to Chiangmai’s mild rendition.

Thais eat these mixtures with their fingers, molding sticky rice into small balls to use as scoops. Chao Krung will serve both sticky rice and regular steamed rice, along with decoratively carved raw vegetables to munch on as cool contrast. (There will be cutlery too, for those not agile with fingers.)

Other dishes planned for the festival are hot-and-sour chicken soup; barbecued chicken; musman curry, which is a mild, sweet Muslim curry; and a vegetable mixture combined with shrimp and crab. The food will be served on large round footed trays of ornately patterned silvery aluminum, designed to simulate traditional kantoke tables.

The last kantoke dinner I attended in Chiangmai ended with rice cakes sweetened with a sticky brown glaze. Chao Krung will offer a far more elite dessert, khanom yokmanee, which is considered fit for a royal household. Tinted pastel pink, yellow and green, these soft coconut-sprinkled sago cakes have a distinctive, smoky flavor imparted by an aromatic candle. Another classic Thai dessert, sticky rice topped with the soft coconut custard called sankhaya, will also be served.

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Kantoke dinners are typically accompanied by dance performances. At Chao Krung, the dinners will benefit a newly formed group, the Performing Arts of Thai Classical Dances, which will provide entertainment.

The dinners are scheduled for 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Chao Krung is at 111 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. Call (213) 939-8361 for reservations. The price is $25.

MUSSAMAN CURRY

The name of this curry, which is also spelled matsaman or musman, indicates its Muslim origin. In Thailand, it is often made with beef. Do not overcook the potato or it will make the dish mushy. Use either a russet potato or, for firmer texture, a white potato. Mussaman curry paste is sold in Thai and Asian markets; its flavor is milder than that of many curry pastes, more Indian in character than hot and spicy Thai.

2 tablespoons mussaman curry paste

1/2 (14-ounce) can coconut milk

2 pounds boneless chicken, cut into 2-inch chunks

2 tablespoons fish sauce

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1 tablespoon sugar

1 large potato, peeled and cut into 6 chunks, cooked separately

Combine curry paste and coconut milk in saucepan. Bring to boil. Add chicken, cover and simmer until done, about 40 minutes. Stir in fish sauce and sugar. When ready to serve, add cooked potato and heat.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

323 calories; 569 mg sodium; 92 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber.

Ground Chicken Dip (NAM PRIK ONG)

In Chiangmai, Nam Prik Ong might be made with ground pork. Chao Krung’s version substitutes chicken.

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2 tomatoes, chopped

3 dried red California chiles, stems and seeds removed

1/2 red onion, cut in chunks

1 clove garlic

2 to 3 teaspoons tomato paste

1/2 teaspoon Thai shrimp paste

3 tablespoons oil

1/2 pound ground chicken

1 1/2 tablespoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons sugar

1/4 teaspoon hot chile powder, or more to taste

1/4 teaspoon salt

Easy Sticky Rice, optional

Assorted raw vegetables (cucumber cabbage wedges, cauliflower florets, green beans, Thai eggplant, carrot strips), optional

Combine tomatoes, chiles, onion, garlic, tomato paste and shrimp paste in sheet of foil. Fold to close securely. Roast over burner until aromatic but not burned, about 3 minutes. Grind roasted ingredients in food processor.

Heat wok. When hot, add oil, then add chicken and ground ingredients. Cook and stir until chicken is cooked and oil emerges, about 5 minutes. Add fish sauce, sugar, chile powder and salt; stir to mix well.

Turn into serving bowl. Accompany with Sticky Rice and assorted raw vegetables.

Makes about 2 cups.

Each tablespoon, without Sticky Rice and vegetable garnish, contains about:

22 calories; 56 mg sodium; 4 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 1 gram carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.11 gram fiber.

Chicken Larb (LARB KAI)

1 pound ground chicken

Water

1/2 red onion, chopped

2 tablespoons sliced green onion

3 tablespoons fish sauce

3 tablespoons lime juice

2 teaspoons ground roasted rice

1/2 teaspoon sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground dry red chile

2 double kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

Easy Sticky Rice, optional

Assorted raw vegetables (cucumber cabbage wedges, cauliflower florets, green beans, Thai eggplant, carrot strips), optional

To make the ground roasted rice called for, roast long-grain rice in a dry skillet over medium heat until golden. Cool, then grind in a spice grinder or blender.

Place chicken in saucepan and add water to cover. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer until chicken is cooked through, 7 to 10 minutes, turning to cook evenly.

Drain chicken and turn into bowl. Add red onion, green onion, fish sauce, lime juice, roasted rice, sugar, ground chile and lime leaves. Mix well. Top with cilantro. Serve with Sticky Rice and assorted raw vegetables.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Each of 4 servings, without Easy Sticky Rice and vegetable garnish, contains about:

83 calories; 551 mg sodium; 40 mg cholesterol; 2 grams fat; 3 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 0.15 gram fiber.

EASY STICKY RICE

Chao Krung owner Supa Kuntee says the easy way to cook a small quantity of sticky rice is in the microwave oven. At the restaurant, the rice is steamed.

1 cup sticky (glutinous) rice

Water

Place rice in bowl. Cover with warm water and soak 30 minutes. Drain. Return to bowl. Add 1 1/2 cups cold water. Cover with plastic wrap and microwave on high 10 minutes.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

74 calories; 0 sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 17 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.07 gram fiber.

Barbecued Chicken (CHAO KRUNG KAI YANG)

Many Thai dishes are seasoned with cilantro roots ground with garlic and pepper. In American stores, bunches of cilantro seldom include the roots, so it is necessary to substitute the stems. Jars of pickled plums from China and garlic heads in brine, packed in Thailand, are stocked at Thai markets.

PLUM SAUCE

1/2 cup canned pineapple chunks

3 preserved pickled plums, drained

5 heads whole garlic pickled in brine, drained

2 cloves fresh garlic

1/2 teaspoon ground dried red chile

1 cup vinegar

1/2 cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

Puree pineapple, plums, garlic heads, garlic cloves and ground chile in food processor or blender. Combine with vinegar, sugar and salt in saucepan. Bring to boil. Cook and stir over low heat until thickened. Makes about 2 cups.

CHICKEN

Roots or stems from 1 bunch cilantro

5 cloves garlic

1 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons seasoned soy sauce, such as Golden Mountain

2 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 tablespoons oil

1 chicken, cut into serving pieces

Combine cilantro roots or stems, garlic, pepper, sugar, seasoned and light soy sauces and oil in food processor; grind to paste. Mix with chicken and let stand 30 minutes. Grill chicken over coals until done, 30 to 45 minutes, depending on size of pieces. Serve with Plum Sauce.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

235 calories; 1,852 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 7 grams fat; 42 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.28 gram fiber.

Seafood and Vegetables (PAD PAK TALAY)

1 1/2 cups broken up cauliflower florets

1 carrot, cut into short sticks

1 to 2 tablespoons oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 pound medium or large shrimp, shelled and deveined

1 cup imitation crab or crab pieces

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 teaspoon light soy sauce

Chunks of imitation crab add color to this light and easy dish. Another idea is to shred the crab, mixing it evenly with the vegetables and shrimp.

Drop cauliflower and carrot into boiling water. Cook until crisp-tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Heat oil in wok. Remove wok from heat and add garlic. Stir until garlic is yellow. Return to heat, add shrimp and crab, and stir-fry until shrimp are pink.

Add cauliflower and carrot. Add oyster sauce and soy sauce and stir until blended.

Makes 3 to 4 servings.

Each of 4 servings contains about:

179 calories; 595 mg sodium; 132 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 8 grams carbohydrates; 22 grams protein; 0.71 gram fiber.


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