Smoky and Sweet

Thailand's most fascinating dessert ingredient is incense

Todd Coleman

Recently at Spot Dessert Bar in Manhattan's East Village, I ate a slice of cake unlike any I'd had before: It was a coconut cheesecake with a thick whipped cream topping, and it looked typical enough. But it was perfumed with musky, flowery aromas and flavored with notes of caramel and smoke. It turns out that Spot's consulting chef, Ian Chalermkittichai, uses a technique from his native Thailand to infuse the cake's cream cheese base with this heady mix of scents and tastes.

The method employs tian op, a horseshoe-shaped, beeswax-coated wick suffused with aromatics: piney frankincense, flowery ylang-ylang, mossy patchouli, and spicy mace. The material is lit at both ends, then placed in a dish inside a bowl, jar, or saucepan with the food to be smoked. Then the vessel is covered, smothering the wicks, which smoke profusely, infusing the food with their complex fragrance.

Tian op may have traveled along the spice route from Arabia, or it may have roots in northeast India, where ghee-drizzled charcoal is placed in bowls of curry to add smoky flavor. But Thai cooks perfume only sweets, like salim, mung-bean flour noodles dressed in a smoke-infused coconut syrup. Other desserts—flower-shaped kleep lamduan shortbreads; coconut milk, sugar, and flour pyramids called a-lua—are made first and then smoked with the candle, whose effects grow stronger the longer it smolders.

According to Nancie McDermott, the author of several Thai cookbooks, tian op is used specifically with the types of labor-intensive desserts that derive from Thai palace cuisine. When I told her about Chalermkittichai's cheesecake, she laughed. "Tian op is an old-time thing," she said, "and this cake is so 21st century. In Thailand, you'd use it only with a few desserts. You come to America, and there are no rules. It's wonderful."

Spot Dessert Bar
(212) 677-5670
13 St Marks Place
New York, NY 10003