There are lots of food-related topics that I just love to get on my high horse about. Even as I write this, I feel a thrill of mingled anticipation and indignation at the prospect of listing some of them. Here goes. Packs of pre-sliced onions and carrots. That hotdog stuffed-crust pizza. People who cook rice by boiling it like pasta. People who refuse to eat fish with heads on, or shudder at the thought of cooking 'cute' little rabbits yet happily tuck into battery chicken or pork. Cereal bars that pretend to be healthy but in fact are actually cardboard dipped in sugar. Turkey ham. Kale smoothies. Use of the word 'detox'. The utter ludicrousness of a pre-packaged soft-boiled egg.
I'm also very fond of condemning the hedonistic excesses of the Western diet as compared with Asia, extolling the virtues of 'Asian food' (when riding that gallant and noble beast, my high horse, the diverse culinary heritage of an entire continent is simply and conveniently encapsulated in the succinct adjective 'Asian') over our dairy- and gluten-heavy offerings. In that black-and-white world, to which my trusty steed takes me on a regular basis, all 'Asians' are slim, lithe and glowing while all Westerners resemble the slick, flabby underside of a Domino's pizza. 'The reason all Asians are healthy and we are all fat,' I will happily claim with relish over the dinner table, brandishing a chopstick, 'is because we stuff our faces with sugar all the time and they hardly eat anything remotely sweet'.
Which, of course, is obviously untrue. But it wouldn't be a ride on the high horse without the prospect of falling off, would it?
In the spirit of falling off, then, here is a simple tribute to a Thai dessert that rivals our richest, most tooth-achingly sweet offerings: khao niaow ma muang. It is, perhaps, Thailand's luscious answer to a treacle tart or a sticky toffee pudding. To call it a 'Thai-style rice pudding' would be a gross insult, in a similar vein to terming Spam 'English-style pulled pork' or mushy peas 'English-style ratatouille'. There is no creamy, gloopy mush here: the rice is firm, sticky and al-dente, a texture you achieve by soaking it in water for hours then steaming it (not - emphatically NOT - by boiling it like pasta). In Thailand they use a special conical-shaped basket suspended over a pot of water, but you can achieve a similar effect with muslin cloth and a bamboo or metal steamer. It is bound together with a glorious mixture of coconut milk and cream, sweetened with a little sugar. I use coconut sugar, which I discovered in Thailand and sneaked home in my suitcase (next to a papaya shredder and a gigantic meat cleaver). It's a lovely golden, fudgy substance with the richness of palm sugar, and is perfectly suited to this dish. Importantly, the mix is also salted, to achieve that moreish and perfect balance between sweet and savoury. It's the salt, I think, that makes this recipe shine, coupling beautifully with the sweet mango.
And oh, those mangoes. Forget the stringy things you buy in supermarkets which never seem to achieve the level of desired ripeness despite outlandishly claiming to have done so on the label. Thai mangoes are a vivid yellow, with melting, shimmering flesh and a slightly musky perfume about them, tart and sweet like nectar against their blanket of coconut rice. You can buy them, imported, at this time of year, but I've gone one better and used Indian Alphonso mangoes, otherwise known as The Best Things You'll Ever Put In Your Mouth - Ottolenghi agrees with me so it must be true. The internet is alive with paeans to these ambrosial marigold orbs, so I won't bore you with another assenting voice, but suffice to say that the combination of unbelievably sweet, fragrant Alphonso mango and tender, slightly salty-sweet coconut sticky rice is something you need to try. Preferably daily. Preferably instead of any other food. After all, the Asian diet can do no wrong, as I'm so fond of saying.
In Thailand they eat this as a dessert, but I prefer it for breakfast - it's too rich and filling, for me, to follow a main meal. I got into the habit of eating this every morning when I was in Chiang Mai, partly to calm an upset stomach and partly because it is simply better than any other food. Coupled with a pot of strong green, jasmine or ginger tea, it makes a decadent and satisfying breakfast or brunch. You can steam the rice in advance and chill until ready to use, meaning this is ready in minutes - just simmer the coconut, sugar and salt, add the rice, and wait until it all comes together into a glorious whole. Rice and coconut are two of the most evocatively aromatic foods around, and the scent as the two intermingle will transport you to the humid backstreets of Thailand in seconds. I like to sprinkle over a little toasted coconut at the end to add texture - in Thailand they use crushed mung beans - and then you top it all off with a hefty dollop of coconut cream. Because it's Asian, so it doesn't count as fat.
This is, I warn you, incredibly rich. But it is also incredibly, outrageously wonderful. And it's Asian, so it's healthy. All hail the logic of the high horse.
Alphonso mango with sweet coconut sticky rice (serves 2):
- 100g sticky rice
- 150ml coconut milk
- 3 tbsp coconut cream
- 2 tbsp coconut sugar, palm sugar or golden caster sugar
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 2 tbsp desiccated coconut, toasted in a dry pan
- 2 Alphonso mangoes (or other inferior ripe mangoes), peeled and sliced
Soak the sticky rice in a bowl of water overnight, or for at least 8 hours. Drain the rice and put in a piece of muslin cloth or cheesecloth. Place in a steamer (I use a bamboo one, because I love the smell, but metal will work too) and steam over boiling water for 30 minutes, until the rice is tender but still al dente. Set aside (you can do this in advance then refrigerate the rice until ready to cook the rest of the dish).
In a saucepan or wok, heat the coconut milk, 1 tbsp of the coconut cream, the sugar and salt, stirring to combine. Add the rice, mix together, remove from the heat and leave for 10 minutes. Stir again, then divide the rice between two bowls. Top with the coconut cream, sliced mango and a sprinkling of desiccated coconut. Serve immediately.