Samui Wining & Dining
The Sweeter Side of Life

A look at some traditional Thai desserts.

P16If you think Thai cuisine is all about spice, spice and more spice, then think again. Think more along the lines of sweet, sweet and even sweeter. Thai desserts are everywhere you look. Eaten at any time of the day: after a meal, between meals, possibly even as a meal. If you have a sweet tooth you are in the right place.

The Thais have had a love for their ‘kanom wan Thai’ (Thai desserts) for hundreds of years, with some favourites being mentioned in famous works of literature. Go to any market and you’re bound to see a varied assortment of desserts; colourful jellies, custards, sticky rice treats and coconut milk dishes. It is impossible to mention them all in one article so here’s a little taster, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Thai desserts are made of five basic ingredients, coconut flesh, coconut cream, palm sugar, rice flour, and eggs. You’ll find colourful displays of all kind of desserts in the local markets, temple fairs, street side stalls as well as in the high end department stores. One type that you will see on regular display are bundles of wrapped desserts.

But one word of warning: not all the bundles are sweet. Some may contain curry or pork so if you’re after a sweet treat it’s best to always ask the vendor, ‘wan mai?’, ‘is it sweet?’ One of my favourites is khanom bing (sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves). Sticky rice is cooked with coconut milk and sugar and is then moulded around bananas before the banana parcels are grilled. It is quite a filling dessert, as a lot of Thai desserts can be, so it makes a great mid-morning accompaniment to your cup of tea. The banana is quite sweet and the grilled banana leaf gives it a slightly smoky flavour.

On the theme of using nature as the serving dish for the dessert, keep an eye out for grilled bamboo poles. These hollow poles are filled with a sweet sticky rice and thick coconut syrup, known as khao lam. You may also see the individual sellers motoring up and down the street on their scooters, carrying a basket on the back of their seat with the bamboo sticks poking out.

Another favourite that you find on the streets of Samui as well as in some restaurants is I-dtim maphrao (coconut ice-cream). ‘I-dtim’ is the Thai rendering of the pronunciation of ice-cream and ‘maphrao’ is coconut. Mobile ice-cream vendors can be found throughout Thailand.

They sell their ice-cream from large stainless-steel vats. There are all sorts of toppings including corn kernels, nuts and condensed milk. Or why not try an ice-cream sandwich? In Thailand that literally means a sandwich. The ice-cream is served in white bread or a hot dog bun with all the toppings.

One of the most colourful desserts you will see in Thailand is luk chup (mung bean candy). This is a Thai adaptation of a Portuguese almond snack that was introduced to the country as early as the 1600s. Mung beans are boiled with sugar and coconut milk until a paste is formed. This is then kneaded and moulded into miniature fruit and vegetables. Colourful jellies are then applied. They really are a work of art, almost too good to eat. But all the same they are delightfully sweet and light when you just want a little something.

It may come as a surprise but one of the most important figures in the history of Thai desserts was in fact a foreigner. Marie Guimar was of Portuguese and Japanese parentage, and lived in Thailand. During the reign of King Thaisa (1709-1733) she was put in charge of the royal household, and taught the Thai staff her knowledge on cooking, and in particular her knowledge about making Portuguese desserts.

One such dessert of Portuguese origins is foy tong, a dessert made of eggs and sugar and of a thread like quality. Thong means gold so it is thought to bring good luck and prosperity. The Thais will buy this dessert on special occasions.

However it can also be found as a topping on other dishes such as on sweet Thai crepes, khanom buang, along with meringue which you can see at every fair and festival.

Another type of crepe, roti is available everywhere – with its origin in India, the Thais have also taken it and adapted it. It is hugely popular and roti carts can be found everywhere. The rotis can be filled with bananas, or chocolate or just plain. The roti dough is quickly flipped and banged into a pancake shape and then cooked on a hotplate on the cart.

Since Thai desserts require a great deal of preparation restaurants usually offer the simpler but no less tasty dishes, such as pumpkin in coconut milk, (fuk tong gang buad) or tapioca in coconut milk. We are not talking about the tapioca that you remember from your school days; this is much tastier and a staple of desserts throughout Asia. Tapioca is a root vegetable but completely gluten free, so for those who are gluten intolerant this is a wonderful treat.

Whether it is served on its own in coconut milk or with added mango or indeed any tropical fruit it makes a delicious dessert. A lot of the desserts in restaurants focus on fruit and so while sweet, the sweetness comes from the fruit. Fruit sorbets, with an emphasis on coconut and mango are very popular.

Of course a staple on the menu of any Thai restaurant is the classic khao niew mamuang (mango and sticky rice). This is a delicious dish and when mangoes are in season in Thailand, beautifully sweet. Slices of mango are served on a bed of sticky rice over which coconut syrup is poured. During the mango season you can also find this dish at local markets and high end department stores alike.

My favourite Thai dessert has to be the unique combining of flavours in khanom moa gang, Thai custard set in a baking tray and sprinkled with fried red onions. Custard and onions, I know you don’t believe me but it works. So go on treat yourself and take a bite out of the sweeter side of Thai life.


Natalie Hughes


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