One of my favorite local Thai restaurants, which recently closed, had an appetizer simply labeled "vegetable dumpling" on the menu. The name sounded boring to me, so it took years until I actually got around to ordering them. When I finally did, the "dumplings" were nothing like what I expected. Instead of pockets of dough, I got crispy golden cubes with chewy interiors and garlicky chives speckled throughout. I fell in love with them, and from that day on, those "dumplings" were the only appetizer I ever ordered.
Since then, I've come across this type of chive cake at only a handful of other restaurants; I've also found a closely related version in stuffed-dumpling form with a chive filling and glutinous wrapper, though I don't care for those as much as the cakes.
Since my local source closed, though, I've been going through a nasty case of withdrawal. There was only one thing left to do: Make my own.
I started by researching recipes and found numerous ones online. It turns out their Thai name is kanom gui chai, and for the most part, all the recipes I saw closely mirrored each other. This gave me a pretty clear starting point, and, with a little testing of my own, I've arrived at what I think are the best version I've had so far.
The biggest question to me was how to get that smooth, chewy texture that's the signature of these cakes. I knew it was kind of similar to mochi, but I had never made mochi either, so that wasn't a huge help. My guiding recipes generally called for rice flour and tapioca flour, which cook into a fine-crumbed, soft, chewy cake unlike any wheat flour dough, but some recipes also added a third: glutinous rice flour.* I wondered if it was truly needed—why buy three speciality flours if you can get by just as well with only two?
Take note that there's no gluten in glutinous rice flour; it's made from sticky (aka "glutinous") rice.
So I picked up all three flours from the Asian market—you may be able to find them at your local market under the Bob's Red Mill brand—and made two batches of the batter, one with glutinous rice flour, the other without.
Once cooked up, there was no question which I preferred: The cakes made with glutinous rice flour had a chewier, springier texture compared to the ones made without, which were more dense. Spring for that third flour.
Chinese chives are another essential component of these cakes. They look like dark green, flat scallions and have a flavor that straddles the line between onion and garlic. They're the main source of flavor in the chive cakes, so it would be difficult to find a suitable substitute (though ramps, when they're in season, would be interesting).
The Chinese chives are chopped and then sautéed until just tender, which only takes a minute or two. A number of recipes call for mixing in baking soda to preserve their color, but I've found that while it does help give them a more consistent dark-green appearance once cooked, it also made them clump together—a feature that might be good as a filling for stuffed dumplings, but not for these cakes, where we want them to distribute evenly throughout the batter.
With the chives cooked and stirred into the batter, the next step is to steam it, which sets it into a solid, chewy cake. Your steaming setup will depend on what you have at home, but I found that an eight-inch cake pan set in a small stock pot with a steamer insert worked well.
Once cooked, you cut the cake into triangles or squares.
Crispy & Chewy
The final step of the process is to fry them until crisp and golden.
To do it, I filled my wok with about an inch of oil, heated it to 375°F, and then cooked the cakes, flipping them occasionally as they cooked, until they're ready.
All these need is the dipping sauce, which is made from dark soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, dark brown sugar, and rice vinegar.
With this recipe finally figured out, my need for these fried chive cakes was once again met. Luckily, each batch makes enough for many servings, so whatever I don't use I can freeze. Then, whenever I order Thai from one of the remaining local Thai places that don't have them on the menu, I can whip up a batch to complete my meal—yes, I know cooking kind of defeats the purpose of ordering in, but you have to understand, I can't live without them.