I had khanom chan for the first time several years ago when the boyfriend and I were visiting Thai Town in L.A. We had stepped into a small convenience-type store filled to the brim with Thai desserts and I remember being mesmerized by how many unusual-looking Thai confections there were…. so many more than just mango sticky rice and fried bananas!
Before I could compose myself and start looking around, the boyfriend was already hard at work filling a basket full of desserts from his childhood like kleep lam duan flower cookies, kanom krok coconut pudding, and melt-in-your-mouth cotton candy rolls called roti sai mai.
Needless to say, khanom chan was one of the many desserts we brought home that day. And I fell in love with it the instant its sweet two-toned layers touched my tongue. Both the white and green layers are made with coconut milk infused with the scent of jasmine, but the green layer has the additional flavor of pandan. Pandan is a grass-like plant that’s apparently pretty common in Southeast Asian cuisine and has a mild, pleasant, sort of earthy flavor.
To extract all of the flavor from the pandan leaves, you cut them up into little pieces, liquify them in a blender with some water, and then strain this pulp to get the juice. The juice is then added to one half of the khanom chan batter to give it the characteristic green color and fragrant pandan flavor.
To make khanom chan, you scoop a few spoonfuls of the green pandan-infused batter into a shallow dish and let it steam until it’s nice and firm. Then you pour a little bit of the white batter on top and let it steam. You repeat this process with alternating batters until you have nine layers. I’ve heard that the nine layers are supposed to have something to do with happiness, but I can tell you from experience, they certainly have a lot to do with patience…
After your nine layers are steamed and cooled comes the excruciating moment of truth when you remove your dessert from the mold. If you didn’t let a layer cook long enough, it may have wept into the next layer and ruined your meticulously-made dessert. Luckily, with this recipe I didn’t encounter that problem, but I may have, uh, had a slight issue with making my layers even…
The boyfriend grew up eating khanom chan by peeling each individual layer off and enjoying them one by one. That way, you really get to savour each bite of this fragrant coconut- and pandan-infused treat. It’s a delightful dessert that’s definitely worth the time it takes to make. Now I just have to work on making all of those other Thai desserts found so easily in Thai Town.