As you may have ascertained from all the fireworks and celebratory end-of-year posts on the Internet, it is a new year — 2021, to be exact. To us Thais though, it feels a little bit like 2020: The Sequel. With that in mind, my friend Chris and I are unveiling a series of videos that we were able to film when travel in Thailand was still unfettered.
These were filmed while doing research for my upcoming cookbook (my first!), tentatively titled “Real Thai Cooking.” It’s full of the recipes that people actually cook in my house and in my relatives’ homes, for meals that aren’t very elaborate or complicated, but still tasty and satisfying.
With that in mind, our first video — handily shot and edited by Chris — was made with the help of our friends Francisco and Kevin, who are now based in chilly Finland. It’s about the Portuguese influence on Thai cuisine, something a lot of people (including Thais) forget.
I found out my grandmother had passed away while I was in Chiang Mai, her hometown. It was not a surprise — she was 102 years old, after all — but it hit me all the same, amplifying by a thousandfold all the memories I had of her.
I remember her as quiet and unassuming. She loved the color pink, showed affection the old-fashioned Thai way (by hom, or smelling your cheek deeply) and giggled at my lame jokes when she didn’t understand what I was saying. She also harbored strange opinions, like her abhorrence of pants in public because she thought only Chinese people wore them (I myself am a devoted public pants-wearer). She spent her last years in Bangkok, even though we often said we would travel to Chiang Mai together.
We called her “jiao yai“, which I thought was something everyone called their mother’s mother. Only far, far later did I learn that it meant she was a sort of princess, the granddaughter of Prince Intavaroros Suriyavongse, who served as ruler of Chiang Mai for 9 years before his younger brother took on the role. The title was eventually dissolved, the kingdom incorporated into Siam upon the marriage of my grandmother’s aunt, Dara Rasmi, to Rama V. My grandmother never spoke of her childhood, and for some reason, we never asked her. Everything we knew came from snippets told to my mother and then passed on to us, like a game of telephone.
Despite her upbringing as a jiao, my grandmother knew tragedy in her life. I was once told of my grandmother’s first marriage, to a man of similar background. He died by suicide, and the police were called in to investigate. The investigating officer was my grandfather. Her first baby with him caught smallpox, and could only stand to sleep on a banana leaf in the night air during his final few weeks. Later, she would be in a car accident that took her sister’s life. She escaped with a broken collarbone.
Yet I only knew my grandmother as a kind, gentle person. She was not much of a cook, preferring to leave most of the food decisions to my grandfather, who reveled in planning lunch and dinner menus. But she did introduce us to our first taste of Thai snacks and candies: sweet-and-sour preserved plums; sweetened milk tablets; pulverized sweet durian, fashioned into logs and cut into coins. The one that most sticks out in my mind were the dried watermelon seeds, which she would crack with her teeth, one by one, pushing the unshelled seeds across a Thai newspaper on her lap to my greedy, grasping paws on the other side.
Watermelon seeds are stingy stuff, gleaning little meat, an even more paltry prize for the effort than cracking swimmer crab legs. But my grandmother stuffed me full of these watermelon seeds, cracking as many as my little stomach would take, because I loved their salty, nutty pops of flavor. When I see a pack of dried watermelon seeds now, in the market or occasionally at my super, I think of her, and all the work she had to do for so little reward.
After she passed, I could not shake the thought of those watermelon seeds. I wanted to eat the seeds, but lacked the generosity of spirit to deshell them for anyone, even myself. That meant I could not simply buy them in the market. So I waited for my family to leave, nursing a plan to dine on watermelon seeds in a restaurant on my own, mulling on it like one would mull over plans to meet a lover. Once they left, I took the Skytrain to Err and ordered their toasted watermelon seeds the minute I sat down, cushioning it with other dishes like yum kai dao (fried egg salad) and fried rice balls with salted fish so that I wouldn’t look like a weirdo. The watermelon seeds came, dressed in lime juice and a little bit of fish sauce, with finely slivered kaffir lime leaves and chili. I ate them all.
My friend Kevin, who is married to a Portuguese man, likes to tell the story of a group of Thai tourists strolling through the streets in Lisbon and coming upon a local sweets shop. Gazing in wonderment at the sugared egg yolk candies in the window, they exclaim, “Look! They have Thai food too!”
Of course, it’s not Thai food in that window, but Portuguese food. And the foy tong (golden threads), tong yip (golden cups) and tong yod (golden drops) that we serve in markets in Thailand — something we consider inextricably linked to the idea of Thai desserts — are pretty much Portuguese too. To my mind, some of the best ones that you can find are sold at the 100+-year-old Nang Loeng Market (Nakhon Sawan 6 Alley, open every day except Sunday). Besides the standard-issue golden threads, cups and drops sold in plastic boxes, Foy Tong Maa Gwa sells big fist-sized bundles of foy tong resembling rolled-up bales of hay for a Troll doll. I have yet to find a friend who is willing to share one of those egg yolk bales with me, but if you have one, go for it.
Kevin says the story behind egg yolk candies in Portugal stems from the convents, where nuns kept their habits white and starched with the help of egg whites. The leftover egg yolks that were left had to be put to some use, and instead of making countless tubs of mayonnaise, the nuns decided to concoct sweets of yolk and sugar. It’s funny that the origins of some of the most Siamese of Thai sweets hailed from Portuguese convents.
The way that the idea for those sweets came to Siam is more circuitous. Considered the “Escoffier of Thai cuisine”, Maria Guyomar de Pinha — known among Thais as “Thao Tong Kip Ma” — was a Bengali-Japanese-Portuguese woman who brought her knowledge of cooking to bear in the kitchens of King Petrarcha, where she was enslaved after the death of her Greek-French husband Constantine Faulkon and the overthrow of King Narai. Condemned to perpetual slavery, she stayed on after King Petrarcha’s death and became head chef of the palace kitchens, introducing Thais to the use of flour in desserts like kanom pui fai (steamed palm sugar cupcakes), fashioning mung bean paste into tiny desserts resembling marzipan fruits (look choop) and inventing sweet coconut custards in steamed pumpkin (sankaya fuk tong). Of course, she also brought us the aforementioned foy tong. Why there aren’t more movies or television series about this woman in the style of South Korea’s “Dae Jang Geum (Jewel in the Palace)”, I will never understand.
Of course, there are some scholars who claim that dishes like kanom mor gang (custard topped with deep-fried shallots) and curry puffs are actually the invention of lesser-known Thais, beavering away in obscure kitchens without the colourful stories of someone like Maria Guyomar to support them. However, the Portuguese influence inherent in these dishes — despite many Thais’ best efforts — cannot be disputed. If you get the chance, head over to Nang Loeng Market to get a little taste of what fusion food might have tasted like in the 1700s.