We have never liked kanom buang, the sweet crispy 'crepes' (or 'Thai tacos', as they're often called) sold on the street that most visitors to Thailand seem to go ga-ga over. It's the filling (whipped white stuff that reminds me of marshmallow fluff and flourescent orange egg threads) that puts us off. Too sweet, too garishly colored to really be considered food.
But a couple of weeks ago in Bangkok we had a kanom buang epiphany. The assignment that took us there had us spending far too many hours in Sukhumvit shopping mall food courts, but we were able to wrangle lodging in the exceedingly delicious neighborhood of Nang Leong, which allowed us to devote a good few hours each morning to sniffing out local goodies. (By the way, did you know that if you drag yourself out of bed by 6am you can partake of breakfast, lunch, and a snack by 11?)
Cruising down Nakon Sawan street, we passed a stall displaying an intriguing assortment of ingredients: foi tung (sweet golden egg threads; see them being made here), raisins, sugared ginger strips, grated coconut, sesame seeds, ground peanuts, cilantro leaves, and prik haeng (ground dried chilies) in a shaker bottle. In the alley behind the stall the vendor was stirring naa gong (tiny shrimp caramelized in sugar) in a beautiful brass wok.
Khun Noi is a chatty guy. He told us he's been selling kanom buang from this spot in Nang Leong for over thirty years. And, judging by the number of newspaper and magazine clippings displayed on his cart and hanging on the walls of the alley, his version is famous.
He prepares all the ingredients himself. If we'd arrived earlier we'd have found him making foi tung or grinding rice and mung beans for the kanom beung batter. Before softening rice and beans in water he toasts the latter in a huge wok. This, he says, is what makes his kanom buang better than most - the extra flavor that the batter gets from toasted beans.
We headed down the street in search of something to tide us over until Khun Noi opened for business. When we returned an hour later the naa gong were ready
and his griddle was on. Showtime.
Kanom buang makers can churn these treats out in a flash, but they're much harder to make than these men and women make it look. Khun Noi invited me behind his stall to try my hand at making the 'pancakes'. I massacred four before he was willing to concede I might not have what it takes.
The batter is ladled onto the griddle with a flattish wooden spoon, then spread from the center outward by moving the back of the spoon in increasingly wider concentric circles.
It's a matter of pressing down lightly and evenly so that the pancake ends up an even thickness, while all the while moving quickly enough so that the batter is completely spread before it cooks through. (My sad effort can be seen on the right, above.)
Once the pancake is set Khun Noi spreads it not with the mallow fluff-like sugar most kanom buang makers use, but instead with a very thin layer of cooked, whipped fragrant brown cane sugar (namtaan ooi).
He makes two versions. We most love his phet-waan (spicy-sweet) kanom buang, which are filled with naa gong, grated coconut, two or three leaves of coriander, ground peanuts, and a sprinkle of ground chili. With their light, sweetish seafood flavor, coriander pungency, and chili heat that doesn't set the mouth afire but just tickles the middle of the tongue, they take the savory-sweet balance that Thai cooks do so well to new heights.
That said, we wouldn't turn up our noses at his sweet kanom buang, which are stuffed with sesame seeds, raisins, coconut, egg threads, and ginger.
Khun Noi's pancake shells are wonderful, with a wholesome grainy-beany flavor that stands up to the fillings. They're crisp and ethereally light, shattering between the teeth and dissolving almost instantly on the tongue.
Now that I think about it, perhaps it's going to far to say that Khun Noi's treats have made us kanom buang converts; on this trip we weren't tempted in the least by other versions we encountered. They looked - and, I'm betting, tasted - nothing like his. Let's just say that we are now open to the possibility that a kanom buang can be something delicious. If you're in Bangkok it's worth a trip to Nang Leong to sample Khun Noi's.
Khun Noi's kanom buang, Thanon Nakon Sawan, about half a block from Thanon Krong Kasem. Mid-morning till about 3pm. (Traffic in this part of the city is murder, but the Klong Saen Saep express boat (about a 10 minute walk from Sukhumvit, behind Gaysorn) will get you there in a jiffy. Get off at the Bo Bae stop; Nakon Sawan is about a fifteen minute walk.)