The Realm of Thai Sweets, Thailand


Traditional Thai

 Exotic, unmapped territory: the realm of Thai Sweets
 

By Sofia Rays

The colours are amazingly vivid yet true to the real fruit or vegetable they emulate. The green leaf added as the stem brings them even closer to life. What separates them from their fleshy relatives is size and of course, taste. These miniscule bananas, apples, oranges, mangoes and any fruit that comes to mind are as if made for little people, dwarfs of a forgotten kingdom. Yet, their taste is nothing short of full. It is as complete as any sweet treat can be. This is just a sample of the ways Thai express themselves through their sweets.

Loog joob, like all Thai sweets, is made of ingredients found locally. Just as grandma used to bake raspberry pie in the summer when the distinctly red fruit was abundant, so Thais use whatever fruit is seasonally available to satisfy their sweet cravings. However, ingredients reach beyond fruit and the reason is clearly to be found in the wooden trunk of this country’s food culture.

Whereas coconut milk has recently been introduced to the West through the ever-increasing number of East Asian establishments, not to mention its use in cooking shows, it has been the ‘alter ego’ of Thais since their birth. Inevitably, an item such as this is as much a part of their life as it is of their culture. Coconut lends itself to making another ingredient, this time acting as a sweetener in the form of coconut sugar. Like other sweeteners such as cane sugar and palm sugar, it adds a modest, health-conscious sweetness to the desert.

The simplicity of the ingredients put together to create Thai sweets, or khanom as they are called in Thai, should not be looked down on. Plain rice flour, sticky rice flour or legume flour of various sorts act as the basis of some sweets, much the same as wheat flour or semolina is used in Western cuisine. Pandanus leaves, renowned for adding an unusual fragrance to whatever is wrapped within, are also used to create the desired umpf to a khanom. A more familiar staple, eggs, are responsible for the creation of an entire range of khanom made of yolks, such as foi thong (meaning golden fibre), thong yod (gold drop) or thong yib (pinched gold). There is, however, a strange twist to the story. Apparently it was the Portuguese as the first western people to reach Ayutthaya who introduced the use of eggs in deserts, an ingredient the adventurous Thais readily adopted.

Variety is the key in the realm of dessert, not only in terms of ingredients but in the way khanom are prepared. Agar jelly khanoms, which are really made of wholesome gelatine and other ingredients, are put in molds and allowed to sit. Other sweets, like sangkayaa fak thong, a whole pumpkin filled with coconut cream and egg custard, are steamed. Egg yolk sweets are cooked in syrup, while other kinds of khanom are deep-fried. Yet some, such as khanom krok -little half circles of a layer of legume flour batter filled with another layer of sweetened coconut cream with a few chopped scallions added – are cooked on their own compartmented, tiny-muffin-like griddles over heat.

Some sweet treats do not need cooking at all, since they rely on another indispensable ingredient of Thai life, ice! Shaved into flakes, this is what lies under the interesting decoration of bright, multi-coloured syrup that you sometimes see children and adults holding in a plastic cup. Another favourite dessert in western countries, ice cream, has its place in Thai tradition as well, with more exotic variations competing against the traditional western import of strawberry or vanilla. Coconut ice-cream is just as certain to win the battle over the palate as its western buddies.

The meat of the coconut does not lag behind in giving equally perfect taste to khanom. Khanom tom daeng, sticky rice flour and grated mature coconut meat mixed with sugar and essence of jasmine resembles the filling of a Bounty bar, but has the shape of a small ball and is just as infectious. Grated coconut meat gangs up with mung beans and condiments in a steamed sweet called thua paeb.

Mango, another star of the Thai fruit pantheon, makes one of the most favourite deserts among Thais and foreigners alike in khao niew mamuang, or mango with sticky rice. The soft rice, having been cooked in sweet coconut milk, is then garnished with sweet coconut cream and eaten with slices of fresh, ripe mango. When in season, the custard-like, mushy flesh of durian, the king of fruit infamous for its strong smell, can take mango’s place next to the sticky rice.

The banana, or kruay in Thai, although by some regarded as inferior due to its abundance in the east and west, makes a perfect base for khanom. Kruay khaopode buad, a kind of banana pudding in coconut cream mixed with canned corn and served hot could not exist without bananas. Banana friters, or kruay tawd, make tasty and filing snacks, with vendors found everywhere, in front of schools and on the street. Hand-wrapped homemade candies made of bananas are also abundant. Kruay kloog ma-prao is a sweet made from bananas boiled with sugar and coconut cream, while the steamed khanom kruay is a combination of bananas, coconut cream, coconut meat and sugar held together with rice flower and wrapped in leaves.

Other fruit willingly accept the challenge to create a sweet treat and are deliciously crafted into khanoms in the hands of expert cooks, like the more exotic jackfruit, for instance, which compassionately lends its distinct taste to the iced khong waan sai naam kaeng, or the lichee and longan which accompany a sweet coconut cream custard.

The variety of Thai sweets is as large as the country that loves to devour them. It takes a brave person to immerse themselves into this realm, as mystical and unexplored as the most remote tropical forest itself. Just as it is easy for some to thread into unmapped territory, others have to familiarize themselves first before venturing any further. In the case of Thai khanom, your best bet would be to try the exotic and peculiar without prejudice. You might just find the khanom that satisfies your sweet tooth!

 

 

 From Benjarong Magazine – January 2005, Volume 8 Issue 1

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 Benjarong Magazine - October 2005, Volume 8 Issue 10

 

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