Although past credentials include those of a pastry chef, I am generally not an enormous partaker of sweets. All of that flew out the window during my recent trek to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore where sugar and all of its myriad forms of ‘oses’ – fructose, maltose, lactose, glucose – sweetly ruled my days and nights. My first night in Bangkok was spent hanging in the backpacker’s area of Khao San Road breathing in smokey aromas from grill, wok and incense fires, dodging annoyingly aggressive locals hawking crafted wares I had no use or space for, and sampling treats from the endless parade of food vendors, for which I did. Grilled banana roti, cups of shaved ice topped with colorful jellied bits of something, sweet beans and creamy coconut, a bag of sliced fresh green guava with chili/salt/sugar for dipping, dragonfruit and starfruit juiced to order, and my heart’s delight, the chewy, coconut cream drenched mango sticky rice. I love the play of sweet/salty – like so many Asian desserts which then extend even beyond sweet/salty to sweet/salty/savoury with possible additions of garlic, fried shallots or even shrimp paste.
Mango sticky rice and the deeply restorative Thai massage were daily indulgences while I was in Bangkok and the beautiful beach areas of Krabi and Ao Nang. Both were embarrassingly affordable, exquisitely enjoyable and neither took up precious limited space in the backpack – space allotted to squeeze in more than a few pretty things for my children, friends and myself, bien sur. In Ao Nang after a lazy day spent at the beach or more strenuous morning kayaking through the mangroves, canyons and lagoons with visits from some cheeky long-tailed monkeys, I would stroll down the seafront to find my favorite masseuse, Phan. From the first day we greeted each other with hugs and kisses – she would laugh at my “sexy-sexy” hair while I admired her straight and glossy midnight locks. After massage, Phan fed me baby bananas and hot sweet tea. More hugs and kisses prefaced a short but sweaty hike to a little cafe for cooling young coconut juice (nature’s most perfect quencher, IMO) and mango sticky rice. Thai massage and my favorite treat are now forever linked in the memory vault.
I found plenty of recipes for mango sticky rice available on the internet and in many of the Asian cookbooks I had stashed away – now piled in a stack next to my bed for reference and reminiscing. It seems most recipes are similar in execution. I’ve prepared the dish three times over the last as many days, and my customized version replaces the usual white or palm sugar with agave nectar with the nectar added slowly to my own taste. Seeds scraped from a plump vanilla bean pod also found their way in to the liquid used to soaked the steamed rice. Sweetened coconut cream reserved for the topping sat in the freezer while I assembled the moist warm rice and slices of mango. The cream thickened unctuously and the coolness played a welcome lush contrast (the brand of coconut cream I like the best is Savoy). Some recipes recommend the addition of fresh pandan leaf, which I’d like to try but cannot find in local shops, or the essence of jasmine. In the first batch I added one drop of jasmine essence which my daughter and I agreed made the sauce taste disagreeably like hair product. I think a few fresh jasmine blossoms simmered in the coconut cream would be nicer than the artificial essence. Another book I have suggests the addition of water that has been smoked with a Thai candle….intriguing.