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Thai Desserts : Desserts and Thai Culture

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If you have ever visited Thailand, you may have had a chance to see some Thai desserts or khanom that are displayed for sale at many places, each kind with an attractive shape and bright colors. They are enticing, aren't they ? The fact is that Thai desserts offer taste sensations as impressive as their appearances.Their appealing looks reflect the nature of the Thais who are meticulous. The Thais also relatekhanom to many aspects of their lives.

Thai Desserts
Clockwise from bottom left: Ja Mogkut,
Thong Yip, Nam Dokmai, Maphrao Kaeo,
Luk Chup and Thong Yot
with Knanom Chan in the center


Thai desserts are mostly made of 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 has been created. Khanom have been the favourites of the Thais for hundreds of years. Some types of Thai desserts were mentioned in Traiphum Phraruang, a literary work of the Sukhothai period (1238-1350). The popularity of eating khanom became widespread in the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). Some historical records referred to talat khanom or dessert markets while some mentioned Ban Mo or pottery villages where earthen pots, pans, stoves and other equipment for making khanom were made.

The most important person in the history of Thai desserts was Marie Guimar, a foreign lady who introduced several exotic desserts to Siam. The lady was 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, causing envy and concern among the native courtiers. Unfortunately, after the king fell seriously ill, Phaulkon was arrested and put to death while Marie herself was sent to jail. Marie's 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 among the Thais up to the presents.

In the old days, though khanom was considered just an addition to a meal that was not essential, its appearance on a dining table suggested the completeness and importance of the meal. 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.
According to him, Buddhist monks numbering 2,000 were presented with several kinds of desserts like khao niao kaeo, i.e. sticky rice cooked in coconut cream and sugar, kluai chap, i.e. dried banana slices coated with sugar, and sangkhaya, i.e. egg custard. The taste sensations of khanom also impressed King Rama II (1809-1824) so much that he wrote a poem admiring the tantalising Thai foods and desserts of several sorts. The first Siamese cookery book was published in the reign of King Rama V (1868-1910). Part of the book gave the instructions for preparing desserts for offering to the Buddhist monks.

Thai Desserts
Clockwise from left: Thong Yip,
Thong Yot and Foi Thong,
the desserts originatnig from
Portugal that are made of yolk and sugar


Thai desserts have played an important role on 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 NewYear Festival falling on April 13. 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 in a large amount. This was a good chance for them to develop their friendly relationship and strengthen unity among them. The desserts of unity then were taken by them to offer to the Buddhist monks at a temple. However, this tradition has ceased to exist today.

Thai Desserts
Clockwise from bottom left:
Kraya sat, Khaoniao Kaeo,
Khaoniao Daeng and Kalamae
The Thai Autumn Festival, falling on the last day of the 10th Thai lunar month, roughly corresponding to late September, is a tradition of the Indian culture brought to Siam by Indian priests and has survived to this day, even though the Thais do not have the autumn season. The heart of this custom is that the people make merit by taking the usual food, a small species of banana called kluai khai (egg bananas) and a special kind of sweetmeat called kraya sat to a nearby temple to be offered to the Buddhist monks.
Kraya sat is a mixture of shredded rice grains, popped rice, beans, sesame and coconut meat, ground into meal and boiled with sugar until it is very thick and forms into a sticky cake, then cut into portions.

Thewo Alms Offering, an old tradition taking place on Ok Phansa Day. i.e. the first day after the end of Buddhist Lent (falling on the fullmoon day of the 11th lunar month), is held to celebrate the Lord Buddha's descent from heaven after having preached to his own mother there. In the early morning, hundreds of monks, lining up in files in the temple yard, receive milled rice, dried food and sweets from the attending people. The special food for this occasion is khao tom luk yon which is made of glutinous rice, coconut cream and sugar, and wrapped up in a palm leaf. The reason for making the dessert in this form is to facilitate the monks in carrying the sweetmeats with them when traveling to many regions in order to propagate the Buddhist doctrines.

Thai Desserts
Thong Ek, a kind of sweetmeat
symbolizing fame and wealth
On other propitious occasions on which the monks are invited to give prayers for blessing, the host usually entertains the monks and guests to a lunch. To complete the meal, some sweetmeats are served. The reason for the addition of the desserts derives from the Thai inherited belief the khanom is a special dish for meritorious people. Moreover, khanom is a sign of friendship and love.

The sorts of sweetmeat that are popularly prepared for the propitious occasions include those with the names of lucky meanings. For instance, the desserts have the names beginning with the world "thong" or gold, like thong yip, thong yot and thong ek. The Thais believe that gold will bring good luck to them. It symbolizes fame and wealth. Maphrao kaeo (glass) made of dried candied shredded coconut flesh has the meaning of the magic glass ball. Khanom tan (tan means sugar palm) which is made of the flesh and sugar from the palm, signifies a sweet and smooth life.

The desserts also make their appearance in a wedding banquet. In addition, in the past the Thais made a special kind of dessert called sam (three) kloe (friends), made of flour, mold in three small balls attached with 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 newly weds. If the three balls still attached to each other, it signaled a happy marriage life. If one ball came apart while the other two still joined togerther, it meant that the couple would have no children. If all the three ball were separated from each other, this would be a bad sign for the bride and groom, indicating an unsuccessful marriage. In addition, if the sweetmeat did not expand when heated, it also suggested the same negative meaning.

Thai Desserts
Ja Mongkut, crown-like yellow sweetmeats
that in the past persons of lower
ranks often gave to their seniors
In the old days, a Thai presented khanom to another as a token of gratitude or an expression of gladness for that person's success. The one who 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. Because of the auspicious meaning of each word constituting its name, only very good or special persons deserved this kind of khanom.

There was a kind of sweetmeat that a senior often gave to a person of lower rank.
It was luk chup, a sweetmeat in the shape of a model fruit made of pounded soya beans mixed with coconut flesh and sugar and coated with natural colors. The lovely 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. Their tantalising tastes always leave a lingering impression on the tongue of its taster. This is the significant reason why Thai desserts never die.

There are arrays of Thai sweetmeats for sale at many places ranging from sidewalk stalls, markets and small shops to top department stores.

Related links
Desserts and Thai Cultures
Thong Yip (sweet egg yolk cup) & How to Cook
Foi Thong (sweet shredded egg yolk) & How to Cook
Bua Loi (glutinous-rice flour balls in coconut cream) & How to Cook
Luk Chup (fruit-shape desserts) & How to Cook

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