Under the Thai Umbrella

Kluay Buat Chee

Kluay Buat Chee
Credit: neajjean

One of my earliest memories involves a table on fire. I was no more than three or four years old, and I was celebrating some occasion with the paternal side of my family at a Bangkok restaurant. In the middle of the lunch, someone knocked over a gel-fuel buffet warmer and flames spilled out across a banquet table and the floor. Burning filled the air. My parents grabbed me and ran outside, and my grandfather, then healthy, jumped over a low wall of flames to join us. It was the first time I witnessed that kind of conflagration, but looking back, I don’t remember fear. What returns to me is the profound regret and disappointment from having left behind a bowl of banana dessert.

Kluay buat chee is a simple Thai dessert made by cooking barely ripened Nam Wah bananas in sweetened coconut milk. In the genealogy of Thai dishes, it’s related to other desserts cooked in a similar way—with the main ingredient ranging from pumpkin to black beans—but it’s the only one whose name roughly translates to bananas “in nunhood,” owing to the whitening of the fruit after its baptism by coconut milk. In Buddhist thinking, as with many other creeds, whiteness is a manifestation of purity. Eating a bowl of kluay buat chee, you might imagine your soul scrubbed clean and purified with delicious sugars and fats.

In the years after the fiery incident, I ate this dessert as if every bowl could be my last. If it had not earned the title before, it was now my favorite dessert in the world. In a display of tyrannical might afforded singularly to only children, I demanded it as a finisher to every meal out. Even when we had decamped to Saudi Arabia, my mother was somehow able to source—through mysterious trade routes over deserts and oceans—the right banana for the dish, and I could count on enjoying it after returning home from wind-beaten school days, my hair flecked with sand.

I was hardly alone in my love for the banana. Bananas preserved in honey was one of my maternal grandfather’s favorite snacks. So were flattened bananas dried in the sun. And I remember my cousins and I finishing lunchtime noodles as fast as we could so we could get to the banana fritters, or kluay kaek—roughly translatable to “bananas in the way of the Middle Easterners.” How true this name is to its actual origins in Thailand’s mosaic of co-existing ethnicities, I’m not sure, but fried to a crisp after being coated in a batter of flour, grated coconut, and sesame seeds, these bananas were undeniable crowd pleasers at food markets stalls all over the country. Other bananas come candied, or grilled with syrup, or smoked in the peel or wrapped in a sheath of steamed sticky rice. Then you have banana compacted to rolls and sheets, banana cakes made for traditional Chinese temple offerings, and golden-colored caramelized bananas bathed in hot coconut cream. That love also extends to the entire banana tree. Its leaves wrap desserts and steamed curry cakes. Its fibers are spun into ropes and yarns. Its large spear-shaped flowers are thinly sliced and placed alongside traditional pad Thai noodles or added to soups and salads. No banana part goes wasted.

In Thailand, banana-based foods are everywhere, because so many varieties of bananas are available. Main staples are kluay nahm wah—fat and dense, these pale bananas once had seeds you had to watch out for—and kluay khai, thumb-sized, deeply yellow bananas with an intense sweetness. My favorite variety was kluay leb mue nahng—“lady hand bananas”—a cultivar of deeply fragrant bananas whose thin and curved profile gave it its namesake, and was once available only in Southern Thailand, making each beach trip even more worthwhile. When I arrived at the U.S., imagine how I felt when I discovered that the Cavendish monopolized the produce stand at supermarkets. All hail the Cavendish—somewhat sweet, somewhat fragrant, its color uniformly off-white, and virtually unknown until the 1950s when it replaced the Gros Michel as the main commercial banana. For me, there would be no more hints of golds and pinks in revealed flesh. There’d be no hints of tartness or subtle chewiness in texture or a lady selling bushels of it from a sidewalk stand. This would be the banana I had to accept.

By now I’ve gotten used to the Cavendish, love it, even, and I take no particular pleasure in the possibility that this cultivar could be extinct over the next few decades as a result of root fungus. Yet one could look forward to—or maybe even dream of—a greater society of bananas. Over the past decades, more kinds of banana have arrived in U.S. stores, including ones from Latin America that appear to be related to the varieties I enjoyed in Bangkok. There’s speculation that if and when the Cavendish does fade, these forgotten ancients will be the inheritors of its shelfspace.

I’ll eat whatever. I go through hands of bananas of all sorts with enough regularity that the counter lady at a nearby Korean deli would ask me if I had forgotten something should I not have one in my basket. I eat bananas after I wake up in the morning, and before I head off to bed. They are an insomniac’s salvation and a whisperer of nerves. In times of melancholy, there could be days in which bananas are my only sustenance. I grab one when I’m running late out the door and haven’t eaten, and when I’ve arrived somewhere too early before dinnertime. I often detach one off when I write, walking around my table, thinking and muttering to myself, and waving a peeled banana in my hand as if it would divine words from the air. Sometimes, to make an impression, I light them up in a fireball of rum. Sometimes, on chilly nights, I let them simmer in a pot of sweetened coconut milk. Through fire or water, they heal and sanctify, and return parts to their whole.

Pitchaya Sudbanthad for TMN

Kluay Buat Chee Recipe

  • 10 to 12 barely ripe lady finger bananas, or 5 to 6 burros or manzano bananas, or Cavendish as a last resort
  • 2 cups coconut milk
  • 1 cup coconut cream
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • pandan leaf, slightly bruised before use (optional)

Make sure bananas are firm, not mushy or soft. You don’t want bananas that have turned completely yellow. Look for ones that are pale green with yellowish streaks.

  1. Peel bananas. If using small lady finger bananas, split lengthwise. If using larger bananas, split lengthwise then cut across in half to get four pieces per banana.
  2. Heat coconut milk to a boil in a pot. Use low heat, as it’s easy to turn the bananas to mush with high heat.
  3. Add salt and stir. Add bananas and pandanus leaf and simmer until bananas are softer, about 3 to 5 minutes.
  4. Add sugar. Stir to dissolve.
  5. Let the pot simmer gently until bananas are a little more tender but not mushy, anywhere from 3 to 5 more minutes. Cooking time will depend on the ripeness of the bananas. Less for riper ones, more time for the not-so-ripe.
  6. Add coconut cream on top and remove from heat so that the cream fats don’t separate.
  7. Preferably, cool and keep in fridge overnight. The coconut milk will be absorbed into the banana segments, which will have turned white in color.
  8. Serve slightly warmed in individual bowls.