Catching the tail end of the summertime rice festival

Last-minute types have probably delayed rushing off to S&P or a twee Thai café to partake of the hot season tradition of summertime rice, or khao chae.

It’s not that it’s a burden per se, it’s just not the type of Thai dish that sends all the boys rushing to its backyard, if you know what I mean. You don’t? What I’m saying is that khao chae is, at best, an acquired taste, best appreciated when the heat is in the low 40s and Bangkok feels like an oven slowly steaming everyone alive.

Like Songkhran’s water festival, summertime rice is a welcome antidote to the dog-day doldrums.

Adapted from the Mon folk of the Irrawaddy, summertime rice was originally a simple bowl of rice in perfumed, cold water served alongside a few deep-fried accompaniments. But as with nearly every other cultural import, Thais have “elevated” the dish to a visual – as well as culinary – demonstration of the cook’s kitchen prowess. Hence the song-and-dance with the rice, which must be polished to ensure the water stays clear. The sweet-smelling jasmine blossoms and rose petalsmay not taste particularly good, but they add a nice perfume to the bowl.

Summertime rice at Hot Shoppe on Sukhumvit 41. Photo: Baan Prachachuen

Intricate netting around the banana pepper, which is stuffed with minced pork, shows off the cook’s dexterity. As does the uniformity of the kapi (shrimp paste) balls, which are rolled in a little coconut to mask the fishiness of the paste. Another hallmark are the finely carved vegetables and fruits, meant to freshen the breath and cool the palate. Add shredded, dried beef or pork; deep-fried shallots stuffed with minced fish; and stir-fried preserved cabbage with egg, and you get an elaborate dish with many components, requiring a lot of time and labor to complete.

It’s a dish that is the “anti-Thai” for a lot of people: not spicy, not tart, no undertow of fishy funk  just a sensation of coolness  with a slight tinge of room freshener and the crunch and crackle of some deep-fried bits that also happen to be quite sweet. It can be a bit of a headscratcher for Thai food fans who haven’t grown up with it, or like me, seen it on the menu every summer for the past 10 years.

At first, I used to greet every “summertime rice festival” with a great big “Meh.” Now I look forward to it, if only because it means that soon we will see the end of the hot season and start of the rains.

At the moment, khao chae remains a lunchtime staple, served at just about every “old-style” Thai restaurant in the city, as well as at S&P. For arguably the best rendition, you might want to head to old-fashioned favorite Lai Ros (120/7-5 Sukhumvit Soi 49), where summertime rice is so popular that it’s served year round.

 


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