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Let Them Eat Kanom…Please!



I have to hand it to my wife. When she gets an idea in her pretty head and decides to act on it, she doesn’t fool around, and timidly dip a dainty toe in the water. No, my tee-rak just dives headlong into the deep end of the pool and starts doing laps. So it really shouldn’t have been a tremendous surprise when I came home after work one day to find three enormous pots of beans on a kitchen counter. One contained yellow beans, another red beans, and the third black beans. Should I even ask why 15-20 kilos of assorted legumes were soaking away? Did I really want to know? Oh well, Maybe I was destined to continually play the straight man in the unending comedy that is my life in Thailand.

In any case, I simply could not refrain from asking the obvious question, “Doing a little cooking today darling?” “Yes” she replied. “I am making kha-nom.”

"Okay”, I said, that probably would account for all the bags of flour and sugar I see next to the beans, but you have enough beans there to make enough khanom to feed everyone with a one kilometer radius of our home.”

“I am starting a khanom baking business. We need money. I think I can sell khanom and make some.”

I sighed inwardly. Why did I just know with 100% certainty that this new enterprise was going to turn our household routine upside down? Well if nothing else, I was bound to score some khanom out of the deal. Heaven forbid that I get involved in any way in this little operation. The best I could do is to keep my big fat farang mouth shut, smile, and get the hell out of the way of the juggernaut that was building up a full head of steam.

Okay, I can just hear some of you asking, “What the hell are khanom?” In Thai the word is written ขนม กิน and refers to sweets like cakes, cookies and a wide variety of confections. On a quick walk through a Thai marketplace, even in a small village, you are likely to see a huge selection of khanom, from tiny crisp pancakes stuffed with coconut cream filling, to neon colored jellies that are bright enough to earn Willie Wonka’s admiration.

Yes, the Thais love their sweets, and not only enjoy eating them, morning, noon and night, but giving them as gifts. When I say sweet, here, I’m not talking subtlety sweet. Nope. The Thais don’t spare the sucrose in their desserts; in fact, the sweeter the better. Needless to say, most khanom are not for anyone diabetic, or who doesn’t relish the thought of slipping into an insulin induced coma. Alas, that includes old Sawadee these days, so I rarely eat them. Still, just one or possibly two of some of the moderately sweet ones won’t kill me, right? Hell, although I don’t describe myself as someone recklessly courting Death, I also don’t intend to meet the Grim Reaper having just finished a final meal of steamed kale and some dry zwieback!

Luckily the khanom my wife was going to make were actually healthy in moderation. Yes they had sugar in them, but not an enormous amount and all those beans had tons of fiber. Aren’t nutritionists always haranguing us to eat more fiber?

For the purpose of this little tale, we will be talking about a variety of baked kanom, which consists of thin delicate dough wrapped around a ball made from sweetened beans and coconut milk and other flavorings. When fresh, while not as satisfying to farangs as say a French éclair or a slice of homemade apple pie (with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream on top), they do go down well…so well in fact that it’s often hard to stop with one or two. The next thing you know you’re packing them away like there’s no tomorrow!

So, what does my wife know about baking in general, and more specifically about making Thai desserts? Before moving to America with me, she had never even seen an oven, let alone baked anything in one. A few years ago she decided to take a semester long baking course at one of the trade schools around Lampang. Before long she was turning out all kinds of desserts. The Thai desserts turned out quite well. The Thai adaptations of western ones were frankly horrid. Oh, they looked lovely…but the taste left much to be desired. One reason is that Thais tend not to use butter, but some kind of shortening that that is would be bettered used for packing lubricant for bearings than for eating. And the frosting on Thai cakes would be bettered used to spackle drywall. Being great at decorating, Thai cakes look fabulous, but don’t tempt you for a second taste.

Who out there can honestly say that they’ve enjoyed anything from your average Thai bakery? Not to say being anyone’s foreign colony was ever a desirable situation, but at least in places like Cambodia, and other places where the French once ruled, you can readily find an admirable baguette. Yes, there are places in Thailand where they have learned the proper way to turn out decent bread, cakes, and pastries, but they are few and far between. Most Thais, never having eaten what I call “real cake” and “real pastries” seem to be satisfied with what bakeries here produce. Me, I studiously avoid them whenever I can and enjoy things I’ve made myself. I actually don’t consider myself much of a baker. What I make tastes fine, but doesn’t look like anything Martha Stewart would approve of.

What I make is unimportant for this story, since it’s all about what my wife makes. I have to admire the research she did in perfecting her recipes. She scoured every Thai cookbook she could lay her hands on, and tried quite a few variations before she decided on what she would make commercially. As any professional cook will tell you, determining the quantity of ingredients for large scale production requires more than the ability to multiply. Just because a recipe calls for say, a half teaspoon of salt does not mean that if you want to increase the quantity by a factor of ten means that you should now use five teaspoons. I know it doesn’t sound intuitive, but believe me, unless you have some idea of what you are doing, you may very well turn out something inedible. For a while I was often asked what I thought of this or that recipe. While I was happy to venture an opinion, I kept telling her to get the opinion of Thais, since they were the ones she had to please.

Once she had settled on what she wanted to make, the next step was to experiment with production and baking techniques. Our oven is a Franke, which is made in Germany. It has a variety of baking modes, which utilize different combinations of heating elements and convection fan. Reading the manual is no substitute for trying out different cooking modes and settings. You simply have to try making a variety of batches and judge the results.

When we packed up the container of our household goods to ship to Thailand, I didn’t include any kitchen appliances, since they ran on 110 volts and Thailand uses 220. Not long after building our house we went shopping for a mixer. We didn’t look in places like Big C. Instead we browsed through a shop that carried heavy duty appliances. The one we bought was not enormous, but was commercial grade in terms of its motor. You can run that sucker full of bread dough without fear of burning out the motor. It certainly has turned out to be more than adequate for handling my wife’s khanom dough and fillings.

Producing large quantities of food, especially for resale is a lot of work. It’s a good thing my wife is young and healthy enough to have the stamina to put in many long days of work. Even with her going full throttle, this was clearly more than a one person operation. She needed more than one set of hands to get the job done. Luckily she found a couple of her friends who enjoyed this type of work. Production starts early in the morning, and often goes on well past sunset. Success depends on hard work, and these three gals are no lazybones. Everyday enormous numbers of a variety of khanom start out as raw ingredients and end up going out the door as finished, golden brown, nicely packaged and ready to be eaten.

Where are they going? Well, to a number of local markets, where they have been selling like proverbial hotcakes. My wife has delegated the sales end of the operation to one of her friends, preferring to stay behind the scenes, and in addition to buying all the ingredients, taking care of the books. When it comes to calculating the flow of money, my darling is truly one sharp cookie. (No pun intended…really!) I get up at 5:00 AM and often find her already up and in front of the computer entering data into Excel spreadsheets. It’s all very well to have great recipes, turn out a wonder product, and sell everything you produce. The real question is, are you making any money…or at least enough money to make your time and investment worth the bother? Here in Thailand, as in Farangland, many, many new businesses fold up every day of the week because of a poor “bottom line”.

Are all the long hard hours of work my wife and her friends put in worth it? To be honest, I haven’t the foggiest idea! My wife holds her financial cards tightly, and only grudgingly divulges information. I believe that even busting her butt, she isn’t ending up with much of a profit.

Unfortunately she has to buy everything she needs at full retail price, like every other small business does in Thailand. There are no wholesale distributors here for baking supplies. This reduces any potential profits considerably. Undoubtedly if she ran a genuine factory, she could probably find a wholesale supplier. When you’re buying anything by the pallet, you can negotiate a lower price. My wife’s operation is strictly small scale, limited by the meager equipment she has to work with, the limited space she has to work in and of course a tiny work force of three.

Could she possibly expand to something much larger? The possibility does exist. Our area’s poo-yai-bahn thinks highly of what she is doing, and may be able to get her into the OTOP program. OTOP stands for, One Tambon One Product. This is a stimulus program to support local entrepreneurs. Say what you want about the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawat, but this highly successful initiative encouraged production of quality products at the Tambon (sub district level). OTOP products encompass a large array of local products, including handicrafts, cotton and silk clothing, pottery, household items, and most germane to this story…food. Long after Thaksin’s departure, this program continues to thrive all over Thailand. Some OTOP products are for domestic use, but increasingly others have made it into the export market.

If my wife were able to get some relatively modest assistance, she might very well be able to go into a much larger production mode. Ah, but does she want to shift gears and go “big time”? That remains to be seen. In addition to her new khanom initiative, she still continues to operate her massage business as well. Luckily most of her repeat clients call to make appointments. It is hard to give anyone a massage or a herbal facial when you are up to your elbows in sticky dough! By the end of the day, she is one tired gal. Still all these labors are entirely of her own devising. In the end, she’ll have to be the one to make the call as to whether or not all this is worth it.

As for me, I’ve gotten used to our kitchen being in a constant state of doughiness. I am not entirely thrilled to have to “make a reservation” to use my own damned oven to cook my own damned dinner! In the meantime I do hope things work out for my wife. She really has made one hell of an effort. Has any of this made you a bit peckish? We’ll if your up my way you may have an opportunity to sample a few khanom. You may just want to take away a dozen or two.


Stickman's thoughts:

It sounds like it's time for another trip to Lampang to taste your wife's baking!