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BANGKOK — We scoop the rice into our bowls, every grain separate yet without the tell-tale slick of oil. There is a floral – no, it’s more smoky than floral, surely – fragrance.
Then we pour cold water on top of the rice. Water perfumed with summer flowers. And then we add ice.
What on earth are we doing?
Given the sweltering weather, does it matter if the end result can cool us down? The evenings are inundated with thunderstorms but the mornings and afternoons are humid, hot, almost unbearable. In KL, this is searing and stifling. Our torrid tropical climate.
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In Bangkok, it’s merely another day during summer. And the peak of the oppressive heat surely culminates in this week, Songkran week.
Yes, Songkran, the celebrated Thai New Year festival where it’s customary for Thais to politely splash each other with a little water as a blessing – or for foreign visitors in Bangkok to engage in raucous water fights in the streets of Silom.
Alas, the latter won’t be possible this year given the pandemic and travel restrictions. But there are other ways to ring in the Thai New Year.
Instead of a splash of icy-cold water, how about cooling down with a spoonful of icy-cool khao chae (literally Thai for “rice soaked in water”)?
But what is khao chae?
Legend has it the dish was brought by the Mon people when they came to Thailand during the reign of King Rama II. Another story has Chao Chom Manda Sonklin, the wife of King Rama IV, who shared her recipe for khao chae with the palace kitchen staff, thus making it a royal dish.
If the second story is true, that would explain why for the longest time, khao chae was considered part of royal Thai cuisine and not available to the general public.
Fortunately for us today, you don’t have to be a member of the aristocracy to enjoy khao chae. This dish is particularly popular during the Thai summer months, which runs from April to June, and especially during Songkran.
There are several essential parts to khao chae. The first, of course, is the rice which has to be rinsed several times to remove excess starch. Rather than ordinary jasmine rice, which is deemed to be too soft, a harder rice called khao taa haeng is used.
To make flower-scented water, fresh jasmine blossoms are added to a pot of water. What’s more, a small flower-scented candle is lit and left to float on the surface of the water. This allows the natural fragrance of the flowers and the candle – both floral and smoky – to infuse into the water.
The elaborate and laborious process continues by steaming the grains of khao taa haeng in this scented water, reserving some of that perfumed water to serve at the table, chilled with ice cubes.
Of course, it doesn’t end there. While the rice, water and ice form the basic trinity of khao chae, the dish isn’t complete without the accompaniment of some traditional sides.
These include prik yuak sot sai, which are stuffed sweet peppers wrapped in an egg lace; luk kapi, balls of shrimp paste seasoned with palm sugar and wild ginger; nuea foi or shredded and sweetened beef floss; chaipo phat khai, sweet pickled Chinese turnips with eggs; and hom daeng yat sai or stuffed shallots.
The side dishes vary from restaurant to restaurant, from household to household. Some restaurants serve khao chae in larger platters, to mimic the traditional way of serving at home for families rather than individuals.
As with many elements of Thai culture, there is a certain etiquette that has to be followed. Sure, you could argue that so long as you have paid for your meal, you can enjoy it however you wish. There is perhaps some truth to that.
But you would be poorer for that belligerence – for there is a pleasure in doing things the proper way, the way it has been done traditionally, not for dogmatic reasons but to experience a culture different from yours in a deeper manner.
Plus, it’s polite. Showing respect to the host country where you are a guest or to the origins of a dish you’re eating is asking so little of ourselves yet offers so much in return. We regard others how we ourselves wish to be regarded.
So let us have fun learning how to eat khao chae the way the Thais do. To begin, rather than filling our bowl of rice to the brim, perhaps take it easy: a third full is sufficient. The idea isn’t to gorge ourselves silly.
Next we pour some chilled jasmine-infused water to cover the rice grains before adding a few ice cubes. This helps cool and perfume the candle-smoked rice further.
The fragrant flower-scented water can be made with other flowers other than jasmine; some restaurants use rose petals while others opt for more local bread flowers (dok chommanat).
We should never mix our rice and side dishes together in our bowl. Instead, first have a few nibbles of the various side dishes. Then a spoonful of the rice, then a sip of the floral scented water.
Repeat, alternating between the sides and the rice. Cleanse your palate with more sips of the fragrant rice water as well as a couple of bites of the raw vegetables – fresh cucumber and wild ginger are commonly included here, as they help balance the heavier flavours of the sometimes greasy sides.
There is a profusion of colour, and not only from the seductive side dishes and fresh, crunchy vegetables. Sometimes two types of grains are used for the scented rice, with one coloured naturally with blue pea flowers (dok anchan).
How beautiful. How sublime.
Yes, sublime. For this dining experience, both so traditional and so contemporary (ice cubes in rice soaked in water! how astonishingly brilliant!), feels sacred.
This ritual humbles us, connecting us with all the generations that came before us who have also known the pleasures of khao chae, those who had tasted its delicate flavour, those whose dreams had been perfumed by jasmine and smoke.
Let us join them this summer, and sup on rice soaked in water, and savour a brief taste of Songkran.
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