Written by Karn Chatikavanij
June issue ‘Dessert’, 2023
Californian desert, a 19-year-old rapper from Thailand takes the stage at one of the world’s most popular music festivals, picking up a bowl of her favourite snack from her hometown mid-performance.
“Who wants some mango with rice that is sticky?” Danupha “Milli” Kanateerakul tempts her curious international fans.
The teen sensation probably thought nothing of it at the time, but this moment back in April 2022 became something of a renaissance for the traditional Thai dessert. Over 600 years after the first record of its existence, mango sticky rice was finally and suddenly cool again.
Despite the dessert’s ubiquity in Thailand, there is actually very little conclusive evidence about where and how mango sticky rice came to be. The earliest record of its existence dates back to the Ayutthaya period (1351–1767), with references continuing on throughout the reign of King Rama II (1809–1824).
Recipes from the time of Rama V (1868–1910) describe “khao niew moon” as sticky rice steamed with sweetened coconut milk, which was typically served with fruits, including ripe mango. In more recent history, the traditional dessert was at one point so cliché in Thailand that it was relegated to the status of “khanom farang”: a tourist’s dessert.
However, when Milli shared her snack with the world last year, Thais were given an opportunity to renew their pride and adoration for the iconic dessert. Line Man, the food delivery service provider, noted that orders for mango sticky rice surged by 3.5 times within 24 hours of Milli’s Coachella set. One meme replaced Bangkok’s Democracy Monument with an enormous mound of sticky rice shielded by slices of mango, and street sellers all over the country revelled in the sudden boost in sales and price spike opportunities.
Then the rest of the world wanted a taste, too. Riding on the social media trend, the US embassy in Bangkok posted an edited photo of Mount Rushmore, depicting the four sculptures of the former United States presidents ogling at a plate of mango sticky rice. The photo was posted with the caption, “The U.S. Embassy is thrilled to see our favorite Thai dessert trending after #Coachella2022. These former Presidents also want a bite of this mangonificent [sic] combo!”
The truth is mango stick rice has always been popular. It never really disappeared from Thailand’s street food culture, but somewhere along the way, locals started turning their attention towards modern desserts brought in from the West, such as Swensen’s, Krispy Kreme, and Tim Horton’s. As a result, mango sticky rice, along with other traditional Thai desserts, were left to the grandmas and passers-through of Suvarnabhumi airport. Only when Dean & Deluca released a special-edition mango sticky rice milkshake in Thailand or when Swensen’s does their annual mango sticky rice options in the summer, did Thais feel a sense of excitement for a dessert gone culturally stale.
But things have changed in recent years. Thais and non-Thais alike have been reminded of just how unique, scrumptious, and special the dessert in its traditional form really is. Seemingly so simple, yet remarkably difficult to get right, the correct preparation of this dessert demands attention to so many subtle variables. The perfect balance is required between wet and dry, soft and firm, and sweet and salty. The ingredients need to be well-sourced. A mango that’s not at perfect ripeness or temperature can ruin the whole experience. What seems at first glance to be simply raw fruit with glutinous rice is in fact a product of great refinement, years of expertise, and local wisdom.
The iconic dessert is a testament to the “old but gold” sentiment, not only because of its timeless appeal but also its simple, all-natural constituents. Like quite a few Thai desserts, mango sticky rice is one of those “accidentally vegan” dishes, containing no milk, butter, or eggs and, since it requires no flour in its recipe, is also gluten-free. Done the right way, only coconut palm sugar should be used as a sweetener, not regular refined sugar. And, of course, mangoes are fruits high in vitamins and fibre. Here is a dessert that is timeless not only in taste but in components as well.
At less than 100 baht per serving on average, mango sticky rice might have previously been dismissed by the modern generation as too much of a “poor man’s dessert”, but new appreciation for its subtle complexities and a modern pride for heritage has elevated the dessert to a kind of society leveller.
The dessert is served anywhere you turn in Bangkok, from shophouses and street stalls to the breakfast buffet at the Mandarin Oriental. So, what are you waiting for? The best season for sweet, juicy mangoes with sticky rice is between April and July. In other words, go on and grab yourself a plate.
There are a handful of places that hold the title of serving the best mango sticky rice in Bangkok. Perhaps not surprisingly, almost all of these places are humble street vendors who, characteristically, haven’t renovated their stores at all despite the success. Kor Panich, the legendary mango sticky rice shop by the Grand Palace, still remains the unassuming, un-air-conditioned shophouse outlet it has been for over 80 years. They only have two tables, and most customers buy the desserts to take home. That is, if they are early enough— the shop usually sells out by about 2pm, closing up straight away.
Another iconic shophouse stall, Mae Varee, is a well-known spot by Thonglor BTS that is unmissable with its entire storefront lined with hundreds of bright yellow mangoes. As any good mango sticky rice store should be, Mae Varee is a no-frills, no-chitchat place serving up dependably good mango sticky rice to take home for 100 baht per set. For something slightly different (but still very much traditional), Chor Sorn Kaew is famous for its pretty rainbow-coloured sticky rice. The colours are produced only with natural plant extracts, such as saffron and butterfly pea, and the green pandan rice is a personal favourite. This Lat Phrao-located vendor is as classic as it gets. Service: not friendly. Mango sticky rice: mind-blowingly good.
Of course, those who can, will look for a more luxurious way to enjoy mango and sweetened sticky rice. Phra Nakhon at Capella, for example, arranges their version of the dish in an exquisite dragon-like formation, demonstrating the advanced artistry of Thai fruit carving in the preparation of this dessert. Their sticky rice also comes in two types: white and purple, each topped with delicious gold threads and mung beans.
Elevated Thai dining experiences will seek to cater to sophisticated foodies looking for heightened ways to enjoy the traditional dessert. Injecting modern creativity into heirloom recipes, award-winning Chef Bee of Paste sometimes makes even the most familiar dishes seem unrecognisable. For her contemporary rendition of mango sticky rice, she rolls up mangoes and sticky rice into a sweet yellow cylinder covered in golden threads and serves this with a mellow jasmine sorbet on the side to balance out the sweetness. The fine-dining version of this traditional dessert gives it a daintier and more scarce persona, inviting deeper appreciation for the balanced flavours and painstaking skills. Similarly, Chef Ian at Issaya Siamese Club brings an element of disguise to the dessert, using a chocolate shell to create the shape of a whole mango. Breaking the shell of the chocolate mango, you then discover the familiar components of fresh mango and coconut filling inside.
As a native Bangkok foodie, I do personally enjoy sampling new and creative adaptations of traditional recipes. Having dinner with friends at Charmgang recently, I was tempted by the “Marian Plum with Lychee Ginger Granita and Mango Sticky Rice Mousse” on the dessert menu. The two-part dessert was a dance for the taste buds. As almost a side note to the refreshing and tangy granita, the mango sticky rice mousse was a beautiful remix of the traditional dessert. Turning up the coconutty creaminess, they created a wetter and smoother version that seems to combine all the flavour notes into one seamless texture. Almost like a kind of rice pudding, the dessert was served with buttery-soft, honey-sweet Ok Rong mangoes (paler, less fibrous, and less sour than other breeds). The dish proved to me that it was possible to get creative with mango sticky rice while respecting its heritage.
For instance, you can even enjoy it as a cocktail; the Distil Bar at Lebua has an exotic concoction of cachaca and coconut rum mixed with blended fresh mango and jasmine-flavoured ice cubes, encapsulating the essence of the traditional dessert in an intoxicating adaptation.
Whilst traditionalists may wince at the thought of rendering this classic dessert in such modern ways, there is some good that comes of it. With changing times and developing gastronomic preferences, sometimes historical recipes need to adapt in order to stay exciting and relevant. It is still heart-warming to see college students and teenagers enjoy the age-old dessert, even if it is in the form of kakigori (Japanese-styled shaved ice dessert) at After You. These modern renditions make going back to the traditional, bare-bones version of mango sticky rice feel like coming home— comforting and satisfyingly nostalgic.
Call it a dessert, a snack, or even just a flavour—the humble yet formidable Thai mango sticky rice is a culinary delight that inevitably defies such labels. It doesn’t matter so much that its traditional form has been modernised and adapted here and there because, at the end of the day, it isn’t really just a dessert. It’s an expression of how the biggest pleasures can come from the simplest things. An affirmation of the immense skill and knowledge required in creating something so simple yet inimitable. A testament to the power of tradition and heritage in bringing people together.
No matter how many times it is reincarnated as an ice cream flavour, a cocktail, or a bingsu, the soul of mango sticky rice is something the passage of time will never change.
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