Kanom Cheen Galore
Not too long ago, I got assigned a story about wedding foods in Thailand. The topic sounds innocent enough, but when I delved into it, I found only complexity and a lot of undocumented, hence untraceable, cultural tidbits and beliefs that somehow had shaped the foods served at weddings across the Kingdom.
But then, there is one dish that seems to be a staple no matter what region we referred to. It is the fermented rice vermicelli – or Kanom Cheen – a rice flour adaptation that had taken Thailand from North to South when it comes to something we share regardless of the locality. Among the reasons that I was given to this case is that “Kanom Cheen is so easy to eat, and it seems to be pleasing everyone, hence a basket full of rice vermicelli served with one or two curries in many big events, wedding included.”
In Bangkok, Kanom Cheen can be a part of any curry and rice place. For a selection of curries – usually with staples of red and green curries – the interchangeability between steamed rice and rice vermicelli is apparently a no-brainer to keep some excitement at lunchtime. Bangkok style rice vermicelli is served with any curry on hand – chicken and bamboo curry, green beef curry or fish ball curry are all popular choice. Thai people love to have salty sides to go with this. For a well-stocked place, one can order a side of crispy-fried sun-dried ‘Pla Salid’ (pictured) or ‘gurami’ and in my case, if possible, I would love to have a side of Tod Mun or curried fish cakes to go with it, too. After all, why not?
But Kanom Cheen can take its own form and taste. It doesn’t always have to borrow from the steamed rice. Kanom Cheen Nam Ya, for example, would be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a Kanom Cheen dish. Served with a fish-based curry called ‘Nam Ya,’ a plate is usually packed with fresh herbs and veggies. Sometimes you can go with a soft-boiled eggs, toasted dried chillies and the requisite herb called Bai Mang Luck or lemon basil.
Kanom Cheen Nam Prik – or peanut-based curry – is another form of Kanom Cheen dish that has been through a series of ebbs and flows. Sweeter and richer than its previously-mentioned counterpart, Kanom Cheen Nam Prik supposedly calls for more elaborate and time consuming preparation and extra set of trimmings. Apart from fresh herbs and vegetables like the previous one, Kanom Cheen Nam Prik also calls for vegetable tempura (certain leaves are required) and some blanched vegetables to go with it.
My favourite kind of Kanom Cheen is something that practically needs no cooking. Served cold, hence suiting all seasons in Thailand, Kanom Cheen Sao Nam is a plate of the rice vermicelli topped with fresh coconut milk, chopped pineapple, sliced garlic, ginger, pounded dried shrimp, and fresh chillies of course. Flavouring derives from fish sauce, and a bit of white sugar. Eating this and appreciating the tasty, refreshing combination of this plate, I always feel amazed. Of how the dish was invented, discovered, and kept. For all the ingredients and herbs available, the selection on this dish is only amazing. Really, really good.
But if you want something of a truly colourful meal of Kanom Cheen, I would say, head south where the rice vermicelli takes on another notch in terms of the trimmings. For those who have seen a galore of ‘Pak Nor’ which is what they collectively called the entire vegetable trimmings served along with Kanom Cheen Thai southern style, you will still find the one I just found in Phang-Nga town a bit extraordinary. Each dining table there is covered, almost to its entirety, with a selection of ‘Pak Nor.’ Fresh, blanched, pickled, green, nude, brown, red, yellow, leaves, sprouts, stems, buds, fruits. All these for the extra tastes in one bite that words perhaps fail to describe.
Oftentimes, a Kanom Cheen place in Southern Thailand is paired with a deep-fried chicken shop. The chicken makes a great mild and salty side for the usually fiery Southern Thai curries. Or perhaps, they make a great strategic alliance to make the whole place family-friendly. Children, while cannot munch on that spicy rice vermicelli, will be always happy with a plate of fried chicken and sticky rice in front of them.