Khaao yam (ข้าวยำ) and naam buuduu (น้ำบูดู), now where should I begin? It goes back to 2008, when a Thai colleague mentioned in passing that khaao yam, a Southern Thai rice salad, was her favourite Thai food. At that time I had just started living in Thailand and I was beginning to taste my way around Bangkok and Thailand. I didn’t manage to try the dish then, but the name stuck in my head.
On Tuesday night Mr. P and I dropped by the talaat nat (informal market) in our neighbourhood, attracted by the bright tungsten lights and smells of food wafting onto the streets. We walked one round around the market, making a checklist of what each of us wanted to buy home for dinner. Then I spotted a stack of green lotus leaves and a colourful array of vegetables whose visual presentation sang out to me. We moved forward to take a closer look. It was khaao yam!
Unlike Isaan food which are dime a dozen in Bangkok, Southern Thai food is much harder to find in the capital—Ramkhamhaeng is one district known for its halal/Southern Thai food, as are several other restaurants like Khua Kling Pak Sod in Thong Lor, but you need to know where to look. It was thus a pleasure to find a roadside stall offering Southern Thai food, which stood apart from the standard streetside fare of kai yang (grilled chicken) and muu ping (grilled pork), and made even lovelier by the use of lotus leaves as packaging. It felt like a throwback to the Southeast Asia of yesteryears.
And of course, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to sample khaao yam. With a lotus leaf laid out on his palm, the vendor scooped up various shredded herbs and vegetables onto the leaf before wrapping and tying up the bundle with a rubber band. Into a clear plastic bag (okay, this was neither traditional nor eco-friendly), he added the lotus-leaf bundle, alongside small packs of brown rice, chilli flakes, grated coconut, dried shrimp and naam buuduu.
The following day, when I unwrapped the bundle for lunch, I was once again thrilled to see the assortment of colours against the lush, waxy surface of the lotus leaf. I couldn’t help but marvelled at how finely sliced the kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass were, while at the same time noting how poor my knife skills were in comparison.
Then you pour in the sauce and khluk everything together. The vendor had reminded me to pour just sampling amounts of naam buuduu first as some of his customers didn’t take to the pungent taste of the sauce. Naam buuduu is a type of fermented fish sauce common to Southern Thailand and Kelantan in Malaysia, and it’s like Southern Thailand’s answer to Northeastern Thailand’s plaa raa!
I don’t know how to describe the flavours of naam buuduu—it has a distinct briny taste and with a thick consistency somewhat like oyster sauce. The closest taste I can think of is heh ko, the prawn paste used in Penang’s assam laksa. And in fact, khaao yam is also similar to nasi ulam, a Nyonya rice dish, so it isn’t surprising that Southern Thai food bears a lot of similarities with the food across the borders in Malaysia.
It was lovely chewing each mouthful to savour the different textures of this salad concoction—one moment it’s a pomelo bit popping to release its citrusy juices, while another moment later I tasted the crunchiness of the raw mango or the herbaceous flavour of kaffir leaves. This was one healthy dish that left my palate craving for more after I devoured the salad.