Ravioli without borders, Part II: Liquid mango ravioli with coconut foam and toasted rice
Inspiration is everywhere in Toronto. The dish that inspired these mango spheres with coconut foam and toasted rice powder is a dessert Rachel and I have eaten countless times, Salad King's mango sticky rice.
Salad King is one of Toronto's most popular Thai restaurants. Nestled just off Yonge Street, it's a popular hangout for student and office worker alike, who fill every last seat around Salad King's gleaming stainless steel cafeteria tables to devour some of the best cheap eats in town. I'm partial to the panang curry and Thai basil noodles; Rachel reserves a special spot in her heart and stomach for green curry.
For years, we've finished our Salad King meals with our favourite dessert, mango sticky rice. It's a charmingly simple, almost rustic dish: just some savoury steamed rice, sweetened coconut cream, and ripe mango, a perfect send-off before the brisk trip home on a cool night.
After eating this dish for the umpteenth time, I began to toy with the idea of deconstructing it. It's not as easy as it sounds. There are only so many ways to reconfigure rice, coconut milk, and mango. As my interest in molecular gastronomy blossomed, my exposure to ever more ingenious ways to deconstruct flavours and dishes made reinterpreting the coconut and mango elements a less daunting task. For the coconut I turned to my trusty iSi cream whipper, having already made a decadent coconut espuma for el Bulli's piña colada, although I adapted a different foam, which includes heavy cream, from El Bulli: 1998-2002 for this dish.
I knew I wanted to revisit spherification after my first experiment with liquid pea ravioli. It's a technique that captures the imagination, though not necessarily the approval, of food lovers everywhere, and the explosion of flavour it provides is ideally suited to the brightness and sweetness of mango. This time I even had the advantage of actually having el Bulli's recipe.
What I didn't have, however, were two key ingredients: sodium citrate and mango. Obviously mango, which literally grows on trees, is easy to find, but the recipe calls for frozen mango puree, which is damn near impossible to find. I had almost abandoned hope when help arrived in the form of Jenn Stone, the inspired chocolatier behind Toronto's legendary JS Bonbons. Without her, this dish would have never happened.
As many of you may know, sodium alginate and calcium chloride are the two key ingredients in liquid ravioli. Sometimes, however, a third player is necessary with acidic foods like mango. A pH below four inhibits the formation of a skin, and no skin means mango goo, not ravioli. Enter sodium citrate, which increases the pH of the mango and sodium alginate mixture, making ravioli possible with acidic ingredients. When I first considered mango ravioli, this was a very difficult ingredient to find. That is no longer the case. I got my sodium citrate from L'Epicerie, though it is also available from Terra Spice Company.
Having settled on my coconut and mango elements, I still lacked a rice component to my dish, and no great idea had presented itself to me for months. My eureka moment came, fittingly enough, while thumbing through my copy of David Thompson's, Thai Food, considered by many to be the definitive book on Thai cuisine in any language. Rachel and I had made his chicken larp before -- a spicy and refreshing salad of finely minced meat wrapped in a lettuce leaf -- and we were both struck by the ground roasted rice powder that is used to both bind the meat and season the final dish. It adds a distinctive toasted, almost popcorn-like fragrance that we both love. Why it took me so long to realize this is the rice component I'd been searching for, I don't know, but it was finally time to assemble my dessert.
The combination of mango, coconut, and toasted rice is ambrosial. Thanks to a generous amount of heavy cream, the coconut foam is over the top -- luscious and rich. Ripe mango is one of the brightest flavours I know, but what makes it so special is that its acidity is balanced by a heavy dose of natural sweetness. The ground toasted rice is much more than a garnish, as it deepens and mellows the two-note intensity of the coconut foam and ripe mango, while adding its own unmistakable fragrance. It's so good, Rachel and I found ourselves adding more and more powder every subsequent time we made this dessert.
Admittedly, pairing mango and coconut is not especially novel, even in the context of molecular gastronomy. Neither is mimicking an egg, a visual conceit that is obvious to anyone who has ever seen an egg yolk, like Wylie Dufresne at WD-50 and Ferran Adria at el Bulli. Tired cliché or not, I use it because it makes for a fun presentation. When I served this dish to a couple of friends, it elicited an expression of disbelief and then a chuckle, especially after piercing the "yolk" and watching the mango erupt across the coconut foam and down the egg cup.
Reimagining an old favourite has been the best kind of learning experience. I've made new connections around Toronto and practiced a challenging technique. Best of all, I've gained a broader perspective on how ingredients interact, with the bonus of a cool new dish. But I will always have a soft spot for the original.