Eating/Drinking  •  The Art of

The Art of: Eating Khao Chae

You are how you eat? Mademoiselle Mumu shares her summer secrets on dining with appropriate “Thai-ness”.

April 12, 2017
Facing an identity crisis in this globalized world, we Thais tend to be quite sensitive to everything Thai. So much so that, for the past decade, we’ve seen many Thai people trying to “act Thai” as if they were born otherwise.

Last year the revised Traditional Thai outfits were all the rage among retrospective conservatives (aka primitives) no matter how impractical those outfits were for either wearing or cleaning. So they wore them for selfies. We are a superficial society after all. Acting Thai is for flaunting: no more, no less.

The hype remained at a peak for months until the moment we all realized that those fabulous Thai outfits were designed, well, I mean reinterpreted and re-presented, by Monsieur Balmain, a French couturier.

This patriotic trend continues with no end in sight as another summer rolls around—whether it’s the heat (rolls eyes) or the holidays, it’s apparently the best season to flaunt our Thainess. It’s also the season, once again, for heated debate in the news on how to properly and most Thai-ly celebrate Songkran, dubbed the Thai New Year—although it’s not exclusively Thai at all: most Southeast Asian countries also celebrate Songkran. Even in Sri Lanka. That hurts.

The latest summer sensation among Thais is Khao Chae (literally rice soaked in water). Of course there are people who eat this delicacy because they really like it and then there are those who find it chic, cool, and positively, patriotically Thai to be seen eating it.

Khao Chae is a very particular dish. It is also very time-consuming and labor-intensive. Imagine a Thai period series with all the slaves cooking together in an open air kitchen—fabulously alfresco!

The rice is cooked al dente then scrubbed with the back of a strainer so that the soft flesh will not dirty the fragrant water prepared to eat with it and become boiled rice: something of a much lower caliber.

The side dishes can be anything from three to seven things—the more side dishes you serve, the closer you are to God! (My mother usually makes seven or eight—almost a Goddess, isn’t she? I feel sorry for my staff every year). Most of the dishes are either sweet or salty or sweet-salty, and some are harder to make than others. Others are very smelly when you prepare but très fragrant when they are done.

But the most important thing is not how to make it (which no one cares about anyway), but how to eat it. Acting Thai is flaunting, and what better way to show your social media friends how cultured and well-raised you are than supping upon food that requires a certain etiquette to eat it.

One must start by taking a dainty amount of rice (too much rice is very vulgar!) in a bowl of fragrant water, decorated with floating flowers (organic please), and topped with ice (we eat it cold!)

One first eats the side dishes separately; then the rice follows. Try to make the water remain as clear as possible throughout the meal. And NEVER put the side dishes into the rice bowl. Only the rice deserves to be soaked in the water, hence its name Khao Chae.

The real genius of the whole thing is actually the carved finger roots. When eaten with the fragrant water, Bangkok summer becomes suddenly bearable.

Oh and by the way, Khao Chae, with all its royal court connections and history, is actually originally Mon (now an ethnic group living in Myanmar).