Eating is always an adventure in Thailand, but one part of the adventure that foreign visitors to the Land of Smiles may not venture very far into is the myriad variety of Thai sweets, called in Thai khanom. The main reason for this, perhaps, is the lack of recognition factor for all of those attractive little sweets in cups that look so appetizing on their bed of green banana leaf and all the rest. Thai cookbook writers have lamented about the eagerness with which the Thai people have abandoned aspects of their traditional customs and gone helter-skelter to take on the trappings of Western culture, but note with pride that the sometimes humble and sometimes elaborate Thai traditional sweets and desserts remain high on the preference list of indigenous Thais to the present day.
It would be a misconception to say that these multitudinous products of this aspect of Thai cuisine are only desserts. The usual dessert after a Thai meal is a plate of attractively arranged mixed, cut fruit. It has been said that eating is the Thais national sport, and Thais are likely to nibble at one of the finger-sized sweets as a between-meal shack or take a bowl of one of the mixed sweets prepared with chopped ice as a refreshing treat on a hot tropical day. Some Thai sweets are also especially prepared for festivals such as the lunar new year, or as special treats to be offered to monks on special occasions.
Thai desserts are usually simple and most of the ingredients can be found in any Thai marketplace. Basic ingredients for starting from scratch often include plain rice flour, sticky rice flour, or legume flour of various sorts. Sweeteners include cane sugar, palm sugar, coconut sugar, and the ubiquitous coconut cream. There is a whole class of khanom made from egg yolks, such as foi thong which are golden threads of egg yolk cooked hard in a sugar syrup flavored with essence of jasmine. Delicious, but not for those watching their waistlines or cholesterol levels. Sometimes aspects of khanom cooking can be exotic, such as used of the lowly pandanus leaf, which can be plaited into mats and other household items but finds its way into Thai khanom as a pleasing flavoring agent in anything from the small agar jelly snacks to ice cream.
Methods of cooking or making Thai khanom are as diverse as the range of goodies themselves. For the agar jelly khanom, the cook may simply mix the ingredients and put them into molds, and some, like sangkayaa fak thong, a whole pumpkin filled with a coconut cream and egg custard, are steamed. Other kinds of khanom are deep-fried or cooked in syrup such as the egg yolk sweet. 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 griddles over heat.
Finally, Thai khanom are served at a temperature to suit any diner. On hot days have a khanom waan, where the diner chooses from among sundry sweet bits made of legume flour, or pieces of fruit or water chestnuts all displayed in separate jars or bowls, which the vendor puts in a bowl to order and adds sugar syrup, coconut cream, and a scoop of crushed ice. To sample a bit of everything just tell the vendor you want ruam mitr. Most finger sized khanom are served at room temperature, but on a slightly nippy cold season day try khanom tua daeng, a sweet concoction of kidney beans to which the diner can add a bit of sweetened coconut cream, or any other similar khanom which is served warm.
The simplest Thai khanom, and often the most delicious, may be based on the various tropical fruits for which Thailand is famous. No one looks forward to the transition from the cold season to the searing hot season, except that the period of time mentioned heralds the season of ripe, savory mangoes. These are best enjoyed as khao niew mamuang , a dollop of sticky rice garnished with sweet coconut cream and a few roasted sesame seeds, and of course sections of sweet, ripe mango. Lucky are those that find a place which makes homemade mango ice cream, as an alternative. For those with a taste for the fruit, the same sticky rice is also served with bits of durian in season.
The lowly banana finds its way into all manner of khanom. If a sweet shop offers a range of warm khanom, there might be gluay khaopode buad, a kind of pudding of bananas in coconut cream mixed with canned corn. Vendors can be found most anywhere selling simple gluay tarwd, deep-fried sweetened bananas, which make a tasty and filling snack. In some markets vendors offer a range of hand-wrapped homemade candies. A dark colored one might be gluay kloog ma-prao, a sweet made from bananas boiled up with sugar and coconut cream. One of those steamed snacks wrapped in leaves might be khanom kluay, a snack of bananas, coconut cream, coconut meat and sugar held together with rice flower. Another appetizing steamed offering teams bananas up with sticky rice, sweetened with sugar and the ubiquitous coconut cream, in khawtom mud sai gluay.
In season, the succulent linchee or longan might be offered in a sweet coconut cream custard as well.
One of the offerings to put into the iced khong waan sai naam kaeng is the meat of the strongly flavored jackfruit. A sweet custard-like khanom, called med khanoon is made with duck eggs, coconut cream and sugar.
Finally coconut cream is not the part of the coconut to find its way into khanom. Sticky rice flour and grated mature coconut meat are mixed with sugar and essence of jasmine to make khanom tom daeng, sweet round balls rich with the flavor of coconut. The same grated coconut meat teams up with mung beans and condiments in a steamed sweet called thua paeb.
The brief descriptions of fruit-based khanom here barely scratches the surface of varied world of Thai sweets. When your sweet tooth needs to be assuaged, go out and have a khanom.
Although there’s been a renewed interest in Thai desserts, this time-honoured heritage is in danger of disappearing due to the secretive attitude of older ‘khanom Thai’ makers.
Story by Vanniya Sriangura, photos by Anusorn Sakseree
Until about five years ago, khanom Thai or traditional Thai desserts were usually hidden in the middle of a wet and sombre local fresh market where a grandma-like saleslady gently scooped up a delicate piece of her work from a worn-out aluminium tray into a fresh banana leaf wrapper when the order came. Today, regardless of those street vendors on motorcycle-driven carts selling cheap-quality, barely edible Thai khanom waan, a colourful variety of traditional Thai sweets boasting exquisite appearance and fancy packaging can be found in the gourmet sections of posh department stores.
Thanks to the government’s campaign, with assistance from the media, to promote awareness of our national sweet heritage among the new generation and to push it to the world stage a few years ago, there has been a growth in the khanom Thai industry. Yet the results haven’t been so significant. Go to any shopping centre and try and peek past the long queues of people crazily waiting for those coffee-coated buns; what do you see more of – shops selling Thai desserts or Western bakery joints?
Who queues for Thai treats?
According to Tipavan Fuangruang, a culinary instructor at Bangkok Polytechnic College, there are several factors that have restricted the popularity of khanom Thai. The first on the list, to some amazement, concerns the taste and the not-so-healthy ingredients.
“Thai desserts appeal mostly to the older generation,” she said. “But because the main ingredients are flour, sugar and coconut milk, there’s always a limitation on consumption of khanom Thai, especially for old people who have to watch their sugar intake and cholesterol level carefully.”
With regard to why Thai desserts have to be very sweet, the cooking expert explained, “Most khanom Thai are perishable, yet making them is very complicated and time-consuming. So in order to prevent them from spoiling so quickly, our ancestors had to make them sweet, and the sweeter they are means the longer they’ll keep.”
Tipavan said that making khanom Thai doesn’t only take time but also requires a lot of labour and fuel. “For example, to make khanom chan (the nine-layered, warm jelly-type dessert) it takes several minutes to carefully create and steam just one layer. The same process is repeated again and again. Or for look choob, there’s no commercial mold. It still requires gently molding by hand. So, compared to making a cake which can come out perfectly from one baking, Thai desserts are far more difficult to make.”
Tipavan noted that the intricate process of making traditional treats has lead to the lack of interest and inspiration among the new generation to study and keep up the time-honoured recipes. “The grandchildren of the khanom Thai-making families who have seen their grandmas working so hard might not want to pursue the family tradition. They prefer to do something quick with a more substantial result. At my school khanom Thai courses are often quiet but whenever I open a bakery class, it is full very quickly,” she said, adding that most Thai kids nowadays have never heard of jah mongkhut and may have never seen re rai.
The last, but not least important factor behind the fading popularity of traditional Thai desserts is the loss of authentic ancient recipes. “I onced ask an old auntie who sold Thai sweets in a fresh market how she made them and she said, ‘Oh it’s not difficult at all, dear’ and she wouldn’t say anything more. She wouldn’t tell me the recipe, she just didn’t bother finishing her answer,” Tipavan recalled.
Tipavan said that the typical possessive attitude of the old generation has impeded the flow of cultural heritage. “Most old people don’t want to pass their recipes to others. They believe that other people will become their competitors. Therefore, the know-how dies with them. It’s quite a narrow-minded perception they have, but it’s very common.”
At present, even though the number of shops and classes on Thai desserts have increased, the growth isn’t going at full pace. Tipavan is still concerned that most modern-day khanom Thai shops focus on commercial value and elaborate packaging rather than authenticity. While at cooking schools, most instructors who teach khanom Thai are young and less knowledgeable.
The saviour of ‘khanom Thai’
Among the eight contestants hoping to be crowned connoisseur of traditional Thai desserts in last year’s local television game show, Fan Pun Tae, were an avid housewife with a deep passion for Thai sweets, a sweet-toothed college student, a khanom Thai proprietor and two cooking instructors who specialised in traditional Thai delicacies.
And the person who beat the others and was later announced khanom Thai guru of the year was a Chinese-Thai woman named Kornkamon Leelateeraphat, who now runs the country’s largest manufacturer with 70 employees and a daily turnover of 30,000 pieces of Thai sweets. For almost two decades, her Kanom Thai Kao Pee Nong business has been known among Bangkokians. Today the company produces more than 70 variations of Thai desserts and snacks, with over 100 items on the menu. From ordinary khanom piak poon and thong yip to rarely found massagod, luem gluen (forget to swallow), sanae jan, jah mongkhut and re rai – you name it, they have it.
“Even though I have Chinese roots I’ve never thought that I have taken over the traditional recipe from real Thai people, instead I feel proud to be able to retain the ancient custom,” the humble Kornkamon said.
Kornkamon is the seventh offspring of a Chinese family with nine children – that’s the reason why she named her business “Kao Pee Nong”. Together with siblings six, eight and nine, she opened a small stall selling a few selections of Thai sweets 19 years ago.
Because they take time and effort to prepare, Thai sweet s are symbols of subtlety and esteem.
“As a child, I never had a chance to go out and play or watch television. Being poor had urged us to be very diligent and ambitious,” she recalled. Perhaps it’s the typical Chinese virtues of persistence, stamina and diligence that have made her family overcome obstacles, pursue their goals and gain a place at the forefront of the industry today.
For Kornkamon, learning how to make khanom Thai and getting “the right” recipes were not as easy as attending cooking classes, listening to the experts and jotting down what they said. “To be able to make good khanom Thai, it usually takes close observation and creativity to understand and adapt the recipes, but more often it’s self-study that comes into play,” she said, pointing out that most cooking schools wouldn’t reveal all the tips and knowledge, in fact some even concealed the information. “For instance, when the instructor said it’s rice flour, instead she used glutinous flour. So whenever the students go home, they can’t make it the same as they have done in the class even though they strictly follow the recipe.”
She offered another common sleight of hand. “When measuring the ingredients the instructor always blocked the view of the weighing machine so we wouldn’t know the right amount. Such dilemmas aren’t normally found at a bakery class.”
Kornkamol said that when cooking, old people don’t really measure the ingredients but depend on using the same utensils and containers, so when they share the recipe with others they can’t really pinpoint the exact weight and quantity, instead they say, “Just put a pinch of it” or “Fill it to the handle level of that pot”. This results in fluctuating recipes and different outcomes. The eager Kornkamon used to have her brother lure the teacher out so she could weigh all the ingredients herself.
Right now, other than selling at Aw Taw Kaw and Bon Marche, the company distributes to many five-star hotels throughout the country as well as to several airlines. But the overall retail demand isn’t high because of the booming health concern.
“In the past people were less worried about their heath compared to nowadays. Now there’s a trend of eating right and people are a lot more careful about what they consume,” she noted.
To cater to sweet-toothed yet health-conscious customers, Kornkamon has come up with more healthy recipes and recently launched low cholesterol Thai sweets using cholesterol-free cream and fructose syrup instead of coconut milk and sugar. The new approach has gone into many new creations including khanom kheng, woon kati and thong yord, to name a few.
“They might not taste exactly the same as the original recipe. But at least they offer an alternative for the health-conscious generation, and perhaps taste better.”
Khanom Thai Kao Pee Nong is located at Aw Taw Kaw market opposite Chatuchak. For more information, please call 02-278-1426.
Thai sweets are made from refined recipes that have been passed down for centuries and take time and careful attention to prepare. So not only do they symbolise sweetness, they also represent passion, preciousness and subtlety. Many “khanom Thai” include the word “thong”, which literally means gold in Thai, indeed some are even decorated with gold leaf to signify prosperity and high esteem. Therefore they are often reserved for special occasions, such as a wedding ceremony, and as a gift. Here are some examples of meaningful Thai desserts.
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