Though the delicious food in Thailand is undoubtedly one of the reasons that I moved to Bangkok, Thai sweets presented a strong challenge to my taste buds. Early on in my Thai travels, I often saw vendors at markets or on street corners selling trays of gelatinesque squares: unnatural looking blocks whose color ranged from ‘80s tints of hot pink and green, to brackish shades of mossy-black. I was hesitant to try them- not because I really had any reason to think that they would taste bad, but more than anything simply because they looked unappealing to me. I’m usually attracted to desserts like home made brownies and chocolate chip cookies: treats that look invitingly warm and doughy, and bear the loving irregularities of having been hand made. Many Thai sweets, on the other hand, looked to me cold and plastic, alarming in their neon colors and manufactured uniformity. Thankfully I got past my prejudices, and while I haven’t liked all of the ones that I’ve tried, I’ve had some really delicious surprises. Recently, I encountered a particularly tasty Thai sweet at the Chatuchak weekend market: a chao kuay treat called “Black Vanilla.”
I’d seen the stand several times on one of my favorite alleys in Chatuchak, a busy lane in section 3 that's packed with hip t-shirt stands, tiny design stores, and expensive shops stocking candles and fragrant oils. This bright-orange dessert stand specializes in a dessert they call “Black Vanilla”. It is made with chao kuay, black jelly. Chao kuay is made from a Chinese plant, and thus has the unexpected taste of fresh herbs. It can be a little medicinal on its own- and it in fact is said to have health properties. The stand has a steady stream of customers, but thankfully the dessert is quick to prepare. One woman takes orders, while another stands at the front, scooping crushed ice and powdery brown sugar onto fat slices of black jelly. With its granulated sweetness and grassy jellyness, the dessert combines strongly contrasting flavors and textures. Once the ice begins to melt, however, the different elements begin to blend together. Once mixed, the herb flavors of the black jelly and the syrupy sweetness of the brown sugar take on a refreshing taste, like the flavor of a natural root beer. It’s n enjoyable unusual modern Thai treat, and the perfect refreshment for an afternoon pushing through crowds at Chatuchak.