Cha-om: leaves with an offending smell, but the power to please


THAI cooking has no lack of pungent (note: this is subjective) but yummy food items. I don’t even classify durians—and especially Thai durians—within this category yet. Sator is one classic example, although the culinary use of these stinky beans is not restricted to Thais only as the Malays and Peranakans are also known to whip up superb stink-bean dishes (think prawn and petai sambal).

Another strong-smelling favourite of mine is cha-om (ชะอม) or acacia leaf. The tropical variant (Acacia pennata) of the acacia family, the leaves are commonly used in Thai, Lao and Burmese cooking. And these leaves can be quite a stink bomb indeed. When I brought them home from the market, the leaves stank up my kitchen and fridge, as though someone let off a vicious, lingering fart.


But offensive smells aside, the fresh acacia stalks mesmerised me to bits. The way Thai vendors handle their greens are often a showcase of ingenuity. For this cha-om bundle, a banana leaf was folded and wrapped around the stalk ends as a base, with a thin bamboo strip securely tied around as a clip.

However, closer inspection of these feathery bundles would reveal tiny thorns on the cha-om stems, so do exercise caution when plucking the fronds off the stems.

One of the best ways to taste the inherent goodness of this vegetable is through khai jiao cha-om (ไข่เจียวชะอม) or acacia omelette, which is very easy to make; the steps are similar to how one would cook minced pork omelette, for example.


[Recipe] Break the eggs into a bowl, add the plucked cha-om leaves and whisk the mixture. Add a pinch of salt and few drops of soya/fish sauce. Heat up some oil on the skillet on high heat, then pour in the egg mixture. Unlike typical omelettes which require a rather thin film to cook well, cha-om omelette should be rather thick and the mixture should come to a height of, say, 1/2 inch from the base. When one side of the the omelette is golden-brown, flip it over. When both sides are evenly cooked, remove the omelette from the skillet and place them on a piece of kitchen towel to absorb the excess oil. When the omelette is sufficiently cool enough, use a knife to cut them into square chunks or slices, depending on preference.

The offending smell would have disappeared by now, leaving a fragrant omelette of yellows, greens and browns. Serve the omelette on top of steamed rice, dunked into kaeng som (Thai sour curry) or dip them into naam phrik kapi (chilli dip). Whichever way it is, the omelette is guaranteed to be potent yet pleasing.


Food cubes: from the neighbourhood

20130622-152123.jpgI’m definitely not the most disciplined person around when it comes to blogging—and dieting—but in order to make my food scribblings more consistent on this space, I decided to feature on-the-go photos taken with my iPhone and add them to this space. I’ve amassed a lot of photos in the tiny device, so I hope to pen down some of the culinary inspiration that strikes me whenever I’m out and about in a new section called “Food Cubes”.

Kai yang Wichian Buri | Kai yang (grilled chicken) is a Thai staple, but the district of Wichian Buri in Petchabun province has rose to fame by being associated with the grilled birds, so much so that many kai yang stalls will declare their style as Wichian Buri. Just a stone’s throw from our apartment in Bangkok lies one of the most superb kai yang vendors we have tried. The grill fashioned from an used oil tin and corrugated zinc may not make the most appealing setting, but the smoked birds that come out from this stall are just yummy.

Coconut ice-cream | Coconut desserts are aplenty in Thailand, but coconut ice-cream remains my favourite. I was walking the talaat nat (makeshift market) in the neighbourhood one evening when I had a sudden craving for coconut ice-cream, so I bought one and enjoyed 10 minutes of heaven as I browsed the stalls.

Khanaeng | I first tasted khanaeng, or cabbage sprouts, at our favourite neighbhourhood restaurant, and since then I’ve found these vegetables the size of a child’s fist at the local fresh market and learned to replicate the same dish at home. How not to love these Brussels-sprout lookalikes, especially after they are stir-fried with minced pork, chillies and a liberal dose of Shaoxing wine?

Eggs | Interestingly, eggs are one of the most sensitive markers of rising expenses in Thailand. In the six months since I moved back to Bangkok, the prices of eggs at the local market have been constantly inching up. The smallest and biggest eggs at the market used to cost 38 baht and 41 baht respectively just earlier this year, now the prices are hovering between 41 baht and 44 baht. Inflation—it’s happening everywhere.