The menu starts off with a phla, a salad that is more herbal than yam. As opposed to a yam which allows for more freedom to mix and match different ingredients (such as Spicy Shrimp and Green Apple Salad), a phla tends to feature one type of protein and be heavier on the fresh herbs. Seafood makes a particularly good phla. (The recipe for this herbal salmon salad will appear in My Thai next week!)
You have to be able to read Thai to know that the second item on the menu is none other than Mee Krob (standard romanization: mi krop) made famous by Thai restaurants worldwide and even more famous by an episode of Sex and the City (Mee Krobilicious!). This dish represents what people love so much about Central Thai cuisine: the interplay of sweet, sour, and salty that is not spicy.
Thin rice noodles are fried until thoroughly crispy before being coated with a sticky tamarind and palm sugar sauce. Permeating the crispy, sticky noodles are bits of chicken, shrimp, and fried tofu. More refined versions of Mee Grob often include Chinese chives, bean sprouts, and, as you can see here, thin slices of pickled garlic (single-clove elephant garlic, in this case). A squeeze of lime serves as a substitute for the kind of local citrus fruit, a sought-after ingredient, that adds a nice, finishing touch to this much-loved dish.
Green Papaya Salad
A mild version of som tam, green papaya salad, was served at the dinner which, at this juncture, is making a departure from the central cuisine to something more regional. Of all the versions of som tam, classic and modern, this one featuring sweeter dressing and peanuts is the one that's most likely to be found outside Thailand.
Northeastern Thai Sausage
Thai food enthusiasts in the U.S. have seen some of the dishes from the Northeast of Thailand at their local Thai restaurants, the most famous being laap (commonly spelled "larb"). But this fermented sausage is, in my opinion, the best thing that has come out of the Northeastern plateau. Chopped fatty pork is mixed with cooked rice, garlic, and salt, filled into natural pork casings, and fermented for a few days until it develop a savory sour taste. The soured sausage is then grilled over medium to low coals until cooked through on the inside and taut and slightly charred on the outside.
Want to know more about this sausage and how to make it at home? Here you go. Some restaurants in the US have already started serving this sausage. Look for it in the appetizer section of the menu.
With this soup, Obama was transported to a neighborhood shophouse noodle joint. If you ever visit one of these places and order a noodle soup with meatballs without the noodles, then, yeah, you have first-hand experience of dining like a president at a state dinner. The presentation may be different; the essence of the dish is the same.
The meatballs here aren't like Italian meatballs. They're smooth and bouncy. And when I say, "bouncy," I mean, if you throw one on the ground really hard, it won't go splat; it will bounce like a ping pong ball. They're made by grinding meat so finely that it becomes a smooth and very sticky paste. The meat paste is then formed into balls of various sizes (averaging about one inch in diameter). Once boiled, these meatballs can be used in several different applications, most commonly in noodle dishes.
We've now arrived at the part of the menu that represents a sam rap, a typical Thai meal ensemble ideally comprising various dishes that complement each other. Rice is at the center of a typical Thai meal ensemble. You can't have a complete sam rap without rice -- the blank canvas that takes on the flavors of whatever you eat with it. Everything else revolves around the rice and exists to accompany it. This explains why the generic Thai word for a dish/main course is kap khao, literally "(something to eat) with rice."
The president was given Thai Hom Mali or jasmine rice, a fragrant rice that is the pride of Thailand.
Sweet Shredded Pork and Salted Egg Yolks
Ah, these two seemingly odd items are actually very, very good. It's unlikely that you'll find either of them on the menus of Thai restaurants overseas. The sweet shredded pork is made by boiling large chunks of lean pork, shredding them into strands then frying them along with the seasoning (sugar being the main ingredient) until the lean pork strands are dry and sticky. You can eat this with rice as part of a sam rap like this, or you can put it on top of sticky rice. The salted duck egg yolks balances out the sweetness of the shredded pork.
Grilled Prawns with Tamarind Sauce
I'm assuming they peeled the grilled prawns at the state dinner for I can't imagine foreign dignitaries and high-level government officials going at these prawns the way I normally do: greedily with bare hands.
Grilled river prawns and this sweet-salty-sour sauce topped with fried garlic, fried shallots, and fried dried chilies make for a classic combo. In Thailand, lightly blanched young leaves and buds of neem plant (Azadirachta indica) are often served along with the grilled prawns and the sauce to provide the bitter taste that helps balance out the sweetness of the sauce. I didn't include neem when I recreated this dish, because this side vegetable -- a definite acquired taste for those who didn't grow up eating it -- wasn't served at the dinner.
Pandan-flavored Rice Flour Dumplings and Steamed Taro Root in Coconut Cream
This is one of my favorite iced desserts to get at a shaved ice dessert stand, but I was a bit surprised to see it on the menu. After all, a bowl of pandan-flavored rice flour dumplings (lod chong) and cooked taro doesn't exactly scream "fine dining." But this could have been the Thai government's way of making the meal more unique and memorable. You'll probably have a hard time finding this dessert outside Thailand. Those who live in big U.S. cities with a large Thai population may have better chances of finding it.
Or maybe the local variety of pineapple that's sweeter and juicier than anything you can ever find in the States?
Or perhaps jackfruit?
Or ripe mangoes? I'm still guessing.
Or rose apples (jambu or chomphu)?
Or some hairy rambutans?
Oh, wait. Or durian? Durian at a state dinner honoring the U.S. president?! Probably not. The U.S. and Thailand have enjoyed warm diplomatic ties for such a long time, and it wouldn't make sense to jeopardize that now. Or could it have, you know, strengthened it? I don't know. You decide.
More beans.This time sweetened bean paste is formed into small, oblong balls to resemble jackfruit seeds. Hence the name, met khanun, which means jackfruit seeds. Many have been misled by the name and think these little sweet egg yolk-covered dumplings are made with jackfruit seeds. But nope, it's beans. Hulled mung beans.
Finally, we've got a break from beans. Thong Ek is one of the most elegant desserts in the Thai dessert repertoire. The name means "golden supreme" and it appears at many a wedding, housewarming party, or New Year celebration. Flour, sugar, egg yolks are cooked together to produce a sticky paste which goes into individual cookie molds. Once unmolded, these little no-bake "cookies" usually get smoked with a Thai scented candle and anointed with a tiny speck of edible gold leaf.
This is an easy dessert to make; I'll share a recipe on My Thai very soon.