The story of foy tong

Handmade foy tong at Foy Tong Maa Gwa in Nang Loeng Market

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.

What Maria might have looked like, courtesy of a local artist

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.


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A reprieve for the palate

A variety of fish meatballs with egg noodles at Yoo-Nguan Pochana

It’s hard to believe, but it’s already eating-your-face-off season in Bangkok, and my scale is dearly paying for it. Again. As much as I appreciate the clinking of glasses and rivers of champagne that go with the happiest time of the year — as well as the surprisingly decent weather and traffic (!) — there does come a time when one needs to reset the tastebuds a bit, take a breather, and chill.

So when your tongue wants a reprieve from the prickly tom yums and greasy curries of your normal day-to-day ventures to the trough, you can’t do much better than these fish noodles on the much-loved-but-still-underrated Chan Road. Known as Yoo-Nguan Pochana (Chan Road 18/7), the open shophouse, patronised but not too crowded, is the ideal spot for a quick breakfast that fills you up for surprisingly longer than you’d expect. Although the standard range of rice noodles is available, the bamee were said to be the best, and even though I did not try any other noodle, they were: silky and buttery in a way that I’ve only seen at the original Bamee Sawang, formerly at Hua Lumphong but now on Petchburi Road, RIP (*takes hat off and bows head*).

The meatballs, meanwhile (I ordered ruammitr, or a mix) boasted the qualities that Thais value in their fish balls: springy and resilient to anything but the mightiest mash of the back teeth, qualities credited to the vendor’s mix of bigeye snapper and cutlassfish, according to Khao Sod English.

But look, if a more “traditional” breakfast (something that really doesn’t exist in Thailand) is more your jam, you can get all up into the variety of toasts on offer, served with common Thai toppings like coconut custard, sugar and butter, or yes, jam.

You will have plenty of time to be sorry for your rigid view of breakfast and return for a bowl of fishball bamee later. These folks have been here for a while and will still be there when you go back.


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Hidden Monsters

The famous sweet eggplant “fries” at Panda King

In most horror movies, the protagonist is facing a life-or-death struggle that is made doubly scary by the inability of the people around them to acknowledge that anything weird is actually happening. This is why most of those horror movie protagonists are women (famously referred to as “final girls”, a trope created by Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween”) or children (think the little girl in “Poltergeist”, Danny in “The Shining”, or Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”). When men are in danger, it is usually due to a real, tangible existential threat like in “The Thing”, “Predator” or “Alien” (although Sigourney Weaver ultimately becomes a final girl, too). In contrast, the observations of women and children are easy to dismiss.

These observations are so easy to dismiss, in fact, that women often end up dismissing the little pricks of worry about the maybe-monsters in their own lives. The truth of the matter is — and I think deep down we all know this– monsters are real. They are the ones who are OK with getting their friends and family sick as long as the stock market goes up. They are the ones who are fine with children being in jail as long as they don’t know them personally. Even more commonly, they are the ones who hurt us in our day-to-day lives, but cry victim when confronted with their abuses. They turn their outrages against us in upon themselves, fashioning themselves the heroes in our own horror stories. With blood made of acid and snapping jaws that protrude, they cast themselves as Ripley, turning us into John Hurt choking on glass noodles, secondary players in the “Alien” movie of our own lives. And we allow this to happen. We think we are too smart to be twisted or turned or manipulated. We gaslight ourselves.

I know about this because I once loved monsters, and willingly welcomed them into my life. Even after I discovered them for what they were — the vampires and big bad wolves of the forest — I figured that I deserved whatever depredations they saw fit to grant me, a form of emotional cutting. I fancied myself the ultimate giver. But that was a while ago. Like the lifting of a curse sent by an evil fairy, it takes a long time for the enchanted villager to realise that they need to protect themselves if they want to keep from falling asleep for another 100 years.

I am writing this on the day before Halloween, in the run-up to the U.S. election. Obviously I have particular monsters in mind. But I’ve also been thinking of the monsters I’ve known personally, and the time and energy it took to finally vanquish them. It takes a lot of energy, guys. The kind of energy that you can only get from the very best comfort food that you can find.

Everyone’s A-1 comfort food is different, but for me, Chinese-American junk food is the sort of thing I turn to when I feel like how Don Lemon looks right now, in the homestretch to election day. The PTSD from 2016 is real, yinz. So to shore up our magical defences and the steely resolve of Ripley in a power loader, I binge on fried eggplant sticks, lacquered to a glossy sweet sheen, and sweet-and-sour chicken, similarly glazed but with a bright, citrusy tang. I get these things at Panda King (80/5 Chula 46, Phayathai Rd., 084-210-6522), which is not the platonic ideal of American-Chinese food (the mapo tofu is soupy, the fried dumplings resemble a cervical pillow) but is good enough when the spiritual wolves are howling at the door. A quick meal here and you are ready once again to set ablaze your very own alien egg chamber. Just make sure not to ignore the little voices in your head next time.

Sweet and sour chicken


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