Sunday, August 17, 2008

Kanom Krok, American Version

Listen: I have long ranted and raved about how it's damn near impossible to recreate the cuisine you find in one country, thousands of miles away in another. After pretending that Thai food didn't exist for a the last couple months, I broke down a couple of times, and got just about what I expected: A jumbled approximation. This is owing to a myriad of reasons some of which might include: availability of ingredients, customers unfamiliarity with the cuisine, and or catering to the American palate. Sometimes you can find something resembling a dish from a far away land, but once you've had the "real" thing, it's hard to be satisfied with its distant cousin.

Taking a walk through Berkeley the other morning, we were curious why there were so many rather hip looking white people milling about on the grass in front of the Tool Lending Library. Near the sidewalk there were parking signs, some of which were in Thai. It dawned on us that nearby was the much talked about Thai temple where there is a Sunday brunch. Friends and acquaintances have heartily recommended it.

We walked into the compound to see Thai dancing, people wearing their unmistakable yellow shirts, and most importantly, food. We saw some familiar dishes, most of which we were in no mood for as we had recently eaten. But one item caught our eye. It was the lovely lovely Kanom Krok. You can see it here or here.

A hard working troupe of Thai ladies were cooking up these little treats as fast as they could, but the line kept getting longer. They cooked. We waited.


The result? The worst Kanom Khrok we have ever sampled. Don't get upset! Remember what I said at the beginning of this post about the difficulties in recreating one cuisine so far from it's place of origin? The coconut milk used was obviously canned, not fresh. They were merely sweet, not a little savory. It simply lacked the subtle flavors, the balance that make this snack a personal favorite. In spite of this being the worst we have ever had, if not compared to the hundreds of Kanom Krok sampled in Thailand, they were actually pretty good. At four dollars a pop, this snack is about twelve times the price of the Thai version. Worth it? I'm not sure, but we might be back some day in the future. Or maybe I'll save my money for tacos.

Come early, or not at all to avoid the mad rush. 9 am to 2 pm Sundays only!

Wat Mongkolratanaram
1911 Russell St
Berkeley, CA 94703
(510) 849-3419


Boots in the Oven said...

Yuck. We even witnessed the same thing with Italian food on returning to the States, and you'd think Italian ingredients would be much easier to come by. But we keep trying. Your photos do make the dish look nice, though!

a said...

Maybe I spoke too strongly. It wasn't bad per se, just at the very bottom of the list.

Robyn said...

This is the problem with eating a cuisine outside it's natural habitat. So very often it falls short. Sometimes we have to lower our expectations. I ate at a Thai resto here in KL last week with friends ... the meal completely left me cold. But I probably would have enjoyed it more if I'd never eaten banana blossom salad and grilled beef salad (nya nam tok) in Thailand (the usual problem - everything was way too sweet with little salty-sour balance).

a said...

So, where to go from here?

I had a similar conversation with an acquaintance today. He more or less hates all but one Chinese restaurant in all of San Francisco. I told him about my experiences with thai food. It pains me to just walk away from it entirely. Maybe unintentionally, this post was a good bye to Thai food of sorts.

For every country I go and sample the local fare, i ruin the possibility of ever really enjoying that food again once back home.

I can imagine how underwhelming that banana flower salad and beef salad really were. What did your dining partners think? I imagine in this case, ignorance was bliss.

Robyn said...

Well,Malaysians prefer their food on the sweet side so yeah, they thought it was great. Never having had nya nam tok made by a great Isaan cook in Bangkok probably helped too.

In the US it's geographical. There is *great* authentic regional Thai to be had in LA, and really pretty darned good stuff in CHI too. Good Hmong in WI, so I've heard.

To tell the truth I've never found the Asian food in San Fran to be that great. Chinese, very disappointing. But I understand if you're willing to drive a bit, south or to Sacramento, you'll hit good Vietnamese.

And you're near some good Indian - have you hit VIK's yet, in Emeryville, for chaat? ohmygod... hope it's still good.

a said...

Thank you thank you. I will be hitting VIK's tomorrow!

Unknown said...

Thai cooking instructor, Kasma Loha-Unchit is the best source for Thai recipes that are adapted to the American kitchen. She has taught cooking classes in the San Francisco bay area for about 20 years and written 2 cookbooks; her kanom krok recipe is adapted to the ingredients available in the USA:
(& you can buy the kanom krok pan, etc. here: )

a said...

I have myself a handy dandy super fancy ableskeever pan that I will use if I ever feel compelled to murder kanom krok. Are you that teacher who's been living in the area for 20 years? It's okay if you are... Speaking of adaptations: Maybe I'm an old grump at an early age, but I'm always nervous about adapting recipes for unattainable ingredients or for another palate. For humans, taste and smell are incredibly powerful triggers of memory, I quickly feel the difference as i taste. If it's not right it brings on a flood of nostalgia, and disappointment.

Unknown said...

You make me miss home. I come from Thailand and study in Providence. Plane ticket will cost at least $1300 for a round trip. sad T-T. I wanna cook banana blossom salad that mentioned by Robyn. I don't even know where to buy one banana blossom. In Thailand, there are a few popular kinds of banana. Only one type of their blossoms taste good.

Unknown said...

One more thing
I realized that Thai people use a fragrant candle to make food smell good. picture here
It may be the lost flavor from that Kanom Krok.

a said...


in the bay area, I have seen banana flowers but never bought them. I'm lucky to live here as I can get a lot of hard to find ingredients.

That candle is interesting. I've never seen one before and I spent over two years in Thailand. Thanks for sharing!

Hollee said...

Just FYI since obviously you are uniformed regarding the authinticity of the Khanom Krok treats served at the Thai Temple. The term you use "American Version" is so offbase obviously you dont know that the creator of this recipe is from Thailand and she has made and served Khanom Krok with her traditional Thai ingredients in her hometown of Sukothai which was handed down for several generations. She has been serving the same Krok for 30 years since 1991 with traditional Thai Krok pans. I myself carried 5 pans back from Bangkok myself this year so we could have a few new ones so I know. I dont know what your talking about it not being savory. The Krok we serve is with organic chives. It may not be as savory as you like or are used to but at least you could appreciate the fact that you are getting a traditional Thai treat that takes several hours to prepare and is made to order. Obviously it is very popular and unique which is why there is a longer wait in line. But of course you can't see the positive benifit of getting something special and unique. You would rather look at the negative parts such as waiting a few minutes for fresh krok. Also since you have have sample so much Krok in your life you should understand the fact that Coconut Milk is made in Thailand so obviously in America it is much more expensive to import the ingredients. It is now over 2$ a can for the very good kind of coconut. We do not use the crappy kind. How can you even compare the econmics of Thailand vs. America?? Everybody knows its cheaper in Thailand. Not only that but the whole point of Sunday Brunch besides serving the community is to SUPPORT the Buddhist Temple. Which is non-profit. How else are they going to pay the water and and electric bills. If you are too blind to see this then your missing the whole point of giving back anyway. You should learn to use your platform in a more positive way instead of comparing the price of a latte to 9 pairs of "coconut heaven" as some other krok fans refer it to.

Hollee said...

Correction, 30 years total making Krok. Since 1991 at the Berkeley Temple.

a said...


Thanks for reading! I'm glad you stopped by.

Actually I don't care where the maker of these treats comes from. It makes little difference if she is from Sukhothai or Toledo, Ohio. The supposition that by the maker being Thai makes these unequivocally great is like suggesting because I am an American any hamburger I make is great. What makes these "American" is based on the fact that they are made in America, and with the ingredients available here. The maker can be one hundred percent Thai, but based on geography and logistics, these are Americanized. It's not a jibe, it's simply the way things are.

Yes, I actually do appreciate the fact that I am getting a treat such as this, and it is one that I have been back for and recommended others do the same, I tend to speak with a bit of hyperbole but what I called them "The worst I had ever had" it was done in reference to all the others I have had in Thailand. I wrote: "In spite of this being the worst we have ever had, if not compared to the hundreds of Kanom Krok sampled in Thailand, they were actually pretty good." Yeah, it sure sounds like i hated them. I think you missed the point of the post, which was about getting food far away from its country of origin as much as it was about Kanom Krok. If you look back through the archives you'll see me say a lot of nice things about Thailand and the food. That might give you some insight as to why I wrote what I wrote. I'm sorry i didn't love them on this visit!

We didn't mind waiting at all. Waiting in line for food is fine, especially when the food is being cooked in front of you! I am a fan of this!

In Thailand Kanom Khrok is a common snack that is priced as such. The Kanom Krok here approaches the price of a meal owing to the price of expensive imported ingredients. Your description of expensive and canned coconut milk is my point. It's not fresh and it's more expensive. I wasn't trying to simply compare the prices in the two countries, I was explaining the psychology of buying them here. If I loved them I wouldn't hesitate to buy them. I only thought they were "pretty good."

a said...

oh, and if you are interested, I made some really bad ones here:

Hollee said...

The reason why most Americans can't reproduce Krok from a simple recipe is because there is a missing ingredient that they dont know about that holds the krok together. This is taught through generations of home economics and is considered an artform. The person from Toledo Ohio would not know this so the fact that she is from Thailand does give her some credit to the Country of origin of the dessert. Anyway i prefer savory(er) krok myself, which is attributed to the fresh coconut in Thailand..

a said...

I think you are right about missing ingredients. This is what often happens in this country. however, if a person can cook, it matters not where they come from. I imagine you've heard about the recent uproar about Australian David Thompson's Thai restaurant opening in Bangkok. Some in the Thai press suggested his food was subpar simply for his not being Thai. It was an interesting knee jerk display that suggested some below the surface xenophobia.

Hollee said...

I agree, although I prefer streetfood. I do understand he's a well renowned chef and recreates traditional recipes, you still can't get it for 40 baht :) I'm sure its not subpar. It seems to me Bangkok is a melting pot of cultures with over 40 best chefs working in BKK. you know how the press likes to exaggerate things even if only a small percentage of the people feel a certain way.

a said...

I agree completely.