Monday, December 15, 2014

Nine Auspicious Sweets: A brief history lesson in Thai confectionery

The Thai word ขนม (pronounced: kǎ-NÓM) is the encompassing term for anything that is not eaten with rice during a meal.  Instead, kǎ-NÓM is eaten after a meal or in between meals.  With such a definition, this word thus includes lollies, bonbons, pastries, baked goods, snacks (savoury and sweet, e.g. potato chips/crisps) --- and even bread!  That is because traditionally, Thais don't eat bread during a meal and even though it has become an adopted staple, we tend to enjoy sweet spreads on our bread more than savoury ones like pâté.

There are hundreds of different types of traditional desserts and confectionery in Thailand, but the following nine are arguably the most famous, because each one has an auspicious meaning.  They are therefore often presented as gifts on important occasions like graduations, job promotions and weddings.  These nine different types of confectionery range in size from an American nickel coin to an American quarter coin.

For my readers who can't read Thai, I shall now tell you their names and rough translations, as well as their symbolic meanings.

Top row from left to right

  1. Jǎ-Mōng-Gǔt  - (lit.) "sergeant's crown", symbolises promotion, be it your academic year level or a job promotion
  2. Kǎ-Nóm-Chán - (lit.) "layered confectionery", symbolises ever increasing prosperity
  3. Lùg-Chûb - (lit.) "coated little tidbits", Thailand's marzipan fruits, but in this case, they are made from green bean paste or soy bean paste.  They symbolise adorability.
  4. Tōng-Ěk - (lit.) "first gold", symbolises the blessing "may you forever be the first/champion in everything you do".  Of all the nine auspicious confectionery, I like this one the most because of its stodgy texture, mildly sweet taste (it's not in-your-face sweet like the #1, #2 and #5 from the bottom row) and subtle jasmine aromas.

Bottom row from left to right

  1. Fói-Tōng - (lit.) "golden threads", symbolises ever-lasting love
  2. Tōng-Yǒd - (lit.) "golden drops", symbolises endless wealth
  3. Sā-Nĕ-Jān - (lit.) "lunar charm", symbolises the blessing that whoever eats this would be charming to the moon and back.  This sweet is characterised by nutmeg.  Nutmeg in Thai is Lùg-Jān.  The word Jān is also the Thai word for the moon.
  4. Mêd-Kā-Nún - (lit.) "jackfruit seeds", sweet raviolis stuffed with green bean paste.  They symbolise the blessing "may the eater have friends and people who'd always support them", because a jackfruit has lots of seeds.
  5. Tōng-Yǐb - (lit.) "folded gold", symbolises the blessing "may you always have money to spend" (i.e. lots of folded bills in your wallet)

The nine sweets traditionally presented on a platter

The common ingredients used in making Thai sweets are

  • Sugar in various forms:
    • Cane paste
    • Caster sugar
    • Brown sugar (both the type that looks like damp beach sand, and the type that is like caster sugar but happens to be of a darker tint)
    • Syrup
  • Coconut milk
  • Agar-agar
  • Eggs - especially the yolks
  • Flour of various origins
    • Tapioca
    • Rice
    • Wheat
    • Beans (in this case it would be classified as "meal" in English instead of "flour")
  • Flavouring and aroma enhancers:
    • Pandanus extract
    • Jasmine water
    • Rose water
    • Scented candle - used in the smoking process of certain sweets when they are finished or used to smoke the coconut milk before incorporating it with other ingredients.  These candles fit into a nook that you create inside a pot or some other large container and are lit to begin the infusion process.  For further clarification, please view the accompanying photo.

After having graduated with a pastry-making diploma from a well-known French culinary institution, I have come to a personal conclusion that there are more to be loved in this world than just French sweets.  Therefore I should transcend the "hegemony" of European-style sweets and discover and fall in love with other ones.

Appreciating food of different cultures also implies breaking free from the mindset about which flavours are "allowed" or "supposed" to be in something, especially desserts.

Saltiness has only become a trend in sweets of the West, with items like sea salt caramel and sea salt sprinkled on tempered dark chocolate leading the polls of popular new flavour combinations in dessert, whereas in the East, salt has traditionally been widely used as a flavour-enhancer in sweets.  This is not to say that one culture is more "advanced" simply because it has arrived at this step in culinary evolution faster than the other.  Not at all.  As someone who is extremely interested in history (particularly food history), I am more curious to discover the reasons behind a development than passing judgment about which is the "better" or "more sophisticated" culture or cuisine.

Instead of delving too much into the historiography of Thailand, namely the debates about the causes and effects of Ayutthaya's rise and fall, I'd like to present to you only the facts that are relevant to the development of traditional sweets in Old Siam (for those of you who don't yet know, "Siam" is the former name of Thailand).

Historically, Siam was not a ranching country.  It was not until recent investments by Western foreigners that cattle (and consequently, dairy) became common in Thailand.  Therefore, Thai sweets do not contain milk or milk derivatives.

Great news if you're lactose intolerant!

King Ramathibodhi III ("King Narai the Great") ruled Ayutthaya, the former capital city of Siam, in the years 1656-1688.  This period can be considered as Siam's golden age, where international commerce flourished and diplomatic relations with European powers like France were arranged through frequent envoy missions.  Most importantly, it was a relatively long period of peace between Siam and her neighbouring countries, chiefly Burma.

Marking it most clearly as a golden age was King Narai's promotion of religious freedom among his populace.  The effects of his open-mindedness lasted all the way to modern day Thailand.  Our country embraces Buddhism first and foremost, but also embraces Christianity, Islam and Hinduism.

King Narai the Great (1633-1688)

It was precisely because of religious freedom that brought a Greek adventurer by the name of Constantine Phaulkon and his Catholic wife of mixed Portuguese-Japanese-Bengali ancestry to Siam.  They fled Japan, their former residence, because of the bloody religious prosecutions that Christians suffered during the period that Japan busied herself with closing her ports, expelled foreigners, and pursued a policy of Isolationism.  

Constantine Phaulkon entered the service of King Narai as a translator and interpreter, where he utilised his understanding of English, Portuguese, French, Malay and Thai.  He learned the local language at his previous place of employment, which was also an enforcer of British Colonialism: the East India Trading Company.  After years of service, King Narai awarded Phaulkon with a title and land.  His wife, Maria Guyomar de Pinha, was also awarded a title.  She became Thao Thong Kip Ma (ท้าวทองกีบม้า) which can be affectionately translated to English as "Lady Golden Hooves".  Understandably, "Guyomar" became "Kip Ma" (horse hooves).

"Lady Golden Hooves"

Political intrigue would prove to be Phaulkon's downfall.  Whether you subscribe to the Thai belief that he was a spy that sold secrets to the French and helped the European superpower in their (failed) ambition to colonise Thailand or whether you subscribe to the other view that jealous Siamese ministers spread rumours about how the Greek wanted to use Narai's successor as a puppet and become the power behind the throne; it all comes down to political intrigue.  Phaulkon and his devotees were arrested and executed by the order of Phra Petracha (พระเพทราชา), King Narai's foster brother, without the king's knowledge.  King Narai would pass away a few days later after battling a protracted illness that began in the last months of his life.

Because King Narai was in no condition to fight, Petracha had his way and his bloody Revolution of 1688 was successful in making him the next ruler of Siam.  Upon the king's death, he killed off all of Narai's other heirs and took Narai's only daughter as his wife.  He then proceeded to follow Japan's isolationistic footsteps by reversing all laws that were passed in Narai's reign, as well as expelled all Westerners from Siam.  This would appear quite Tywin Lannister-esque to my readers who are Game of Thrones fans.  The effects of Petracha's xenophobia would echo through the ages, as it was not until the 19th Century that Siam would form close political contacts with Westerners again under the reign of the progressive King Rama V of the Chakri Dynasty.

The Tywin Lannister of Ayutthaya - Lord Petchara (1632-1703)

The progressive King Rama V (1853-1910) seen here wearing a western style military uniform

"But what does all of this have to do with sweets?" you might ask...

Lady Golden Hooves was working in the kitchen of King Narai.  It was there that she created and developed many of the traditional Thai sweets that we know nowadays.  Drawing from her roots, because she was part Portuguese, she made the use of egg yolks in sweets-making become common place in the Siamese royal kitchen.  Guyomar was also a victim of the political games that killed her husband.  After Phaulkon was executed, she was sentenced to imprisonment.  By today's standards, she would be classed as a political prisoner.  However, she was not to mope around in a cell; Petracha had other plans for her.  He sent her back to the royal kitchen, where she was forced to work until his death in 1703.  From 1688 to 1703, that's 15 years!!  However, Maria Guyomar did eventually rise to the position of head of the kitchen staff.  I presume that this only happened after Tywin Lannister died.  I'd like to think that she developed the Fói-Tōng recipe to honour her dead husband, but there is no proof of this.  If you've forgotten the symbolic meaning of Fói-Tōng, you can always scroll back up to read it again.

Through the fusion of Portuguese techniques with Thai ingredients and presenting it in an intricate style that is synonymous to Thai cooking, Lady Golden Hooves took the cuisine of her adoptive country to new levels.  Despite losing her husband, her title and all the privileges that came with it, she devoted her life to her craft as a cook, and as a present day Thai, I have much to thank this inspirational lady, and the best way to honour her legacy is to enjoy her creations.