We’re standing in a semi-circle in a red-dirt yard, sipping hot coffee blossom tea, and before us is a towering Akha tribal version of Thor, wielding a gigantic 4-foot wooden pestle. The enemy is a huge mound of thick, sticky white gooey-ness sitting nonchalantly in a hollowed-out tree-trunk-turned-mortar. Our hero is doing his best to pound it to smithereens but struggles as its glutinous force overpowers him; soon, he loses energy, gives up and steps back. Giggles ensue.
His handsome, lithe companion subsequently steps into the arena, taking the pestle from his hands. Although of a much smaller build, his deft, efficient movements help him to develop a good rhythm, and the snowy-white glob eventually surrenders into a paste. After a few more strokes, another young man starts throwing in a fine black powder from a bamboo tray, held by an elderly lady. He darts in and out quickly, lest his hands are also caught by the ginormous pestle. We’re at an Akha village in the hills of Chiang Rai, watching our dessert, khao pook gna, being made. And, indeed, it’s a good thing we’re in a village – as it really does seem to take one to make this local delicacy.
Made by both the Akha and Tai Yai hill-tribes of Northern Thailand, the key ingredients of this more-ish, mochi-like treat are glutinous mountain rice and a special kind of black sesame, called nga kee mon. The seeds are toasted to bring out their distinctively fragrant aroma, and then pounded together with freshly steamed sticky rice, until both combine into one smooth texture. Typically, a little salt is added, too. The resulting mixture is rolled into balls, flattened into patties and placed onto lightly-oiled banana leaves. The patties can be eaten immediately or – for that flavourful maillard effect – further grilled on a charcoal stove or deep-fried and dusted with unrefined cane sugar.
Traditionally, khao pook nga is considered an auspicious sweet, and is given out to monks and village neighbours during the annual harvesting of rice in the cool season, which coincides with the new year. Aside from being a delicious and propitious snack, it’s also a food waste solution: villagers find it’s a tasty way to use up and store leftover sticky rice. There are health benefits, too: nga kee mon is said to help to warm the body, relieve constipation and reduce blood cholesterol.
Our good-looking tribesman has now broken a sweat and is standing back to appreciate his work. We sink our teeth into the final creation and are greeted with a warm, aromatic, glutinous resistance with a slight saltiness that makes our mouths water. It’s the perfect complement to our tea.
As we leave, we’re told with a chuckle that, according to Akha custom, a man who isn’t able to pound khao pook nga won’t have much luck at finding a wife. I don’t think our handsome friend will have any problems. Indeed, men: on your next date, I suggest taking along some glutinous rice, black sesame – and a sturdy mortar and pestle.