When Ussanee “Au” Sanmueangchin moved to Berwyn nine years ago to study English, she missed the taste of sticky rice and black beans in sweet coconut milk. She grew up eating this dessert in Bangkok, but in Chicago khao niao thua dam was nowhere to be found. She asked her mother for help, and found some recipes online, but it just wasn’t the same.
“She tried so hard to get the taste she was used to,” says her husband, Jumpol “Jump” Prasitporn, who was working as an IT consultant when they began dating. After Au (pronounced “oo”) finished her studies and returned home to Bangkok, they maintained a long-distance relationship while her Chicago dessert privation ignited a passion. She began taking short courses at Bangkok’s UFM Baking & Cooking School (an operation backed by the trade group U.S. Wheat Associates to convince Thais to use more flour).
Sanmueangchin studied both classic French and Thai pastry techniques and recipes, particularly the large category of egg-based sweets that arose in Thailand at the start of the 18th century during the tenure of Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali woman enslaved in the palace of Siamese King Phetracha. De Pinha, who rose from cook to the head of the king’s kitchens, introduced the royal sweet tooth to eggs and refined cane sugar, among other new ingredients and methods.
“Prior to that, it was just rice and rice flour, coconut, and sugar, cooked mainly by steaming, boiling, or stirring for hours in a brass pan into a thick pudding,” according to food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu.
De Pinha developed a number of now classic desserts based on Portuguese antecedents, such as khanom mo kaeng, an eggy coconut milk and wheat flour custard topped with crispy fried shallots; and foi thong: golden threads of yolk boiled in syrup, one of nine “auspicious” sweets served on special occasions. Many of these yellow-colored eggy desserts form a branching family of variants frequently designated with the prefix thong, meaning golden.
Sanmueangchin started a baking business with a friend, but when she and Prasitporn got married in 2018 she settled in with him in Berwyn. In the U.S. plenty of home cooks make and sell khanom (desserts or snacks) to other Thais informally, and their work often shows up on the shelves of the city’s Thai groceries, though supply can be inconsistent. Uptown’s Thai Pastry has carved out a niche in khanom in addition to its sprawling lunch and dinner menu.
Sanmueangchin and Prasitporn started planning a shop fully dedicated to Thai sweets and snacks in the near western suburbs. Originally they tried to rent a place but instead decided to buy a former Mexican joint on downtown Forest Park’s busy Madison Street bar and restaurant row. They closed on it March 30, 2020, two weeks after Illinois’s first restaurant shutdown.
That added a full year to their July opening date but left plenty of time to design the space to resemble a traditional wooden-walled Thai kitchen adorned with bamboo threshers and baskets. Earlier this month, they soft-opened Habrae—meaning a street hawker and also the basket she carries—with a collection of around 14 Thai sweets, many debuting in the midwest for the first time. Sanmueangchin says she has some 50 sweets and snacks in her repertoire and plans to introduce more of them gradually, along with some savory dishes here and there.
For now there’s a trio of strikingly colored puddings, each topped with a thick layer of coconut cream: green, fragrant pandan; purple ube; and a Stygian khanom piak pun kathi sot, made with charcoal, a more spoonable version of a dessert traditionally made with burnt coconut husks for smoky flavor. Another rarity in the case is khanom thuai, a jiggly disk of smooth coconut pudding floating in a reservoir of cool, pandan-scented coconut milk, lightly sweetened with palm sugar.
“Some of these are very old-fashioned desserts that are rare in the U.S. and becoming rarer in Thailand too,” says Punyaratabandhu. “They can be found more easily at fresh markets in rural areas. In a city like Bangkok, you have to zero in on a few stores that specialize in traditional Thai desserts. It’s a dying art.”
These and other sweets underscore the importance of snacking onsite at Habrae. According to Prasitporn, the khanom thuai should be served at room temperature or slightly warmed, but he prefers the other puddings just below room temperature to fully appreciate their flavors. If you want to take home a more aromatic khanom pang-sangkhaya set, the couple will tell you how to rewarm the sweet chunks of steamed brioche-like bread to dip in pandan and sweet tea-flavored custards. Pop soft, steamed salapao—cousins of baozi they’ve dubbed “buddy buns”—in the microwave for 20 seconds and it will render their sweet salted egg filling like lava. But they’d prefer to do that for you while you linger over iced coffee, creamy milk tea, or maybe a royal-purple butterfly pea flower lemonade.
A few sweets illustrate the Thai facility for making foreign dishes entirely their own, such as a flakey croissant filled with salted egg yolk custard, and Khanom Tokyo, a thin crepe rolled around pandan custard that’s a take on Japanese bean paste-stuffed dorayaki. (In Thailand these are also commonly sold on the street filled with minced pork, quail eggs, and cocktail weenies).
Sanmueangchin’s light chiffon cake topped with taro root custard is another of those indirect descendants of de Pinha’s custardy khanom mo kaeng, which is also expressed at Habrae as a simple, soothing taro root custard; or khanom mo kaeng phueak, the first part of both names indicating “‘a dessert made in a curry pot’—most likely the only baking vessel available in 17th century Siam,” according to Punyaratabandhu.
The heart of the menu really is these older, rarer desserts, like a version of the popular coconut sticky rice with mango, but instead topped with crispy dried tuna flakes, shallots, and sugar; or the “siblings,” as they call them, fudgy-textured, coconut, rice flour-and-palm-sugar steamed cakes flavored with ube, kabocha, or banana.
Maybe the most labor-intensive sweet on the menu at Habrae is the khanom chan, blossom-shaped steamed cakes ideally built in nine layers of alternating colors. It’s one of those nine auspicious desserts, and it’s particular fun for kids to pull apart layer by layer, according to Prasitporn. At Habrae Cafe, he says they really only have time to make khanom chan with three layers, but with proper ordering you can make the math lucky:
“If you have three pieces it’s nine layers, you know.” v
7230 Madison, Forest Park
Eds. Note: Updated to correct the restaurant’s phone number.