A few years ago I was in Bangkok, suffering from some tremendously awful jetlag. After a full, hard day of work in a foreign and unfamiliar kitchen, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep so around 1am I gave up and decided to explore. I caught a cab and told the driver to take me to the Flower Market (Pak Khlong Talat) which I read doesn’t really get hopping until 2am or later. If I couldn’t sleep, at least I’d see part of the city as my sight seeing had been pretty limited up to that point.
He dropped me off on a corner and waved rather haphazardly at some streets to the right so I started walking. For so late on a weeknight, the area was bustling. Lots of people of all ages were out and about, shopping, eating and socializing. I saw little bunches of flowers here and there but felt like I was missing something. Was I in the right place? I didn’t want to seem like the obvious tourist so I discreetly consulted my map, got my bearings and headed in what I thought was the right direction.
Suddenly, I turned a corner and there it was. WOW. Row after row of small shops had their metal gates rolled up and were packed, PACKED to the gills, with brightly colored flowers. Dozens of roses in fat bunches wrapped in newspaper were in buckets spilling across the sidewalks and into the streets. Another shop had nothing but orchids, in all shades natural and unnatural, in tall stacks. Another shop had beautiful potted tropical flowers, in colors and varieties I’d never seen before. Garlands of marigold and orchid blossoms were everywhere, in bright happy strands. A few stores sold nothing but vases of all sizes, colors and materials. People crowded into the small shops, making deals and leaving on scooters piled perilously high with newspaper wrapped blossoms. The sheer amount of flowers, of everything, was overwhelming and absolutely stunning. I couldn’t help but smile. In a few short hours it would all disappear, empty buckets pushed back into the narrow shops, metal grates tightly secured in place with no trace of what had been but a few crushed blooms on the sidewalk.
As I wandered down the street soaking it all in, I came across a street food vendor that looked right out of central casting. When you hear about Asian street food without ever having seen it, an image starts to build in your mind. This was that guy. He had taken a bicycle and in a beautiful turn of ingenuity, converted it into a mobile street food cart. A burner and wok were very cleverly welded to the back while a rack/basket type of contraption was affixed to the handlebars. The man was a mobile two-wheel kitchen. It was fantastic. There was a small line of people and he was doing a brisk business in something, I just couldn’t tell what. Curious, I peeked over their shoulders and then I caught a whiff and a wide smile crossed my face. Fried chicken! I excitedly got in line and bought a few pieces for just a few baht, deliriously pleased with myself.
A few paces down, a young woman had a similar bicycle set-up, except she had a charcoal grill on the back. Smoldering on the metal rack were triangle-shaped packages, wrapped in banana leaves. I wasn’t sure what was inside but, being a weekend dim sum connoisseur, I had a good idea it was rice with some sort of filling. When I tried to ask the woman exactly what was inside, our mutually terrible language skills and ridiculous gestures hilarious left us both in fits of giggles. You try to figure out a gesture for rice and tell me if it doesn’t make you laugh. In the end, we made a deal: two steaming hot, lightly charred packages for about 80 cents. I figured that even if I didn’t like them, it was a low risk investment and I was more than happy to support her. A wide, happy smile goes a long way with me.
I hailed a cab back to the hotel, collapsed on the bed and opened my treasures. I nearly squealed with delight at the fried chicken. It was amazing – crunchy, juicy, a little salty, a little sweet. For a second, I thought about hopping in a cab to get more. Instead I turned my attention to the little packages and tried not to make too much of a mess on my fancy bedspread as I unwrapped the slightly charred, shattering banana leaves. What was inside surprised the hell out of me.
I’d read somewhere that savory packets are usually pyramid-shaped while the sweet ones are typically rectangle. Tucked safe within the banana leaves was the rice I expected. Then I tasted it. Coconut! The packet was filled with a sweet Thai coconut sticky rice and it was heavenly. Given that my packet was a triangle, I was expecting something savory but this rice had a deep, rich slightly sweet coconut flavor and I loved it. It had taken on a slight smoky flavor from the grill and there was a nice little surprise in the middle: a nugget of banana that had softened and caramelized just a little. I devoured both in no time and had it not been 4am, I most certainly would have hailed that cab to get more.
Two nights later, I went back to the Flower Market to find the fried chicken guy and the coconut rice lady to no avail. Sadly, I never saw them again nor did I, in the four subsequent weeks I was in Thailand, find anything like these delicious treats. If I hadn’t seen the charred banana leaf crumbs on my comforter the next morning and the chicken bones in the garbage can, I would have thought I had a jetlag-induced hallucination.
I was thinking of these little coconut rice packets the other day when I spotted some tiny, finger bananas at the Asian market. A quick detour to the frozen section for a package of banana leaves and I quickly determined I was going to make these things. Thai sticky rice is an easy thing, usually served with mango in most Thai restaurants, why not wrap it in a banana leaf and grill it? Sure!
Thai sticky rice is a short grain, starchy rice that is essential for these packets and your best bet is to head to an Asian market, one with a heavy Thai influence if possible. It needs a good rinse and an overnight soak before cooking and the resulting texture is tender, a little glutinous and a nice change from your standard fluffy rice. Cooked with coconut milk and sugar, it has a lovely subtle flavor that takes very well to a slight char from the grill. I like to use the tiny baby bananas found in Hispanic and Asian markets that are a bit sweeter and firmer than the standard grocery store bananas but you can certainly use those if that’s all you can find.
Wrapping the mixture in the banana leaves takes a little practice but if you’ve ever rolled a burrito, tamale or cabbage leaf, the process is similar. The important thing is to roll tightly and seal in the sides. A double layer of banana leaf certainly helps with this. What sets these apart from many banana leaf treasures, which are typically steamed, is the grilling. Do not skip this part. A charcoal grill is preferred but a gas grill works and I’ve even successfully made these on a screaming hot stovetop grill pan. Get the grill hot and let them go, turning every so often and don’t be afraid to let the leaves blacken. You want that. The packets are double wrapped and well protected so go ahead and get a good blackening on that outside layer so the rice takes on a slightly smoky flavor.
STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: SMILE INDUCING. This one brings back some happy memories for me. While not difficult, it is just project-y enough to be fun challenge. This is a unusual and unexpected dessert for those late summer BBQs, where you’re never quite sure what to serve for dessert. Just throw them on the grill right next to the ribs and call it a day. To make it a little fancier, I might even make a sauce of some sweetened coconut cream to pour over the rice. That would be delightful.
Seven years ago: Sour Cherry Sorbet
Six years ago: Betty’s Pies exploring Minnesota
Five years ago: Life in Southwest France
Four years ago: Sour Cherry Slab Pie
Three years ago: Hungarian Cherry Soup
Two years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise
Last year: Blender Gazpacho
GRILLED COCONUT STICKY RICE & BANANA PACKETS (Khao Tom Mad)
makes about 8-10 packets
water (for rinsing and soaking the rice)
2 cups glutinous Thai sticky rice
1 cup water (to cook the rice)
1 cup unsweetened coconut milk, full fat
¼ cup sugar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
7 baby bananas, (halved and 4-5 inches long)
2 Tablespoons light brown or grated palm sugar
frozen banana leaves, defrosted
- To rinse/soak the rice: place the rice in a large bowl and cover with water. Swirl your hand through the mixture; the water will turn cloudy.
- Drain and repeat several times until the water runs clear.
- Cover the rice again with water and soak, preferably overnight or at least 4 hours at room temperature
- To cook the rice: drain the rice then add it to a medium saucepan with 1 cup water.
- Bring a boil over high heat, then cover the pan and turn the heat down to low. Note: this doesn’t seem like it’s going to work, as if there’s far less water than needed. Push aside those doubts. The rice steams perfectly in this small amount of water.
- Let the rice cooked undisturbed for 20 minutes, then check to see if it is done. It should be tender throughout but still retain its shape/texture. If crunchy, cook longer – about 5-10 minutes – if needed.
- When the rice is ready, set it aside to cool.
- In a large pot, combine the coconut milk, sugar and salt.
- Mix over medium-high heat until the sugar is dissolved, and the mixture is well combined and creamy.
- Add the cooled rice to the pot stirring to combine, and continue to cook over medium-high heat until the mixture is the consistency of thick porridge. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
- To wrap: cut the banana leaves into 8” squares. (each parcel will need two squares.)
- Wash and dry each sheet thoroughly.
- Cut the bananas in half and set aside until needed. (If using regular bananas, cut in 4 pieces)
- Place one square of banana leaf on your work surface with the veins of the leaf running left to right.
- In the middle, place about ¼ cup of the rice and spread into a rectangle (left to right) slightly larger than the banana pieces. If the rice is too sticky, damp hands certainly help.
- Press a little divot in the center of the rice, sprinkle with about 1 teaspoon of the brown sugar (or palm sugar) and place a banana piece snuggly in the divot.
- Top with a little more rice – you want to enclose the banana in rice. (If you’ve ever made tamales, this process will be very familiar).
- Roll the leaf by bringing the top and bottom edge of the leaf together, gently rolling the leaf down tightly.
- Place the banana leaf/rice “tube” on another the bottom edge of another banana leaf square (veins also running left to right) and tightly roll in the second banana leaf.
- Fold the left and right hand sides tightly into the middle and secure with a toothpick or two.
- Preheat the grill:
- For charcoal, light the coals; when they become grey and covered with ash, push to one side of the grill.
- For gas, preheat on high for 5 minutes, and then reduce to medium.
- For a stovetop grill pan, preheat on high for 10 minutes.
- Grill the parcels – for the grills use medium heat (on a charcoal grill, grill over indirect heat, i.e., the side without the coals); for the stovetop grill pan high heat for 20-30 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so to thoroughly on all sides until the outside is lightly charred.
- Cool for 15 minutes and serve.
- Do ahead: you can assemble the parcels up to 3 hours in advance and keep refrigerated. These are best freshly grilled. Store any leftovers in the refrigerator.