This Bacon-Topped Thai Rice Porridge Is a Bowl of Nostalgia
A deliciously unexpected garnish for khao tom embodies this writer's Thai-American identity.
Growning up I was lucky that my best friend's mom also happened to be my mom's best friend. I met Pichy when I was 5 at Wat Thai of Los Angeles, a temple and Thai school where kids came to learn the Thai alphabet, traditional dancing, and how to meditate. Both my mom and Pichy's mom, Oranij Promsatit—whom I lovingly refer to as Kru Nid, which translates to "teacher Nid," her nickname—were volunteer instructors who wrangled unruly Thai-American youths each weekend.
You have to have grit, perseverance, and a love of teaching when it comes to imbuing young Thai Americans with the importance of their language and culture. Kru Nid, who emigrated from Thailand when Pichy was only 5, has all of these qualities and more. Though strict in the classroom—she gave me plenty of tough love when I neglected my Thai homework or disrupted class with my antics—Kru Nid also has an infectious laugh, a zest for adventure, and a hidden gentleness that makes her a wonderful teacher both in and out of the classroom.
Having my best friend's mom also be my mom's best friend made asking for playdates and sleepovers a lot easier. As a quartet, the four of us would spend days in Santa Monica, where Pichy and I swam in the Pacific Ocean and rode the boardwalk roller coaster. We took turns having slumber parties: At my house, we'd splash in the pool and go on bike rides around the neighborhood; at Pichy's place in the Valley, we'd hunch over her laptop playing games or give her oversize beagle, Lucky, a bath (and generally annoy him). And when we weren't engaging in shenanigans, we were stuffing our faces with Thai food.
Kru Nid had a repertoire of dishes she would always make, which also happened to be some of Pichy's favorites. These were the dishes I always looked forward to: plates of slick pad see ew; bowls of kai pa lo, or Chinese five-spice soup with boiled eggs; and, most memorable of all, breakfasts of khao tom. This simple rice porridge is a traditional dish in Thailand and is the perfect way to stretch dwindling rice supplies. It is comfort food at its best—a warm and filling bowl that functions as a blank canvas for a variety of sweet, salty, dried, and crunchy toppings.
Khao tom is commonly served with pickled mustard greens, dried shrimp, pork floss, Chinese sausage, and stir-fried morning glory laced with fiery Thai chiles. Sometimes gently poached fish with chopped cilantro and fried garlic makes an appearance, or savory ground pork sprinkled with white pepper plus an egg. At Kru Nid's house, however, khao tom was always served with bacon: fatty strips cut into two-inch slices and fried until crispy and glistening with oil.
The concept was foreign to me. In my house, bacon was for American breakfasts with pancakes and fried eggs. But Pichy was a slightly picky eater when we were kids. Pickled mustard greens, one of my personal favorite toppings, were out of the question for her rice porridge, but a mound of crumbled salty bacon was perfect.
Though it confused me the first time I was served bacon with khao tom, after trying it I never turned back. The crispy and meaty flavor of the bacon serves as the perfect foil to the soft and subtle flavor of the rice porridge. Though it wasn't the only topping we ate with our khao tom, it was our favorite.
Bacon and khao tom, to me, is the perfect marriage of Pichy's and my Thai-American identities. It's a bowl of nostalgia we can both easily revisit, despite living on different coasts and being on completely different career paths. And now, it's become a staple in my own household, something my mom adopted after I begged her to serve her khao tom with bacon—just like Kru Nid.