One of the most memorable wee-hours, post-clubbing meals I've had is the one shared with a group of friends in Bangkok's Chinatown a few years ago. We sat down to a feast of very old-fashioned, very nostalgic goodies. A plate of thick slices of white bread toasted over charcoal, smeared with butter, sprinkled with sugar, and cut into large cubes which you eat with a bamboo stick. Crispy-yet-soft-and-so-incredibly-flaky roti canai doused in sweetened condensed milk—everything you'd want to eat after a late-night out.
But the night wouldn't be complete without our childhood favorite—a set of pandan-flavored sangkhaya and soft, warm white bread cubes—a meal in itself, really. Add a glass of iced Thai tea and I would have been willing to die right there on the side of the famous Yaowarat road.
It was while I was dipping a cube of bread into sangkhaya—something I'd done hundreds of times before—that my mind drifted to the way my mother used to make this creamy coconut dip, how she would whisk together some egg yolks, sugar, coconut milk, and cornstarch on the stovetop and how, like magic, all those things turned into this velvety, creamy, coconut-y custard in just a couple of minutes. And as the creamy dip dripped down my chin, a realization struck me in a fresh way, "Hey, I'm dipping bread cubes in pastry cream!"
Sangkhaya is essentially crème pâtissière albeit slightly runnier. It's made with coconut milk (or a combination of coconut milk and milk) and meant to be slathered on warm bread or served as a dip along with bread and sometimes fried crullers.
Then another thought hit me: why is it that dipping sangkhaya—something that people in Thailand routinely enjoy doing—is hardly offered at Thai restaurants overseas?
I can't imagine this is because it's been preemptively determined that non-Thai palates wouldn't enjoy sangkhaya. After all, who wouldn't enjoy dipping soft, warm bread cubes in a sweet, silky coconut dip? And it's not like the dip contains fermented fish sauce, shrimp paste, or any other acquired taste.
But if I was to venture a guess, I'd say it's what happens when you take dishes from one eating culture and subject them to the classification system of another. Certain things have long been blissfully uncategorized (because they're not categorizable and, frankly, don't need to be) then all of a sudden, need to be categorized. And when that doesn't work out in a restaurant setting, they get dropped.
We may not get a consensus on this but I consider sangkhaya a mini meal. It's not really an appetizer; it's certainly not an entrée; it's not exactly a post-meal dessert either. A snack? Well, it's not something you pull out of a paper bag and pop into your mouth while walking in the park or munching on mindlessly while watching TV.
You almost need to sit around the table with a bunch of friends as you would with a sweet, communal fondue pot. And this might explain why dipping sangkhaya isn't better known outside Thailand. While it fits perfectly into the way people eat in Thailand, it doesn't fit so well in a course-based menu format of the West.
All this is to say that if dipping sangkhaya is something that you'd like to try, you probably won't find it on your local Thai restaurant menu—all the more reason to make it at home. If you know how to make pastry cream, you already know how to make this sweet dip.