Summer is approaching in Thailand and that means it’s time for the ultimate Thai summer treat: khao chae, a delicacy consisting of rice and several side dishes. Directly translated, ‘khao chae’ means ‘rice floating in water’ but it is so much more than that; it’s a complicated dish with origins in the court of King Rama II where it was invented as a relief from the scorching heat.
The main components of khao chae is the rice and the iced, scented water in which it is soaked. The water is scented with jasmine overnight and then smoked with a fragrant candle to achieve a characteristic aroma.
The right way to eat khao chae is by scooping a little of the boiled rice into a bowl, followed by enough cold, scented water to cover. Do not heap all the side dishes into the bowl as everything will end up soggy and the elaborate flavours will mix together. Instead, nibble each of the side dishes and follow with the soupy, scented rice.
Khao chae is only served for a short period of time, from around mid March to late April. Most of Bangkok’s large hotels put on special offers for khao chae during the season but it is also worth checking out smaller Thai restaurants for this classic summer treat.
Savory side dishes vary from household to household but the most common are small balls made from fried shrimp or fish paste; bell pepper stuffed with minced chicken and shrimp; sweet shredded pork or beef, pickled turnips stir fried with eggs, deep fried shallots stuffed with fish, salted egg. Pictured are: pickled cabbage with shallots, dried shrimps, chili and salted egg.
Most of the khao chae dishes are sweet and these little bites are no exception. On top are shallots, stuffed with ground cat fish and then deep fried in batter. The dark discs are made from grilled fish made into a paste with palm sugar and shrimp paste. The small balls are made from shrimp paste.
Sweet, dried pork topped with crispy shallots.
The water in which to soak the rice is scented and smoked overnight with jasmine and candle and cooled with ice just before serving.
Cantaloupe, honey melon and water melon served with sugar, dried fish and shrimps and crispy shallots. The salty, dried shrimps go well with the sweetness of the fruit.
Pickled Chinese turnips fried with egg. The turnips are slightly sweet and are sometimes even fried with a bit of sugar to add gloss.
Thai traditional fruit and vegetable carving — an important embellishment of khao chae — dates back to the 14th century when it was invented during the Loi Krathong Festival as decorations for the krathongs. Common fruits and vegetables include carrots, pumpkin, mango and cucumber. The pepper is stuffed with minced pork and shrimp, steamed and then coated with a net made from egg.
Some restaurants also serve coconut ice cream as part of khao chae as a way of finishing the meal on a sweet note.
The complete khao chae set, beautifully decorated with elaborate fruit and vegetable carving and a traditional flower arrangement.