Maybe it was the day that made it so memorable — an afternoon marked by waterfalls, an epic road trip up a mountain and a blood-red sunset.

Maybe it was the air, infused with the scents of grilled char, pungent fish sauce and the sear of chiles.

Our mouths were already watering before we sank our teeth into the coconut rice cakes, so delicately crispy around their edges and subtly sweet that we were sure the clouds had hopped down from their heavenly posts for us to consume.

These confections, we decided, were the gem of the night market in Pai, Thailand. They were hardly the first tasty treasures we discovered, or the last.

My travel companions and I weren’t on a culinary tour. We’d booked a trip to Southeast Asia to see parts of the world we’d never seen. We quickly learned that the food of the region turned out to be as great a draw as the sights.

We perched on streetside stools with bowls of broth and noodles. We grazed our way through markets, eyeing the roasted scorpions, but plucking skewers of more traditional meats instead. We crammed onto roof decks, where the hot Bangkok air became almost breezy and washed down plates of prawns with mojitos. Along the way, we tasted new flavors and textures. We pooled our money. We shared our food.

We found those rice coconut cakes while making the ascent from Chiang Mai to the lush, mountaintop town of Pai. We had stopped at a roadside hut for pad Thai — the best we would find throughout Thailand — and a bright yellow-green papaya salad, full of fresh crunch and anchovy-laden saltiness and perfectly pink dried shrimp on top. The rice cakes later that evening were the crowning jewel.

Days later, in Siem Reap, Cambodia, we would eat at a restaurant inside a Colonial-style wooden house with beautifully tiled floors and big, open windows impeded only by rolled up bamboo shades. There, we discovered fish amok — a frothy, custard-like curry steamed inside thick banana leaves, and freshly made rice crackers topped with shrimp and pork dip that was flaked red with chiles and left the edges of our lips burning ever so slightly.

Over the course of two weeks, there was hardly an adventure that wasn’t heightened in some way by the food we saw, smelled or tasted.

Thanks to an abundance of great Southeast Asian recipes available, I was able to re-create some of those flavors — if somewhat less adventurously — in my own kitchen.

You can, too.

Green Papaya Salad

Serves 4.

Note: Once you have peeled the papaya and removed the seeds, a good trick for easily shredding it is to whack the fruit repeatedly with a long, sharp knife to create many shallow cuts and then shave off the outer layers with a vegetable peeler. Repeat the process until the papaya flesh is all shredded. Some Asian grocery stores also carry pre-shredded green papaya. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, use a small bowl and a wooden spoon. From “50 Great Curries of Thailand,” by Vatcharin Bhumichitr.

• 4 oz. green papaya, peeled with seeds removed (see Note)

• 1 garlic clove

• 3 small fresh red or green chiles

• 1 tbsp. roasted peanuts

 1 oz. long beans (about 1/4 c.), chopped into 1-in. lengths (green beans can be substituted)

•2 tbsp. lemon juice

• 3 tbsp. fish sauce (if vegetarian, use soy sauce)

• 1 tsp. sugar

• 1 medium tomato, chopped into segments

• 2 large Chinese cabbage leaves

• 1/2 c. dried shrimp, for garnish (found in Asian grocery stores)


Finely shred the papaya flesh or chop it very finely into long, thin shreds (see Note). Set aside.

In a mortar, lightly pound the garlic. Add the chiles and lightly pound again. Add the peanuts and lightly pound while occasionally stirring with a spoon to prevent the resulting paste from thickening.

Add the long beans and slightly bruise them. Add the shredded papaya, lightly pound and stir until all ingredients are blended together.

Add the lemon juice, fish or soy sauce and sugar, and stir into the mixture. Finally, add the tomato, stirring once. Put the cabbage leaves on a plate and scoop the mixture onto them. Garnish with dried shrimp.

Fish Baked in Curry Custard (Amok)

Serves 4.

Note: These curries can be steamed in banana leaves fashioned into small boats (and the edges secured with toothpicks) or, more easily, in small ramekins. They can also be baked in the oven. Shrimp can be substituted for the fish, if necessary. From

• Vegetable oil, for greasing

 1 lb. skinless sea bass, cod, red snapper or haddock, cut into 16 equal pieces

• 2 c. coconut milk

• 6 tbsp. yellow curry paste

• 3 tbsp. red chili-garlic paste (such as Kum-Lee brand)

• 2 tbsp. fish sauce

• 1 tbsp. finely grated palm sugar or light brown sugar

• 1 tsp. kosher salt

• 3 eggs

• 4 large banana leaves to replace the ramekins, if desired

 Thinly shredded Kaffir lime leaves and sliced red chiles, for garnish


Grease 4 (8-oz.) ramekins with oil and divide the fish evenly in 4 ramekins.

In a large bowl, whisk the coconut milk with the curry paste, chili-garlic paste, fish sauce, palm sugar, salt and eggs, until smooth. Divide the custard evenly in the ramekins. Alternatively, fashion banana leaves into boats, fasten the edges with toothpicks and use in place of the ramekins.

If steaming: Pour about 2 inches of water in a steamer and place the ramekins inside. Steam until the custards are set, but jiggle slightly in the center, about 20 minutes.

If roasting: Heat the oven to 350 degrees and place the bowls inside a roasting pan. Place the pan inside the oven and pour enough boiling water in the pan to come halfway up the sides of the bowls. Bake until the custards are set, but jiggle slightly in the center, about 50 minutes. Lift the bowls from the water bath and set on a plate. Garnish with the lime leaves and red chiles.

Rice Crackers With Pork-Shrimp-Coconut Dip

Serves 4.

Note: If you don’t want to take the time to make your own rice crackers, you can easily substitute store-bought rice cakes. Canned coconut milk is best bought at Asian grocery stores, which has varieties that are typically much creamier than Western types. If tamarind paste is unavailable, dried tamarind can be ground into a paste by hand. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, substitute a small bowl and a wooden spoon. Palm sugar is commonly found at Asian groceries; however, brown sugar can be substituted if necessary. Prawn tomalley (the orangish-red substance visible in whole prawns’ heads) can be extracted easily from prawns themselves — however, to collect the amount necessary for this recipe, about twice the amount of shrimp called for will be required. Use the leftover shrimp for another dish or substitute for the fish in the amok recipe. To extract the tomalley, pull off the outer shell of the prawn heads and squeeze the red paste-like substance into a small bowl. The tomalley lends a pungent, fishy flavor to the dish but can be omitted if necessary. From “Bangkok: Recipes and Stories From the Heart of Thailand,” by Leela Punyaratabandhu.

 2 dried Thai long or guajillo chiles, cut into 1-in. pieces, soaked and softened and squeezed dry

• 1 tsp. white peppercorns

• 1 tbsp. finely chopped cilantro roots or stems

• 4 large garlic cloves

 1/2 c. freshly extracted coconut cream or 1/2 c. canned coconut cream plus 1 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

• 1 tbsp. fresh prawn tomalley (see Note)

• 2 oz. shallots, finely diced

• 1 c. coconut milk (see Note)

• 1 c. ground pork

 1 c. shrimp, peeled, deveined and finely chopped (if extracting the tomalley, purchase 2 c. whole prawns)

• 1 1/2 tbsp. packed grated palm sugar (see Note)

• 1 tbsp. tamarind paste (see Note)

• 1 tsp. salt

• 1/3 c. unsalted roasted peanuts, very finely chopped

• 2 tbsp. coconut cream, for garnish

• 3 or 4 red chile slivers, for garnish

• 3 or 4 fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

• Fried rice crackers (see recipe), for serving


In a mortar, grind together the 2 chiles, peppercorns, cilantro roots or stems and garlic to form a smooth paste.

Transfer the paste to a 2-quart saucepan and add 1/2 cup coconut cream and tomalley. Place the pan over medium-high heat and stir constantly for 1 minute. Stir in the shallots, 1 cup coconut milk, pork, shrimp, sugar, tamarind paste and salt, and adjust the heat to maintain a gentle boil. Cook until the pork and shrimp are opaque, 6 to 8 minutes. Adjust the seasoning if necessary, then stir in the peanuts.

Remove from the heat and let cool until just warmer than room temperature. Garnish with 2 tablespoons coconut cream, chile slivers and cilantro leaves, and serve with the rice crackers (homemade or commercially available).

Fried Rice Crackers

Makes 24 crackers.

Note: From “Bangkok: Recipes and Stories From the Heart of Thailand,” by Leela Punyaratabandhu.

• 1 1/2 c. cooked long-grain white rice, preferably Thai jasmine

• Vegetable oil, for deep frying


Line 2 sheet pans with parchment paper.

Scoop up the cooked rice, 1 tablespoon at a time, and place on the pans. With damp fingers, form the grains into a single layer, creating a round just shy of 3 inches in diameter. Don’t worry if the rounds feel too loose — when dry, they will harden and stick together. Dry in the sun or in a 110-degree oven, flipping every now and then, until they are dried all the way to the center. When in doubt, err on the side of over-drying. Oven drying will take about 12 hours. Sun drying will depend on the weather conditions.

Pour the oil to a depth of 2 inches in a wok or pot and heat to 350 degrees. Line a sheet pan with paper towels and place near the stove. Fry the rounds in batches, flipping once, until they are golden brown, about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on the towel-lined pan. Let cool completely before serving or storing.

Limestone Solution

Makes 4 c.

Note: This is used with the Coconut-Rice Pudding Cakes. Limestone paste is commonly available at Asian groceries. From “Bangkok: Recipes and Stories From the Heart of Thailand,” by Leela Punyaratabandhu.

• 1/2 c. food-grade red limestone paste (see Note)

• 4 c. water


Whisk together the limestone paste and 4 cups water in a large glass jar until the paste is fully dissolved. Leave it undisturbed until the limestone paste sinks to the bottom and the solution becomes clear, about 1 hour. To store, cap tightly and keep at room temperature.

Coconut-Rice Pudding Cakes

Makes 48 small cakes.

Note: In Thailand, these cakes are made with a special pan. However, a cast-iron Danish pancake (aebleskiver) pan also works well, and is widely available in Minnesota. Canned coconut milk is best bought at Asian groceries, where the varieties are typically creamier. From “Bangkok: Recipes and Stories From the Heart of Thailand,” by Leela Punyaratabandhu.


 1/2 c. raw long-grain white rice, preferably Thai jasmine, soaked in water for 5 to 6 hours, then drained

• 1 c. rice flour

• 1 c. Limestone Solution (see recipe)

• 1 c. full-fat coconut milk

• 1/4 c. sugar

• 1/4 tsp. salt

• 1/4 c. oil for greasing the pan


• 1/4 c. rice flour

• 1 c. coconut cream

• 1 c. full fat coconut milk

• 3 tbsp. sugar

• 1/2 tsp. salt


To make the batter: In a blender combine the rice, 1 cup rice flour, Limestone Solution, 1 cup coconut milk, 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Process until perfectly smooth. Set aside.

To make the topping: In a bowl, combine 1/4 cup rice flour, coconut cream, 1 cup coconut milk, 3 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Whisk until smooth; set aside.

Heat the pan over medium-high heat until hot. Brush the oil over the surface of each hollow in the mold. Ladle the batter into each crevice, filling it about three-fourths full. Tilt the pan back and forth so the batter coats the sides.

Cover the pan and cook until the surface of each cake turns opaque around the edges but still looks undercooked — about 5 minutes. Ladle 2 teaspoons topping onto each cake, filling each spot to the top. Cook another 2 minutes or until the topping is no longer runny but still jiggles when the pan is shaken. Using a butter knife, carefully pry out each cake. Eat while warm.