WORLD FOOD – Sugar and Spice … and Ice

There is no such thing as a cool season in Bangkok, though if you come at the right time you might get to wear long sleeves at night. But come April, when much of Europe and America is rushing outside with vernal joy, the city is like an oven. This is truly the hot season. If there was a dial reading to be had it might as well read BROIL. It’s a time when the air is stagnant-still, and the edges of one’s vision seem to blur around framed objects. Shade and a/c and cold showers only go so far. So what do the Thais do? While there may not be a sure-fire way to escape the heat, there is always the favored option of locals: iced drinks and sweets.

One passes these supposedly cooling foods on every corner. Narm kaeng sai, as one form is called, translates roughly as ‘crushed iced sweets.’ Look for a table spread with a buffet of see-through bowls, iced down, in a gaggle of pinks or oranges or yellows or blacks. Their palette has the neon gaudiness of Jeff Koons paintings. But their contents have a tasteful exoticism and an exotic taste. They include dried fruits (longan, mango, pineapple), sweet Chinese red dates, lotus seeds, red beans, sweet corn, and black jelly strings. Options are endless. Simply point at what you most desire and the vendor will mix it in a bowl with crushed ice and sweet syrup.

I can barely go a day without a fix. A personal favorite is tub tim krob, little water chestnuts that are diced, rolled in red-colored flour, and boiled to make them appear like rubies. I order them mixed with coconut milk and sugar syrup, sweet corn, and dried fruit. If possible I try to go to the docks by the Chao Phraya, right across from the Temple of the Dawn, and order from my favorite vendor. Even the glimmering riverside monuments can’t compete with the smooth sweetness and fruity crunch of narm kaeng sai. In many ways this is the Siamese equivalent of ice cream – sought by children, the actual kind or the adult version, with zeal.

Of course there’s an ice cream man in Thailand as well. Like the ones I remember from the Eastern shores of America, they too ring bells upon arrival. Their wares are pedaled about on three-wheel pushcarts and sometimes proferred on foot. The default flavor is coconut – though chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla are also normal – and the crystalline-smooth texture is closer to sherbet. Here’s where the differences begin. Toppings include sensuous little tapioca pearls, the crunch of roasted peanuts, earthy red beans, delicate lotus seeds. Like the Thais themselves, the scoop size of the ice cream is smaller — and somehow all the more graceful to behold. Classicists always go for a cup’s worth, but decadents might opt for theirs arrayed on a little bun with all the toppings, and a final sealing drizzle of sweet milk. It sounds odd, but just think of how the French might employ crepes or the Americans waffles. The word for delicious here is arawy.

If a bowl of narm kaeng sai or a hit of ice cream doesn’t do the trick, there’s always drinks to be had. Starbucks-ish coffeehouses may occupy storefronts on each corner, but in these parts their juice stall neighbors grab the return-business but yards away. Nam pol-mai (fruit juice) is an enormous canvas here. Bananas, papaya, watermelon, coconut, sugarcane, starfruit, pineapple, kalamansi lime, the crispy-chalky Asian pear – they’re all blended to go in plastic bags here. Other less-common liquid coolants include lod chong Singapore. In a glass this translates as green strings — made from crushed beans mixed with tapioca — blended with coconut juice, water, and sugar syrup. Thais hoard the stuff come this time of year, despite its foreign origin. The Chinese community does the same for narm rak bua (lotus root water), narm lamyai (longan juice), narm luke ked (white raisin juice), and narm jub liang (a ‘water’ made from 10 herbs). These all have a chalky, spare taste that really quenches. And they also are a convenient to-go item, packaged up in an icy see-through plastic bag for the trip home.

The only thing left to do is pursue a shady nap.

Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur, East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications around the world.

Photo: Sunset over the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok.

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