Around the World in 80 Plates: Chiang Mai, Thailand

From so many years ago, a blur of dazzling colors remains imprinted on my retinas, a full rainbow of garments and glittering jewelry reflected the fading sunlight, from each of the multitude of hawker stalls crowding the streets. Tidal waves of chatter, music, blaring car horns, all ebbed and flowed together, underscoring each scene with a certain frenetic energy. Sensory overload was the name of the game, with every last merchant competing fiercely to capture your undivided attention. Most memorable, however, was that oppressive heat. Covered by fabric tents and makeshift wooden plank ceilings, the sun was not the culprit- The humidity was unlike anything I had ever known. It felt as if the whole city was underwater, and we swam from place to place through the thick, hot air, much like the moist breath of a dragon, breathing down your neck. This was Bangkok, Thailand, my one and only experience with the country, and it was only a six-hour layover at that. If simply flitting about a nearby market left such an impression, I can only imagine what it would be like to explore deeper into the heart of the country. Thanks to my sweet culinary expedition, I can at least get a small taste, as we’re destined for Chiang Mai, Thailand today.

Thailand doesn’t have nearly the same sort of dessert culture as European countries, but that’s not to say that there’s not a sweet tooth to be found. Rather, sugary snacks are more common instead of an after dinner aperitif. A bounty of exotic fruits are always close at hand, so many of those more traditional treats put them to good use. In this case, it was the simple mango that captured my heart; a tender, tangy, and juicy topping to the rich coconut-infused sticky rice known as Khao Neeo Mamuang.

A tropical take on the rice pudding I already know and love, mango sticky rice is comfort food, straight and simple. Though something I’d gladly shovel down with gusto on a normal day, that wouldn’t quite cut it for this sweet challenge. Digging into my drawer of baking tricks, I found a long forgotten bottle of pandan extract and jumped at the opportunity to finally put it to use. Admittedly, because I can be nothing but brutally honest with you, my dear readers, this is a horrible representation of the flavor. I’ll be the first to say that I was not a fan. That artificial neon green is just part of the package, but it needn’t be so lurid with a fresher source. Next time, I would gladly go a different route and try making a more refreshing mint-flavored gelee instead, by steeping a big handful of fresh mint leaves in the water before setting it with agar. A green tint could always be added with a splash of spinach juice, if you really need the visual cue.

Although I really didn’t get a chance to experience true Thai culture, I’m looking forward to seeing it through the eyes of the chefs on Around the World in 80 Plates, coming up this Wednesday 10/9c on Bravo.

Mango Sticky Rice Parfaits

Pandan Gelee:

2 1/4 Cups Water
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Agar Agar Powder
1 1/2 – 2 Teaspoons Pandan Extract

Coconut Sticky Rice:

1 1/2 Cups Uncooked Glutinous Rice
2 Cups Water
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 14-Ounce Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/2 Cup Light Agave Nectar

Coconut Sauce:

2/3 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
Pinch Salt
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1 Tablespoon Coconut Oil
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Sesame Brittle:

1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Light Corn Syrup or Light Agave Nectar
1/4 Cup Water
1/3 Cup Toasted White Sesame Seeds
1 Tablespoon Black Sesame Seeds
1 Tablespoon Non-Dairy Margarine or Coconut Oil


2 Ripe Mangos, Peeled and Diced Small

Begin with the gelee so it has time to set. Simply with the water, sugar, agar, and extract together in a medium saucepan until there are no lumps or clumps remaining, and set it over medium heat. Bring it up to a lively boil, whisking frequently as it comes up to temperature, and turn off the heat. Carefully pour the hot liquid mixture into the bottoms of 8 – 10 4-ounce glasses, distributing it evenly between them, to fill about a centimeter up the glass. To achieve the slanted gelee layer as photographed, lean the glasses between two stacks of heavy plates or books, like so:

Make sure that they’re securely wedged and not liable to roll around at all before proceeding. No matter what angle you set the gelee at, prepare the glasses in a place where they won’t be disturbed for at least an hour while the agar works its gelling magic. Let cool completely at room temperature until the gelee is firmly in place.

Meanwhile, you can prepare the sticky rice. Another easy affair; just combine the rice, water, and salt in a medium saucepan and set over moderate heat on the stove. Once the water comes up to a boil, reduce the heat all the way down to low, cover, and let cook for 15 – 20 minutes, until all of the liquid has been absorbed. If the pot threatens to bubble over, move it so that it’s only partially over the flame, and periodically rotate it so that all areas get direct heat at one point or another. Once cooked, mix in the coconut milk and agave, cover again, and let it cool and absorb those new flavors.

For the sauce, vigorously whisk together the coconut milk, agave, salt, cornstarch, and ginger in a small saucepan, being careful to beat out any clumps of starch. Set over medium-low heat, and whisk gently until the mixture comes up to a boil. Turn off the heat before adding the coconut oil and vanilla, stirring until the oil melts and is thoroughly incorporated. Cool to room temperature before chilling thoroughly.

Finally, for the last component that needs preparation, set a silpat or piece of parchment paper off to the side of your stove for easy access. Place the sugar, corn syrup or agave, and water in a medium saucepan (I hope you’ve been washing the same one out; this would make for a whole lot of pans in the sink by now!) over moderate heat, and stir just to moisten all of the dry sugar. Do not stir from this point forward, but gently swirl the pan periodically to keep things moving. Once the mixture comes to a boil and the sugar has dissolved, insert a candy thermometer and cook until it reaches between 290 – 300 degrees. Working quickly, remove the thermometer and dump in both types of sesame seeds along with the margarine or coconut oil. Grab your spatula again and stir until the seeds are well incorporated and the margarine/oil has melted. Pour the liquid sesame-sugar mix onto the center of your prepared silpat or parchment, and let it spread out naturally. Cool completely before snapping into pieces.

To finish the parfaits, spoon sticky rice into the gelee-lined glasses, almost up to the top. Drizzle 1 – 2 tablespoons of the coconut sauce over the top, and mound a generous scoop of diced mango over that. Chill thoroughly before serving, and crown each serving with a piece of sesame brittle right before digging in.

Serves 8 – 10

Printable Recipe

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