Bamboo tubes are stuffed with uncooked sticky rice, sugar, coconut milk and salt, sealed, boiled then grilled in charcoal. Khao lam is delicious beyond words.
Me, running out of words… That’s strange. Even for me. But it’s hard to find the right combination of words and phrases that can give justice to khao lam. Our first khao lam experience was aboard a songthaew during a food tour in Chiang Mai. We were driving to the next stop when our tour guide whipped out a tube and started peeling it to reveal the sticky rice inside — so densely packed that she easily tore off a piece with her fingers without the rice crumbling apart.
She passed the tube of rice around and urged everyone to take a piece. And it was just so dreamy. Even for someone who grew up with tubular rice cakes (we call them suman in the Philippines but they are wrapped in either leaves or fronds), my first taste of khao lam was… Well, it went deep. Deep. Not to be melodramatic but it was a moving experience. How can basic, and quite humble, ingredients give birth to something so luscious with old-fashioned cooking?
It’s just sweet sticky rice, really, but there’s something about the texture that is only possible to achieve by sealing the rice in bamboo tubes so that it cooks in the mixture of coconut milk and steam. It’s like pressure cooking inside bamboo in a pot of briskly boiling water.
And the flavor… Oh, the flavor. There is a subtle smokiness because, after the rice is done, it goes through the additional step of cooking directly in glowing charcoal — not over charcoal but IN the charcoal. The bamboo tubes are then shaved leaving only a thin layer sourrounding the rice — a layer so thin you can pry it open with your fingers.
Days later, at Warorot Market, we spotted khao lam in so many variants. Alex and I bought two and paired them with spicy Thai sausage which I simply heated in a pan, waited until fat was rendered and let the sausage brown in its own fat.
I cut the sausage into bite-size pieces and Alex tore the khao lam into the same size. And we were happy. It’s the kind of food that makes travel so culturally enriching. We were so happy, in fact, that we debated whether to bring home several tubes of khao lan.
In the end, we decided we clouldn’t. It would have been an exercise in futility. Rice with coconut milk, unrefrigerated, would never survive a seven-hour flight plus the hours it would take to drive from the airport to our home in the suburb in the midst of the infamous Metro Manila traffic.
If you’re interested in watching how khao lan is made, I searched Youtube for the most authentic video.