Samui Wining & Dining
Just Desserts

Forsake the ice-cream one night and try Thailand’s
fabulous sweet dishes, they have quite a history.


Just DessertsThai desserts (khanom) are well known for their taste sensations which are as impressive as their appearance. Their appealing looks reflect the nature of the Thais who are neat and meticulous. And desserts have been popular here for hundreds of years, with many of them being mentioned in classic works of Thai literature.


Many Thai desserts are made from coconut flesh, coconut cream and rice flour. Since most areas of the country have been used for farming purposes, natural ingredients for producing the desserts are plentiful and easily obtainable. That’s the reason why a wide variety of sweets have been created. Some types of Thai desserts were mentioned in Traiphum Phraruang, a literary work of the Sukhothai period (1238-1350). And historical records referred to talat khanom or dessert markets whilst some mentioned Ban Mo or pottery villages where earthen pots, pans, stoves and other equipment for making khanom were made. Arguably though, the most important person in the history of Thai desserts was Marie Guimar, a foreign lady who introduced several exotic desserts to Siam.


Born of a Portuguese father and a Japanese mother in Siam in the reign of King Narai (1656-1688), Marie was given the Siamese title and name of Thao Thong Kipma. Her husband was Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek sailor who rose to the highest non-hereditary rank of Chao Phraya Wichayen. Marie’s husband gained special favour and trust from King Narai, creating envy and concern amongst the native courtiers. Unfortunately, after the king fell seriously ill, Phaulkon was arrested and put to death whilst Marie was sent to jail. Her life remained miserable until the reign of King Thaisa (1709-1733), who recognized the worth and abilities of the lady and put her in charge of the royal household with as many as 2,000 women working under her. This provided her with an opportunity to teach women in the palace the art of cooking, especially several desserts from Portugal with yolk and sugar as main ingredients, such as: thong yip, thong yot, foi thong, sankhaya and mo kaeng. All of these have remained favourite sweets amongst the Thais up to the present day.


In the old days, although khanom was considered just a non-essential addition to a meal, its appearance on a dining table suggested the completeness and importance of the dinner. In the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809), Prince Narinthonthewi, a brother of the King, wrote in his memoirs about the celebration for the establishment of the Emerald Buddha Temple (in the Grand Palace, Bangkok). According to him, 2,000 Buddhist monks were presented with several kinds of desserts, like: khao niao kaeo, (sticky rice cooked in coconut cream and sugar) kluai chap, (dried banana slices coated with sugar) and sangkhaya, (egg custard). It’s believed that the first Siamese cookery book was published in the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910). And part of the book gave the instructions for preparing desserts for the Buddhist monks.


Thai desserts have played an important role on many auspicious occasions and ceremonies. In the past, some types of khanom were prepared only once in a year on a special occasion. For example, khaoniao daeng and kalamae, both made of glutinous rice, coconut cream and sugar, were produced on the occasion of Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year festival falling on April 13th. As it takes a lot of time and labour to make these desserts, especially in the kalamae-making process of stirring flour with other ingredients to a thick consistency, people living in the same village or district would come to help each other in preparing the desserts. This was a good chance for them to develop their friendly relationships and strengthen unity amongst themselves.

Desserts also make their appearance in wedding banquets. In the past, the Thais made a special kind of dessert called sam (three) kloe (friends), made of flour, molded in three small balls attached to each other and then fried in oil. It was a Thai belief that the shapes of sam kloe when heated could foretell the future marriage life of the newlyweds. If the three balls remained attached to each other, it signaled a happy married life. However, if one ball came apart whilst the other two were still joined together, it meant that the couple would have no children. If all three balls were separated from each other, this would be a bad sign for the bride and groom, indicating an unsuccessful marriage. Additionally, if the sweetmeat did not expand when heated, it also suggested the same negative meaning.


In the old days, a Thai also presented khanom to another as a token of gratitude or an expression of gladness for that person’s success. Whoever was promoted to a high rank would receive the gift of ja (chief) mongkut (crown), a kind of crown-like yellow sweetmeat mainly made of yolk and sugar. There was also a kind of sweetmeat that a senior often gave to a person of lower rank. Called luk chup, it was formed into the shape of a model fruit made of pounded soya beans mixed with coconut flesh and sugar, and coated with natural colours. The precise shapes of this khanom suggested the tender care that the giver had for the receiver.

As time passed, though some of these traditions and beliefs have been forgotten in Thai society, most kinds of desserts still exist. All of the best resorts and restaurants will have Thai pastry chefs specifically there to make desserts. And whilst there have been Western influences in more modern times many traditional recipes remain as they always have been. And for that historical reason alone it’s well worth forgoing your favourite chocolate cake or ice-cream and biting into the past.


Johnny Paterson 


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