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.