Each summer, when temperatures soar and the weather turns humid, many Thais look forward to cooling off with khao chae, a traditional rice dish served in iced jasmine-scented water. (In Thai, “khao” means rice, and “chae” means to immersed in water.)
Despite its association as a royal delicacy, khao chae actually boasts of Mon provenance. The Mon people of Thailand’s Central Plains first cooked khao chae to mark the onset of their lunar New Year; this Mon treat was then adopted into the royal Thai court to become a palatial favorite (King Rama V was known to be extremely fond of this dish). Since then, khao chae has grown to become a beloved specialty of Thailand.
Preparing khao chae is highly time-consuming and arduous, but luckily, eating it is not. Simply enjoy this cool dish with an assortment of (mostly sweet) condiments: luuk kapi, deep-fried shrimp paste balls; hom daeng yut sai, shallots stuffed with minced fish; neau waan, thin shreds of caramelized beef; phat hua chai po, stir-fried Chinese radish; and phrik yuak sot sai, green peppers stuffed with minced pork.
Although khao chae is more readily available during the Songkran period, several restaurants in Bangkok serve this specialty year-round. Good places to try khao chae are Patara Bangkok and Benjarong at Dusit Thani Bangkok, or for someplace more rustic, head to Koh Kret, an ethnic Mon enclave along the Chao Phraya River north of Bangkok.
Accustomed to the strong, piquant flavors of Thai cuisine, I found khao chae rather bland and strange—rice in chilled water? I wondered—on my first try. It is definitely an acquired taste—just like durians, fermented fish sauce—but a classic that provides an insight into Thai culture and cuisine.
Go on, try it.
This article was first published on April 18, 2011 on Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia Blog.