Thai street fare finds a home
When the weekly food fest at Wat Thai Temple in North Hollywood was closed down almost two years ago because of neighbors’ complaints about crowds and parking, the culinary blogosphere went wild with texted groans lamenting the loss of its cherished Thai street-food purveyors. Even as Kogi and taco trucks propel curbside food vendors into the limelight, freshly made-to-order Thai street fare hasn’t taken root. The temple’s weekend eat-a-thon was beginning to change that as its fans discovered what all Thais know: The best street food vendors are true artisans.
They may sell from tiny pushcarts or open market stalls, but they’ve accumulated lifetimes of expertise perfecting single items -- a spectacular noodle dish or a to-die-for dessert. Which is why the reappearance of two former temple vendors is such welcome news.
On Saturdays and Sundays at the rear of the dining room of Cha Chaa restaurant on Sherman Way in North Hollywood, you’ll find a group of fascinated customers, from trim teens with humongous metallic handbags and dudes in baggy basketball shorts to grannies demurely dressed in their Sunday finest watching June Cramer make her khao giap bak maw. These savory filled dumplings, with their tissue-thin rice sheet covering are dubbed “mouth of the pot” because they’re cooked on a piece of muslin stretched over the top of a large steaming caldron.
It’s a rapid sleight-of-hand operation from a bowl of chalk-white rice flour batter to final dumpling. Cramer quickly swirls batter over the hot muslin’s surface, spreading it thinly before it congeals a few seconds later. She cuts the resulting crepe into pie-like quarters and, dropping a mound of filling on each, wraps them into tidy bundles with a brisk twist of the wrist. Too much heat makes a rubbery covering and melts the filling. But these dumplings almost dissolve in your mouth.
Cramer says the prototype for her snacks came from inventive chefs in the ancient Thai palace kitchens who were constantly challenged to amuse the royal palates. Her vegetarian filling tastes amazingly like the traditional pork version, yet it’s simply a mix of crushed roasted peanuts, sauteed daikon, onions and an aromatic balance of seasonings.
The same filling goes into sa koo, another dumpling whose exterior is a walnut-size ball of slightly chewy translucent steamed tapioca. Many customers buy an order containing half of each. Served on ruffly lettuce leaves with a bit of cilantro, their garnish of a few fiery phrik khii nuu peppers gives a bright flavor blast to the savory, nutty caramelized onion filling.
In the sweltering Thai equatorial heat nothing refreshes better than a crushed ice drink, so Cramer makes ruam mit, a shimmery, jewel-like rainbow of fruits and other goodies in a creamy liquid known colloquially as “everything gets along together well.”
Ruby- and emerald-colored tapioca-covered water chestnut pieces, an essential component, requires a multi-step process. Cramer moistens tiny chestnut bits with red or green fruity syrup, then tosses them in tapioca flour until she deems their consistency perfect (measuring is unfamiliar to this skilled cook). The edible jewels get poached in simmering water until “they look right” before they’re cooled in water and added to the drink.
Cramer, 63, married to a retired television technician, arrived in L.A. 20 years ago from Chai-Nat province, about two hours from Bangkok. From a family of passionate cooks, she learned at an early age to make her special treats -- which Thais ordinarily buy from vendors -- when her mother and aunties would prepare them for celebrations and holidays.
No stranger to the restaurant business, Cramer owned Silom restaurant (now Bua Siam) in the same mall as Cha Chaa for about five years and then Boon Choo on Vanowen. But now, she says, she’s working on her “retirement plan” as a devoted weekend specialist.
Across the aisle from Cramer, almost hidden by stacked boxes of mangoes, works Lampai Poomsuke, who sold her sticky rice desserts at Thai temple events for 25 years. This youthful-seeming woman recently celebrated her 61st birthday, and throughout the afternoon, she exchanges pleasantries and gossip with a constant flow of regulars as they line up for their fix of her goodies.
“Her sticky rice is even better than at most places in Thailand,” attests customer Apple Richard, who was born in Thailand.
Poomsuke, who moved to L.A. from a Bangkok suburb in 1969 when she was just 20, says she never cooked as a young girl. Kitchen tasks were left to her mother and four older sisters. But the self-described “picky eater” says that when she moved here she learned to cook to please her own palate.
Poomsuke pairs the coconut-infused rice with mangoes, of course, but it’s also a base for other desserts, including a durian-topped version. And she makes black sticky rice too, just as the dessert rice vendors would in Thailand.
To her right, several huge pans of raw rice soak for hours before they’re steamed in a conical woven bamboo basket inserted into a narrow-necked pot. A veil of moisture slowly and thoroughly permeates the separate grains. “You cannot boil sticky rice,” Poomsuke says. “Too much water turns it to mush, too little, it stays hard.”
Between customers Poomsuke sits patiently peeling mangoes by hand. Only the small Manila variety will do. Though expensive, their silky texture and exceptional sweetness are preferred, and they’re available year-round.
Set out on a table, rectangular baking dishes hold sangkaya, the sumptuous Thai coconut milk-egg custard that will be cut into slabs as a topping for the rice. An alternate custard style is embedded with squares of kabocha squash, which adds its own mellow sweetness. The custard, steamed inside a whole kabocha squash, then cut into slices, is one of Poomsuke’s most popular desserts.
Each week brings new variations. Khao niaw dam sangkaya, nutty deep-purple “black” rice topped with the custard, truly has no equal.
Many may miss the Thai temple’s food court, but on weekend days they can still get a taste of it here.
Cha Chaa restaurant, 12936 Sherman Way, North Hollywood, (818) 503-8884. Food sellers work from 11 a.m. to about 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Sticky rice with mangoes
Total time: 35 to 50 minutes, plus soaking times for the rice
Note: This recipe is adapted from one by Nancie McDermott in her book “Real Vegetarian Thai.” She recommends the slender Thai oke loeng mangoes, which are unavailable here, but vendor Lampai Poomsuke finds Manila mangoes equally delicious. Long-grain sticky rice, also called glutinous or sweet rice, can be found at most Asian markets. Two good brands of canned coconut milk are Mae Ploy (which is creamier) and Chao Koh (which has a delightful natural sweetness). Both are widely available in our Asian markets. This recipe calls for a Thai bamboo steamer, available at Thai markets and many Asian markets; a regular steamer can be substituted, but its use will affect the final texture of the rice and the time it takes to cook. Tua tong (mung bean centers) are a traditional garnish; toast a handful in a small skillet until lightly browned. Tua tong are available at Asian markets.
1 1/2 cups long-grain raw sticky rice
2 1/4 cups unsweetened coconut milk, divided
1 cup sugar
2 1/2 teaspoons salt, divided
Ripe, sweet mangoes for garnish, peeled and sliced
Tua tong (mung bean centers), toasted, for garnish
1. Prepare the rice: Soak the rice in water to cover for at least 3 hours, up to overnight. (The longer the rice soaks, the less time it will take to steam.)
2. Drain the rice and transfer to a bamboo steaming basket designed for cooking sticky rice suspended over a pot of boiling water. (Alternatively, steam the rice in a cheesecloth-lined steamer basket or colander suspended over boiling water. Place the rice in an even layer in the steamer basket for even steaming.)
3. Wait for the steam to begin rising through the rice, then cover the rice with a damp, thin kitchen towel, folded to completely cover the rice. Gently cover the rice (do not press down the towel) and reduce the heat to maintain a steady flow of steam. Have a pot or kettle of simmering water on the side to add as necessary to maintain the water for steaming. Steam the rice until it swells, glistens and can be molded into small, cohesive balls; the rice will be just tender (be careful not to overcook). Cooking time will vary from about 25 to 40 minutes depending on the cooking vessel and soaking time for the rice.
4. While the rice is cooking, combine 2 cups of the coconut milk in a saucepan with the sugar and 2 teaspoons salt. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and pour the mixture into a heat-proof cup or bowl. Set aside.
5. In the same pan, heat the remaining coconut milk to a gentle boil. Add the remaining salt and continue to cook and gently stir for about 3 minutes or until coconut milk thickens slightly. Remove from heat and pour into a heat-proof cup or bowl. Set aside.
6. Turn out the steamed rice into a large bowl. Pour the sweetened coconut milk over it and stir gently but well to incorporate thoroughly. Loosely cover the bowl and set aside, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is absorbed by the rice, 30 minutes to an hour. This makes a scant 4 cups rice.
7. Serve the rice slightly warm or at room temperature. Mound the sticky rice into each of 6 serving bowls or plates and garnish with sliced mango and toasted tua tong, if using.
Each serving: 505 calories; 6 grams protein; 82 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 19 grams fat; 16 grams saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 982 mg. sodium.
Thai coconut-egg custard (sangkaya)
Total time: 35 minutes, plus cooling time for the cream
Servings: 6 to 8
Note: Adapted from “It Rains Fishes,” by San Diego author and cooking teacher Kasma Loha-Unchit. One traditional way to serve this is cooked in the center of a kabocha squash. Coconut cream, palm sugar and coconut sugar can be found at Thai and most Asian markets. Coconut cream will also rise to the top of good-quality chilled coconut milk; skim the thick cream from the top and reserve the milk for another use. Bai dteuy can be found at Thai markets.
1 cup thick coconut cream
1 cup palm sugar or coconut sugar
1/4 teaspoon bai dteuy (pandanus leaf essence), optional
1. In a medium saucepan, heat the coconut cream and sugar over medium heat just long enough to dissolve the sugar and blend with the cream, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and pour the mixture into a medium bowl to cool to room temperature.
2. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs until blended. Whisk in the essence if using, then whisk in the cooled coconut cream mixture until thoroughly incorporated.
3. Strain the mixture through a dampened muslin cloth or fine wire mesh strainer into an oiled 8-inch square baking dish.
4. Place the dish in an Asian steamer set over simmering water and cover. Alternatively, place the custard on a rack set over simmering water in a large roasting pan and cover. Steam over medium-high heat until the custard is set (a knife inserted near the center should come out clean), about 20 minutes. Remove from heat.
5. Serve custard in serving bowls or cut into slices, 3 inches by about one-half inch thick, on top of sticky rice with coconut milk (see accompanying recipe).
Each of 8 servings: 272 calories; 4 grams protein; 44 grams carbohydrates; 0 fiber; 9 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 132 mg. cholesterol; 67 mg. sodium.
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