Why This Recipe Works
- Blending fresh pandan leaves with coconut milk and then pouring the mixture through a fine-mesh strainer captures the vibrant color, flavor, and aroma of pandan without the use of artificially flavored extracts or long steeping times.
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.
Thai Coconut Custard Dip (Sangkhaya) Recipe
Serve this sweet, creamy pandan-flavored custard as you would fondue: at a table with good friends and plenty of bread cubes.
2 to 3 frozen pandan leaves, thawed, rinsed, and blotted dry (see note)
1 cup coconut milk or a combination of 1/2 cup coconut milk and 1/2 cup whole milk
3 large egg yolks
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch
About 6 ounces of white bread (pain de mie, brioche, sweet dinner rolls work well), cut into 1-inch cubes
Cut the pandan leaves into one-inch pieces and place them in a blender or food processor along with the coconut milk. Blend until smooth and strain. With a rubber spatula, press out as much liquid out of the mixture as possible. Hopefully, you’ll get one cup of the pandan-coconut milk mixture. If not, add more coconut milk or whole milk to the liquid so that it measures one cup.
In a medium saucepan, whisk together the yolks, sugar, salt, and cornstarch until smooth. Very slowly whisk in the pandan-coconut milk mixture. Make sure there are no lumps.
Place the saucepan over medium heat and slowly bring the mixture to a gentle boil, whisking constantly. In about two minutes the mixture will thicken up to the consistency of yogurt. When that happens, take the saucepan off the heat.
Let the custard cool.
In the meantime, steam the bread cubes by place them in a heatproof bowl, covered with a piece of plastic wrap, and microwaved on high for 40 to 60 seconds. Keep the bread covered.
Once the dip has cooled down to slightly warmer than room temperature, transfer it to a serving bowl and serve with the steamed bread cubes.
Pandan (or pandanus) leaves are available frozen at most Asian grocery stores. If you cannot find them, you can leave them out entirely and scent the dip with a teaspoon of vanilla extract. You can also use a teaspoon of artificial pandan extract (it comes in a small glass bottle) in place of pandan leaves, if you can find it. What you should steer clear of, however, is what is labeled "pandan juice" or "pandan extract" that comes in a can. It's too diluted; its green color is marred by oxidation; its scent is almost nonexistent; it's completely useless in this application.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 36g||47%|
|Saturated Fat 25g||126%|
|Total Carbohydrate 113g||41%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||8%|
|Total Sugars 68g|
|Vitamin C 1mg||6%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|