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My Thai: Thai-Inspired Coconut-Pandan Rice Pudding with Fresh Mango
Ataulfo or Champagne mangoes are in season right now in North America, and I'd be remiss if I didn't get this post out there in a timely manner.
In fact, with the mango season so fleeting, it might not be a bad idea for you to turn off your computer right now, run to the closest Asian or Hispanic store, and haul home a case of these sweet, plump, meaty, non-fibrous mangoes before they're all gone never to return until next year.
Don't let the post title fool you—I'm only following tradition here. If I could, I would call it, Mango with Coconut-Pandan Rice Pudding. You see, this dessert is mostly about the mango and the role it plays in this classic Thai flavor pairing. The rice? Eh.
It's not that the rice pudding part isn't important; it's just that it's the component of the dish that you can make any time of the year to enjoy as a stand-alone dessert. But if you'd like to pair the coconut rice pudding with mango, the window of opportunity to do so each year is quite small. If that window is missed, all that's available is the tasteless, fibrous Tommy Atkins mangoes that show up unapologetically at the supermarket all year round.
But if those are the only mangoes available to you, be sure they are ripened. I'll admit: it's not that easy to determine when a Tommy Atkins mango is perfectly ripe. With an Ataulfo, you know it's at its peak when the skin is thoroughly golden with no trace of green and slightly wrinkled around the thickest parts; with Mr. Atkins, it's not always obvious.
A Tommy Atkins can ripen to the point of semi-rotten without any color change on the outside. In fact, when it comes to Tommy Atkins mangoes, I almost always err on the side of using them when under-ripe. That way, I know for sure that they have not turned soft and mushy, a state in which they're irredeemable and good only in puréed form. At least hard, tasteless mangoes can be fixed by coating them in warmed honey. In fact, this is what I suggest that you do for this particular dish, if you absolutely cannot find mangoes that are better than Tommy Atkins.
Traditionally, the iconic Thai sweet coconut sticky rice that is paired with ripe mangoes is made with the kind of long grain glutinous rice that is common in Southeast Asia. Khao niao, as we Thais call it, can be intimidating to those who are not familiar with this ingredient. Many erroneously think of this type of rice as just another variety of short-grain, sticky rice heavily used in the cuisines of East Asia and treat it accordingly. They're in for an unpleasant surprise.
We'll deal with how Thai sticky rice behaves—how finicky and temperamental it can be, the type of sparkling water and the colors of M&Ms it demands backstage, etc.—in due time. For now, we're using the much more forgiving and user-friendly jasmine rice in this dessert. (It has just the right amount of starch. Basmati is too low in starch and failed miserably in creating the desired consistency when I tested the recipe.)
The cooking method has also been adapted for the stovetop, yielding a result that is more similar to Western-style rice pudding in terms of consistency and appearance than the traditional dish by which it is inspired. The flavor, however, is exactly the same as the original.
The use of pandan (pandanus), one of Southeast Asia's favorite fragrances, here is optional. Only well-stocked Asian grocery stores, specialized in Southeast Asian ingredients, carry pandan leaves (most often in frozen form). If you can't find pandan leaves, or if you don't like the scent of pandan, by all means, leave them out of the recipe.