Dunk Fried Dough Into This Silky Thai Pandan Custard

London chef John Chantarasak shares this Thai street food classic. And, yes, you can totally have it for breakfast.

dough sticks with pandan custard
Photo by Maureen M. Evans

There’s treating yourself, and then there’s eating deep-fried dough—a spot of indulgence that need not be limited to carnivals and night markets. In fact, many Thai families enjoy pa thong ko, or x-shaped dough sticks, first thing in the morning, alongside a strong black coffee or Thai milk tea.

John Chantarasak, the chef behind London’s upcoming AngloThai, features a recipe for pa thong ko in his new cookbook, Kin Thai, a collection of modern Thai recipes that go beyond the Western repertoire. A half Thai, half British chef, Chantarasak champions the idea that you don’t have to use Thai ingredients to express Thai flavors.

One can rely on local ingredients, he argues, to achieve a combination of the four s’s: sweet, salty, sour, and spicy. Cooking from the UK, Chantasarak might replicate the heat of a chile, for example, with wild horseradish or mustard seed. To achieve the sourness of tamarind, he’ll opt for rhubarb or sea buckthorn.

Chantarasak served pa thong ko on the menu at Som Saa, which, at its inception, took the form of a pop-up at an old railway arch in London Fields. Climpson’s Arch, which roasted coffee in the daytime, gave way to a streamlined brunch menu, consisting of congee and the famed dough sticks with pandan custard.

“It's a very relatable dish. It's kind of like a donut with custard filling, but deconstructed and made with Asian flavors,” Chantarasak says. “A really nice one to cook over the weekend for the family, or if you’ve got a few friends coming around.”

To perfect Chantarasak’s recipe, pay careful attention to the dough-making instructions. “The thing that can sort of go wrong with this recipe is if you let the dough over- or under-prove,” Chantarsak explains. Proofing is the dough’s final rise that happens after shaping and just before baking.

You’ll know the dough is over-proved if, when poked, it never springs back. On the other hand, under-proofing happens when the dough bounces back too quickly when poked. “You want to make sure that the dough has properly proved itself before you fry it. That way you’ll get a nice, puffed out stick that has nice air holes in it rather than something that’s a bit stodgy.”

This particular dough is a sticky one, but you can feel free to use a good amount of flour to manipulate it. Flour everything: your work surface, your hands, and the dough cutter, if you choose to use one.

If making the dough is about mastering the technique, making the custard is about reaping the flavor. Some say pandan, if you are unfamiliar with the ingredient, is the vanilla pod of Asia, though Chantarasak also detects a grassy, bitter quality, similar to that of matcha. “I struggle to really pinpoint an example of something else that tastes like it,” he says. “And that's why it's actually quite hard to find a substitute.”

Sourcing pandan will likely require a trip to your nearest Asian supermarket. If you are lucky enough to find bunches of the slender green leaf, consider preserving them for future use. Simply knot a few leaves together, then toss into a container for freezing. “Not only can they get infused into sweet dishes, but they can also be used in savory ones as well, to kind of add that background complexity of flavor,” Chantarasak says.

It’s also quite common to find pandan in the form of a concentrate, a thick green liquid stored in a tiny vial. “It’s similar to food coloring, except it’s obviously derived from something natural,” he says. “You only need a very small amount, and it goes a long way.” It’s this striking visual quality, Chantarasak believes, that has contributed to pandan gaining momentum as a stand-out ingredient in recent years.

The custard-making component consists of extracting the liquid from the leaves, then combining it with rice flour, coconut cream, and condensed milk. Rice flour is a popular thickening agent in Asia, but if you can’t get your hands on it, cornstarch will work just fine.

Some say the x-shape of the dough sticks represents two people who are deeply attached to one another. Pa thong ko is a labor of love, a recipe that will only get better with time.

Pa Thong Ko

Yield: Makes 10

Ingredients:

  • 300 g (10 ½ ounces/scant 2 ½ cups) strong white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 1 ½ tablespoons (22 g or ¾ ounce) caster (superfine) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (6 g or ¼ ounce) salt
  • 2 teaspoons (10 g or ⅓ ounce) instant dried yeast
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 4 tablespoons (60 ml or 2 fl ounces) whole milk
  • 4 tablespoons (60 g or 2 ounces) unsalted butter, softened and diced
  • Vegetable oil, for oiling and deep-frying

For the pandan custard (sangkaya dtoei hom):

  • 3 pandan leaves, finely chopped (or use 2 drops of pandan concentrate)
  • 3–4 tablespoons water (optional)
  • 1 ½ tablespoons rice flour
  • 200 ml (7 fl ounces or scant 1 cup) coconut cream (the richer, heavier solids that rise to the top of the thinner milk)
  • 14-ounce can condensed milk
  • 1 teaspoon salt

For rolling:

  • 4 tablespoons caster (superfine) sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt

Directions:
1. To make the pandan custard, purée the chopped pandan leaves in a food processor with as little water as possible, about 3–4 tablespoons. Strain through a sieve (fine-mesh strainer, pressing through with a spoon to extract as much of the vivid green liquid as possible, then set aside. Mix the rice flour with a little of the coconut cream in a small bowl to make a smooth paste. Gently warm this paste with the remaining coconut cream in a medium saucepan over a low heat for 5 minutes, or until thickened, whisking constantly to ensure the mixture doesn’t become lumpy. Once thickened, add the pandan juice (or concentrate), condensed milk and salt and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Leave to cool to room temperature.

2. To make the dough, mix together the eggs and milk in a bowl and set aside. Combine all the dry ingredients in a stand mixer with a dough hook attached. While mixing at low-medium speed, gradually add the egg-and-milk mixture. It will come together into a dough. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes, or until it is very elastic, then add the butter, a few cubes at a time, until completely incorporated. This is a rich dough, so it can be very sticky to handle. Keep working the dough in the mixer until it is possible to handle.

3. Tip the dough out onto a clean work surface. Using your hands, bring the dough together into a smooth ball, then place in a large bowl and cover with cling film (plastic wrap). Leave in a warm spot for 30 minutes, or until the dough has doubled in size.

4. Line a baking tray (pan) with baking parchment and dust generously with flour. Tip the dough onto a clean work surface and divide into equal-size pieces of about 50 g (2 oz) each. Roll these pieces into smooth sticks about 8 cm (31/4 in) long and 2.5 cm (1 in) wide and place them on the lined tray, leaving enough space for the sticks to double in size without touching each other. Cover with oiled cling film and leave to prove in a warm spot for about 20 minutes, or until doubled in size.

5. Pour the oil for deep-frying into a large wok to a depth of 10 cm (4 in) and heat until the oil reaches 180°C (350°F) on a temperature probe. Alternatively, drop a small cube of bread into the oil; if it turns golden brown in about 15 seconds, the oil is ready.

6. Using a bamboo skewer, press it down the length of each dough stick to create indents that you can then use as a guide to make an ‘X’ shape. Working in batches, fry the X-shaped sticks for 4 minutes, or until golden brown, flipping them over halfway through to ensure both sides color and cook evenly. Remove and drain on a plate lined with paper towels while you deep-fry the remaining dough sticks.

7. Combine the sugar and salt for rolling in a wide dish, then roll the still-warm dough sticks in the mixture until well coated. Serve with the pandan custard for dipping. Alternatively, instead of rolling, serve the dough sticks with the sugar mix and pandan custard in separate dishes on the side for dipping.

Excerpted with permission from Kin Thai by John Chantarasak published by Hardie Grant Books, June 2022, RRP $35.00 Hardcover.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram