When I was in grade school, my grandfather (whose birthday is coming up – Happy Birthday, Khun Ta!) and I had our weekly ritual. The two of us would walk to the nearest newsstand, about a block away from our house, to buy the weekend edition of the Bangkok Post.
Back then, the main section included an English crossword puzzle for advanced English speakers (Grandpa) and a small insert that featured a dumbed-down crossword puzzle for novice English learners (me). We would then spend the rest of the afternoon working on our respective puzzles, talking, and snacking. Some very meaningful and loving conversations were had during those moments which I always fondly remember.
Part of the ritual was buying snacks on the way home. We would make a stop at a tiny stall where an old lady sold all sorts of delicious fried things. She made two kinds of Thai fried bananas (her flagship products), fried tofu, fried taro, fried corn fritters, fried curry puffs, etc. Yai Kluai Khaek or Grandma Fried Banana (GFB henceforth) – as she was called – was quite a character. She never smiled and appeared to be in a perpetual state of crankiness. Yet, despite the less than enthusiastic customer service, there was a constant stream of people lining up to buy her fried goodies from dawn to dusk. Everything she made was that good.
I suppose when you’re as good as GFB, you can get away with a bit of self-deification. It matters not how you think the universe should work; when you stand in the presence of GFB, it’s her way or the highway. The proper protocol would be 1. get in line, 2. approach the stall once the previous customer leaves, 3. since GFB was hard of hearing, make your wish known to her loudly but by no means should you be yelling (you’re entirely responsible for knowing where the line between speaking loudly and yelling is), 4. wait for her to bag your stuff, 5. pay, and 6. get the heck out. That’s it. No comments. No small talks. Grandpa and I had watched in a mix of horror and amusement some new customers who, and whose ancestors, got yelled at — cursed, really — for making a protocol gaffe of telling GFB which pieces of fried bananas on the cooling rack they preferred.
Sadly, when I entered high school, GFB disappeared. They got rid of her stall along with everything else in that area to erect an office building. And all I have left is the memories. In the past few years, I have tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully, to create recipes based on my semi-faint memories of the tastes and textures of GFB’s goodies. Without the dark brown oil (from repeated uses), the toxin leached out from the newspaper bags, and GFB’s culinary mastery, my versions will definitely fall short. But in the next few weeks, I will be posting GFB-inspired recipes that I consider to be close enough to the originals.
We started off with fried sweet potatoes just because it was Grandpa’s favorite. Originally, the fries are made out of Thai yams (which are firmer, more starchy, and less sweet than sweet potatoes) or taro roots. But I’ve found sweet potatoes to be an acceptable substitute. The fries, featuring textural contrast between the crunchy exterior (a combination of rice and potato/corn starch makes for ‘light’ and crunchy coating) and the soft and creamy interior, are traditionally served with a dipping sauce similar to what I’ve included here but with an addition of tamarind paste. I like my no-fuss version better, though.
Our Favorite Thai Fried Sweet Potatoes with Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce
Makes enough for an appetizer for 2
One large or two medium sweet potatoes (3/4 lb), peeled and cut into long 1/4-inch sticks
1/3 cup (36 g) rice flour
2 tablespoons unsweetened dried coconut flakes*
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoon cornstarch or tapioca starch
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
For the dipping sauce: Mix together 1/2 cup Thai sweet chilli dipping sauce (store-bought or homemade), 1/4 cup finely chopped unsweetened roasted peanuts, and 1 tablespoon of finely chopped cilantro leaves.
- Heat up vegetable oil in a small pan over medium heat. The oil should be at least 3 inches deep. In general, the more oil, the more heat is retained and the less oily the end results will be.
- While waiting for the oil to heat up, prepare the batter. In a mixing bowl, mix together all the ingredients except the sweet potato sticks. Add enough water to the dry mixture just until it forms a paste. The consistency of the batter should be similar to that of Greek yogurt.
- Add the sweet potato sticks to the batter and toss with your hands until every piece is coated.
- The oil is ready when you touch the bottom of the pan with the end of a wooden chopstick and little bubbles slowly come up to the surface (a trick I learn from Martin Yan). Gently drop the coated sweet potato sticks into the hot oil. If the fries stick together, gently separate them. When the fries are golden brown, fish them out and drain them on a paper towel-lined plate.
- Serve immediately with the prepared dipping sauce.
- *The ideal unsweetened coconut flakes should be quite fine. I got mine from an Indian grocery store. If your coconut flakes come in coarse strands, you may want to grind them first in a coffee grinder.