I remember watching my mother make sticky rice every morning. She’d be up long before the sun. The roosters crowing along to the sound of lukewarm water running through every hand full of starchy grain.
Washing, rinsing, and repeating as the cloudy water floated away.
Soaking, sitting, steaming.
She’d do this day in, day out. Never skipping a beat, never missing a meal.
Piping hot pillowy balls of goodness. Perfectly salted, perfectly sweet. I never realized how much I craved for something so simple. As I grew older, the annoyance of my mother’s 5am cooking call was a missed memory. I longed for the aroma of freshly steamed rice. Searched the blankets for the warm bamboo baskets she kept it in. Hiding it from my siblings and I, until it was cool enough for consumption.
The history of this dish originates from my mothers homeland, Laos. Although you can find it in nearly every Thai market, it is one of those Issan dishes that most Lao people eat daily. Oftentimes, multiple times a day. Sticky rice is a long, white fragrant grain almost only discernible by it’s thickness, compared to traditional jasmine rice. You may find it in San Diego’s asian markets labeled ‘sweet rice’ or ‘glutinous rice’. We use it as the vessel to carry other dishes like stews, dipping sauces known as jeow, or to accompany your favorite meat. Unlike Thailand, Laotians eat almost solely with their hands. Sticky rice balls are our utensils, and you scoop your food with the rice, sharing each meal family style.
Historically Lao people ate sticky rice because it sustained them for long days on the farm. Many of them harvesting their own fields of rice as the wet lowlands provided the perfect burial ground for the coveted glutinous rice seeds. My family still harvests rice in their fields in Northern Thailand. As the days begin and end, they always include a warm Thip Khao (a traditional woven bamboo basket) full of the sticky goodness that is affectionately known as khao niew. These are the moments I now long for as an adult; family meals and shared laughter. Learning the history of how we came to be, honoring the land and our ancestors.
“A single grain of rice can tip the scale. One man may be the difference between victory and defeat.”
– The Emperor in Disney’s Mulan
Christy’s Top 5 Tips on How to Make Sticky Rice at Home
Buy the correct rice. Many people don’t know that sticky rice is a species of rice, often referred to as glutinous rice.
If you plan to make it often, consider investing in the bamboo basket to make it the traditional way. Other clever ways include making it in a pressure cooker with options for different types of rice grains.
Don’t wait until you’re hungry to make sticky rice. The process is long. Prepare ahead, washing and soaking your rice the night before you plan to cook it.
A little plastic wrap on the spoon or bowl used for scooping and molding the rice keeps the rice from sticking to it!
Sticky rice is both a dinner staple and a dinner utensil. When the food is ready, this isn’t the time to be posh! Instead use your hands to ball up the sticky rice and dip it into the food you’re eating.
The kitchen is a special classroom, where students can be given the power to create, collaborate, and thrive! We believe this to the core, we preach it, and try to live by it. But we are also quick to admit the kitchen isn’t the only place children can express themselves, and learn new skills. In a recent Saturday cooking and jam session, our Courageous Kitchen students welcomed children from the Khlong Toey Music Program (KTMP) for a memorable afternoon.
If you’re unfamiliar, the KTMP music program is named for one the most infamous slums in Bangkok, Khlong Toey. Despite the rough surroundings, there’s important work happening in their community, and KTMP is part of the change that’s happening in this overlooked area of Bangkok. With a similar ethos to Courageous Kitchen, KTMP believes children deserve a safe place to learn, especially because of the pernicious nature of the cycle of poverty. Instead of proselytizing the way of the wok and other culinary arts like us, their program teaches guitar, drums, and several other instruments, adding English and other extracurriculars as often as possible. Each time the students have an opportunity to perform, they earn new fans across the city of Bangkok and online!
Still kids, even the ones gaining fans each week through their music on facebook and youtube, get nervous meeting other children. For this reason, we didn’t jump right into learning to play music when our two student groups came together. First we had to get to know each other. So to kick things off, we began the day with fun ice breaking games. The games required the students to interact with one another, learning each other’s names, and teaming up to identify vocabulary words faster than other teams.
The instruments made an appearance after we got to know each other and whoa did it get noisy! The students and teachers dispersed themselves around the room teaching the same melody, with a different instrument in each group. There was an entire section dedicated to our mini percussionists, the singers and ukulele players claimed the center of the room, and the electric and acoustic guitar fans filled the gap on the other side. I’d compare the sound and fury of the activity to having a baby elephant dancing in your kitchen. But despite what it did to our eardrums, looking around at the excitement on all the children’s faces as the instrument workshop began, was incredibly rewarding.
Low thuds, random strings, and excited voices filled the room as the students began to get the hang of the instruments. The KTMP teachers encouraged the children to change groups once they had the melody down, much to the excitement of the girls torn between playing the drums, and switching into guitar hero mode on KTMP’s shiny electric guitars. Knowing the kids would be working up an appetite, our kitchen team was rendering the fat off a kilo of shrimp. They would go on to use the fatty oils from cooking the shrimp, to toss egg noodles before serving.
Days before this event, we held meetings to debate what to serve our new friends at KTMP. On such a fun day, we wanted to serve familiar food that the kids would gobble down, but with a Courageous Kitchen twist. Cooking up ‘mama’ noodles easily won by popular vote. Named for the most popular brand of instant noodles in Thailand, mama noodles are popular in the low key street food stalls all over the country. The noodles are well known as a nostalgic childhood snack. However, instead of making a broth full of the msg filled flavoring packets, we made our own giant pot of creamy tom yum broth to serve our hungry little musicians.
As the scent of shrimp tinged egg noodles, and lemongrass broth began to fill the house, full bars of notes were beginning to tumble out as well. The practice was paying off, and the students were becoming more confident playing the song. Soon they would play it together, Thai, refugee, and migrant kids, all strumming to the same rhythm. For the finale, the KTMP youth performed a few more songs, before everyone agreed it was time to eat. The noodles were ready to eat, but the kids quickly organized into teams, some making spring rolls to eat with their noodles, while the others were ready for a cooling dessert snack.
There’s more you should know about the special students from KTMP. They didn’t just show up for tom yum noodles. They have been hearing about Courageous Kitchen for weeks, selecting us as the charity they most wanted interact with and help. In the lead up to meeting each other, they used the power of their music, performing and spreading awareness to raise money for us. In a few short weeks the students, supported by their tireless teachers, raised and donated nearly 14,000 baht (about $440) to help children in our program!
A special invite has our US based team hanging out in the Bay area recently, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share how we brought Courageous Kitchen vibes to employees at Airbnb headquarters!
One of the most important ways we raise funds is by hosting tourists for food related experiences in Bangkok and San Diego. Much of this entrepreneurial arm of our charity is possible because of programs like Airbnb Experiences, where Courageous Kitchen is featured as a Social Impact activity. The designation refers to recognized charities who host on the platform to bolster their causes, and has all commission fees waived by Airbnb. Not only is Courageous Kitchen one of only 400 such experiences worldwide, we are the first and only social impact experience in Bangkok.
We’re proud to be working with Airbnb, and most recently Christy was invited to teach a Thai food workshop at their renowned headquarters in San Francisco’s hip SoMa district. Along with longtime volunteer, Beatriz, they taught members of the Airbnb Experiences team how to make traditional Thai iced tea, papaya salad (aka somtam), and a Lao style minced meat salad full of herbs and chilies (aka larb). If you’re unfamiliar with these dishes, lovers of Thai food can tell you that along with some sticky rice, they quickly become one of the most sought after meals you can get in Thailand.
To start off their class, Beatriz showed the group of nearly 30 guests how to make their own Thai tea. She then shared her story of how she became involved with Courageous Kitchen, stemming mostly from her own familial ties to refugees. Her grandparents were spies for the United States Army, and fled Indonesia sometime in the 1950s to avoid being caught by the local government. Next, Christy demonstrated two of her favorite Thai and Lao salads which are staples in her Laotian household. Christy’s background not only provides the cultural context to work with our students, but her own story resonates with theirs deeply. Her parents, who escaped Laos in the early 1980’s lived and worked in a refugee camp in Thailand before resettling to the US where she was born.
The narratives of the people behind the food, are just as important as the food we serve, in helping others understand our mission and vision. By sharing our personal stories with our guests, we realize just how much our own paths are connected with those of our Courageous Kitchen families as well. As Social Impact hosts on Airbnb, we want the customers in our cooking classes and street food tours to understand where their dollars are being spent, and be able to walk away with both satisfied bellies and hearts, knowing they helped a noble cause.
In our short time taking over the jumbo kitchen in Airbnb Headquarters, we attempted to give employees who visited, a mini taste of what we offer each and every guest. That’s a quick serving of friendship paired with cold drinks, spicy bites, and a bold brand of courage that leads us to fight for the most marginalized.
Our team is grateful for the continued support from Airbnb and the entire Experiences community. We’ve met and partnered with some amazing entrepreneurs in California and hope to forge more friendships with likeminded organizations in the future.
We look forward to sharing our story in a kitchen near you!
Special Thanks and hugs to Stephanie H. of Airbnb, for the invite and support every step of the way!
Sustainability has becoming a much larger global conversation, and we’ve been thoughtful about how to be more friendly to the environment in our cooking classes, reduce waste, and encourage others to do the same. Bangkok’s International Schools have also been a part of pushing discourse and action to protect the environment, and we’re proud to be in partnership with schools encouraging students to make a difference. Most recently we have been doing workshops and demos in schools to teach youth practical ways they can reduce waste in and around the kitchen.
Thailand is one of the world’s worst plastic polluting countries, creating about 2 million tons of plastic and growing each year. The single-use plastic is especially egregious and has been the focus of many of the awareness campaigns in the past few years. This has been encouraging people to use last plastic, especially plastic bags, straws and other utensils, and even hygiene items such as toothbrushes.
When we have an opportunity to do outreach with students, generating discussion is usually our first task. The majority of students we meet in international schools have already seen the viral videos of animals suffering or dead from swallowing too much plastic. In fact some of the current initiatives to influence retailers to use less plastic, have been started by the students themselves. This makes getting students to speak up about how to make changes easy.
Just like the students, we can all acknowledge we need to use less plastic, but can’t always imagine what that may mean. We have to remind students that plastic, as much as it’s a regular part of life today, wasn’t always around. What then, did people do before they were given 3 straws and two plastic bags for every drink purchase they make? We believe that asking these questions can provoke students to realize that many of the solutions they desire may already be in hand.
Using Natural Straws
One fun way to get the discussion going is to make natural straws with the students. To their shock, we grab what seems like an unimportant vase of long stemmed light green plants, and assign them to make their own straws. The plant is morning glory and the students set up cutting, pithing, and cleaning them, while discussing how they’ll use them at lunch later in the day.
We find most students know very little about the morning glory plant, whose name in English can be used to refer to a large family of plants. In Thailand however, most discussion revolves around two edible varieties used commonly in Thai cooking. The most famous is referred to as a Chinese breed (pak boong jin or ผักบุ้งจีน), and is flash stir fried with chili and garlic. This version has skinny stems, and if you purchase it, intending to make a natural straw you will be sorely disappointed. Or maybe not, because you can still make a stellar stir fry.
The other common variety (pak boong thai or ผักบุ้งไทย) is native to Thailand and grows much larger. Since the stems are mostly hollow on the inside, the plant can float on the water above competing species. However, the strong stems can also make the plant less desirable to eat, so this version doesn’t yet enjoy the culinary popularity of its Chinese counterpart. While tasty, the dishes you would make with this quick growing water vegetable, for example gaeng taepo (แกงเทโพ), are seldom well known by people outside of Thailand. This is because the local variety of morning glory is more likely to be cooked at home than in a restaurant.
Already the students, who are a mix of Thai and expat kids, have learned more about this native ingredient, and especially how to use it to reduce plastic waste. The plant is plentiful in the region and easy to grow. We can imagine the surprise of Thai farmers, if suddenly this ‘water weed’ becomes as valuable as other vegetables. The key is to remind the students that there are some drawbacks to using natural ingredients. The most important issue to be weary, is the ability of the plant to spread disease when not washed or cooked properly.
Making Banana Leaf Bowls
Thais still recognize the value of the banana leaf. You can find everything from steamed seafood, to sweet snacks being wrapped in banana in strong, sturdy banana leaves for cooking. Chefs who want to give their dish a more natural look, may even use a banana leaf at the bottom of their plate to improve aesthetics. However, the banana leaf has slipped somewhat in importance due to the cheap price and ease of use of plastics and styrofoam. We think the time has come to remind everyone how spectacular these large leaves can be for culinary purposes.
Once you have your hands on some banana leaves, it’s important to know Thai cooks will toast them, before using them with food. This can be done by quickly holding the leaf over fire, or dipping them a few seconds in boiling water. This helps with the hygiene of the leaf, but is also widely down to improve the strength of the leaf, making it tear less easily. Dry and cool the leaves, and they’re ready to be manipulated into all sorts of shapes. Toothpicks can be used to hold them together, but if you’re new to banana leaf origami, you may want to start by simply stapling the leaf to help it hold shape.
Cutting the banana leaves into spheres and putting them on plates alone, can help us reduce water usage and how much work needs to be done to wash the dishes. This is really big selling point with teenagers, and we use their sudden enthusiasm to pivot into making a snack together. The snack of choice is Thai crispy cup, filled with a mildly spicy chicken salad (with younger students we will make a Thai coconut pancake with the kids). The students mix their salad to their liking, some adding more fish sauce and palm sugar than recipe really requires. We don’t scold them much, we’re thankful they’re walking away excited about their banana leaf bowls, morning glory straws, and the tasty snack they learned to make.
We all have a role to play in caring for the environment and caring for people in need. Sharing this mission with kids, whether in slums or Bangkok’s fancy international schools, has been rewarding for our Courageous Kitchen team. To take our commitment to the next level this year, we’re on path to become Bangkok’s first plastic free cooking class, and hope to more cooking demos with students around the city.
Thank you for your support, and hold on to your aprons, we’ve got more to say about sustainability and making a difference in Thailand. If you have other tips for being sustainable in the kitchen please leave a comment below!
Exciting news! We’ve been featured in a local online magazine called The Cloud. The publication is in Thai, and includes some great photography, but we wanted to share more about the phenomenal weekend they visited, for supporters who may not read Thai. If you do, you can read the full article about Courageous Kitchen on The Cloud’s website, and help us by sharing with more Thai friends.
Typically when we have an opportunity to work with refugee kids from the communities we serve, it’s only for a few hours at a time. However, during the children’s school break, there’s more flexibility for us to host longer activities, such as our cooking camps. The camps give us a chance to work more closely with each of the students, and teach a wider range of subjects to the kids.
The day the team from The Cloud visited was the last day of our May cooking camp. In this cooking camp we worked with students who had much weaker English skills than the students who participated in the previous camp. If you remember the last cooking camp, in addition to fun Thai dishes, we also had everyone excited about the burgers and pizza we made too. However in the May camp, instead of fully focusing on cooking, our students were doing everything from fancy hat making, to an impossible human knot challenge, and learning to edit their own videos.
The subjects we choose for each camp depend on the ability of the students, and the interest of the participating volunteers. To be better suited for students with weaker English, our last batch of volunteer teachers helped run art therapy exercises, team building sessions, and challenged the students to use the English they’ve learned to make their own recipe videos.
The finale day saw the students putting the finishing touches on each group’s recipe video. While some students filmed and helped behind the scenes, others were challenged to stand in front of the camera and explain the recipes they were making in English. To keep the video editing from being too complicated, the students were assigned to simply explain how to make an herbal tea drink recipe. They made drinks from popular Thai ingredients like butterfly pea, chrysanthemum, and bael fruit, while managing to narrate and film at the same time.
Of course we had to take a break and cook lunch as well. The finale meal was a celebratory plate of banh xeo, a sort of Vietnamese crepe. For this cooking feat, we made an assembly line of students cooking pork belly and spring onion to use as filling for their crepes. Once everything was hot and smelling nice, they moved further along the station with their filling to make their crepe. The action of swirling the thin batter of turmeric tinted rice flour in the light weight, non-stick pans was exciting for everyone.
The challenge, however, was to get the crepe out of the pan without the fragile exterior fracturing into many pieces. While it was easier for some of the smaller students to fold the crepe in the pan, lifting it on to their plates, there’s a better way. The best technique to finish with a beautiful plate of banh xeo, is to dump the entire crepe out on your plate, folding it together as it falls, with a quick motion of the pan. Sound tricky? This is definitely a move inspired by the quick hands of the street food vendors we frequent!
After lunch, we gathered all the students to celebrate their accomplishments and watch their final videos. The students giggled with glee (and some horror) seeing their faces on the big screen. We discussed being brave in front of the camera, and being more conscious of lighting and sound when video making. Finally, everyone shared their biggest challenges and successes from the cooking camp before we said goodbye.
Our entire team had a great time this cooking camp and want to thank everyone who helped donate to sponsor this activity. Getting the students to be proud of their art, video production, and especially their culinary creations can be especially challenging with students overcoming trauma and fear they’ve accumulated over the years. However, this mission wasn’t in vain, and the wonderful article in The Cloud, and all the fun photos from the camp are a testament of what can be accomplished when we really believe courage is contagious.
Wherever you are reading from, and whatever you’re going through — be courageous!
Anyone who’s set foot in South East Asia the past few weeks has learned the hard way, just how hot this part of the world gets this time of year. Whether ducking into well air conditioned mega malls, or seeking refuge in one of Bangkok’s innumerable 7-Eleven shops, everyone has a strategy or two for heat relief. In today’s shared plate we want to make sure you’re on the lookout for one dessert that has been helping keep both chili scorched tongues, and sweat soaked bodies cool, long before the arrival of ice cream.
As a planet we’re experiencing unusually hot temperatures this year. Fortunately Thais have been coming up with inventive ways to deal with intense heat for ages. Long before refrigeration was democratized and ice cream was everywhere, shaved ice ruled hearts and minds in the Kingdom of Thailand with few challengers. When the air gets heavy and the heat seems unbearable, this is the dessert Thais seek out in Bangkok’s food filled streets.
Among street markets in Bangkok, a vendor serving shaved ice may feature anywhere from ten to thirty ingredients for guests to choose from. The variety of ingredients on display is your first clue that shaved ice desserts (called nam kaeng sai in Thai or น้ำแข็งใส) isn’t a singular dessert, but an entire experience. When you arrive at such a shop, you typically choose a few ingredients, and whether you’d prefer to have them served in pandan syrup or sweetened coconut milk. The ingredients usually include fresh fruit, candied fruit, jellies, rice noodles, and an odd selection of beans, peas, sweet corn, and millet. You can throw a mix of them all into your custom made bowl, or you can have a pre-set mix using ingredients popular enough to stand alone.
Tup tim grob (ทับทิมกรอบ), translated directly as red rubies, is one of those ingredients popular enough to stand on its own. In street side stalls, this bright pink colored water chestnut is often one of the first sell out. The snack is made by taking water chestnuts, covering them in flour (most commonly tapioca or arrowroot starch) and boiling them. Their bright pink color is borrowed typically from an artificially colored red syrup, and the boiled flour layer gives the chestnuts a soft, shiny sheen resembling a hand full of jewels.
The most recent guest to be won over by tup tim krob was the EU Ambassador to Thailand, Pirkka Tapiola. On a very hot day Ambassador Tapiola arrived with his staff and family in tow, for a fun day of visiting the market and cooking with our Courageous Kitchen students.
We also taught the ambassador and friends to make fried spring rolls, pad see ew (if you saw our last shared plate post, you know we’re huge fans of these Thai noodles), but the crowd pleaser was hands down the multicolored and multi-textured tup tim krob. We prefer to make the dessert with natural coloring, using beetroot, butterfly pea, and pandan to make several eye catching colors. Then for good measure guests could add fresh cantaloupe, watermelon, and lemon basil seeds. The lemon basil seeds are particularly interesting, because they’re eye catching and when soaked, develop a texture similar to chia.
Nowadays there’d no doubt that ice cream shops are the heat stroke prevention centers of choice for many dessert lovers. Still, however, the allure of this simple sweet remains in Thailand, and should be sought out while you’re visiting. With fewer shops remaining in business, you may find it packed with locals clamoring for a bowl nostalgia that the red gems bring.
Happy snacking, and don’t forget to share this bowl of gems with someone new!
If you’re interested in more edible relief from the summer heat, leave us some feedback below and stay tuned. For those travelers and foodies passing through, we look forward to making this Thai dessert with you in our cooking class in Bangkok.
Special Thanks to the EU Embassy, and all of their staff for making a special visit to Courageous Kitchen!