When I was in college, I accompanied my parents on a trip to Thailand. My memories of that time are accessible only through a haze of powerful emotions, because my reason for tagging along was that I desperately wanted to see the young man I hoped to marry. I met him my sophomore year in college and had instantly fallen for him. He had a huge nose and was half French and loved to talk about his feelings even more than my girlfriends. What could be more attractive? He was also an English major with an inclination to travel, so he decided to spend a year in Thailand teaching English as a second language to monks.
I was devastated that he could even conceive of spending a whole year away from me, but to be fair, he didn’t know about my plans to marry him. I was a smidge worried that, during his overseas sojourn, he might forget how charming I can be. So when my parents said they were going to Thailand, I jumped at the chance to secure my destiny.
We flew into Bangkok and over the next two weeks, we visited an orchid farm and a silkworm farm, shopped at street markets and ate at Royal Dragon, which billed itself as the largest restaurant in the world, so big that waitstaff had to wear roller skates.
On one particularly enchanted afternoon, I rode an elephant through the jungle with my erstwhile sweetheart. He’d apparently warmed up to my romantic schemes and even floated the idea of post-college nuptials. (The boy, not the elephant. Also I realize now that riding elephants may be exploitative and I apologize to the elephant, who was forced to listen to our sappy conversation.) A few days later, however, he rescinded the proposal. I was sadder than a limp French fry, but nevertheless, we stayed friends. He became a journalist and married a girl from Thailand and now lives in Dubai.
I’m sure I ate many delicious things in Thailand, but in my twitterpated stupor, I can’t recall any of them except mango sticky rice. Since it’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I thought I’d bring this scrumptious Thai recipe front-and-center. It’s easier than riding an elephant and far less bristly.
The main challenge with this recipe is getting the right kind of rice. The debate rages over whether pearl rice or Calrose rice can be used to the same effect, but my sources specified that the only proper rice to use is Thai sticky rice, also called sweet rice or glutinous rice. (This refers to texture and not gluten content. All rice is gluten-free.) I found Thai sticky rice at Tola Angkor Asian Market in Orchards, though any Asian market will have it. Because I’m a contrarian at heart, I think that you should use whatever rice is reasonably accessible to you. You won’t get classic sticky rice but you will have rice cooked in sweet coconut milk. That’s still going to be tasty unless you burn it or accidentally spill a jar of centipedes into it, in which case please do not eat it.
There are more debates about rinsing and soaking the rice before cooking, but I won’t bore you with that. I did not rinse my rice and it turned out, in my inexpert opinion, just as delicious as the mango sticky rice at my favorite Thai restaurant. I began by soaking 1 cup of sticky rice in 1 cup of water for half an hour. Then I added 1/2 cup water, half a can of coconut milk (not light coconut milk or coconut cream), along with ¼ teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon brown sugar. (You can also use granulated sugar. I just like the caramel flavor of brown sugar.) I brought the rice to a low boil then reduced the heat and put the lid on, leaving a small gap for steam to escape. I cooked the rice for 20 minutes, which was enough time for it to absorb most of the liquid. I took it off the heat, put the lid on tight and let it sit for five minutes.
I made the sauce by warming the remaining coconut milk with 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and a couple dashes of salt. The recipe allowed for more sugar but I found that 2 tablespoons was just right. Then I peeled and sliced a yellow Ataulfo or honey mango, smaller, sweeter and less fibrous than the reddish-green Tommy Atkins variety.
I pressed the warm rice into a buttered ramekin and inverted it onto a plate. (You can just scoop the rice onto a dish but the ramekin makes a nice shape.) I arranged the mangoes around the rice and drizzled it generously with sauce. I took a bite and was briefly reminded of my youthful fling in Thailand, although I’m deeply grateful that my life turned out exactly as it has. I married the indisputable love of my life, a tall, relentlessly optimistic Englishman named Simon Peter Spykerman, and now we’re about to celebrate 27 years of marriage, possibly 28. I can’t keep track of these things. The important thing is, he never for a second forgets how charming I am.