Luso-Siamese synergy

ThaiDay, 27/04/06
Tracing the roots of Portugal's influence on Thai cuisine.

I have some news for you: the green curry you ate last night is really a Portuguese dish. And your favorite som tam? Portuguese as well. Fancy a glass of cha dam yen, Thai-style iced tea? You have Vasco da Gama to thank for that. Well, OK, I’m exaggerating a bit, but it is essentially true that none of the above Thai dishes would have been possible without the help of the Portuguese.

This is because many of the ingredients and dishes that we consider Thai are actually fairly recent culinary introductions, a result of the influence of Portuguese traders and missionaries who visited Thailand starting in the 16th century. This 500-year-old exchange of produce and ideas had a profound impact on Thai food, and largely contributed to defining the cuisine we are familiar with today.

The area surrounding the Santa Cruz Church was once home to a community of Portuguese settlers.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Thailand, having arrived at the former royal capital of Ayuthaya in 1511. Establishing friendly relations with the court of King Ramathibodi II, the Portuguese were quick to take the exciting new products coming from the Americas and market them in Thailand. Thus saw the introduction of such modern-day Thai staples as tomatoes, potatoes, corn, lettuce, cabbage, chilies, papaya, custard apples, guava, pineapples, pumpkins, sweet potatoes, cashews, peanuts, and tobacco. Today these ingredients have been integrated to such an extent that their origin is largely forgotten, and few Thais are aware that their beloved chilies, for example, are actually a non-native species.

The Portuguese were also responsible for bringing products from other parts of Asia to Thailand, such as cinnamon from Sri Lanka and nutmeg and cloves from Indonesia. Perhaps the most significant example of this inter-Asian commerce was the trade of a simple leaf known in an obscure southern Chinese dialect as te: tea. The Portuguese brought tea from China and introduced it to Thailand and much of the rest of Asia, and were also largely responsible for popularizing the drink in Europe.

A great deal of the produce that Thais use on a daily basis are actually fairly recent introductions courtesy of Portuguese traders.

Other than introducing a new variety of raw ingredients, the Portuguese also had an impact on the way Thais cooked. This influence is most clearly seen in the area of khanom, sweets. In fact, Thai history claims that much of the Portuguese influence on Thai sweets can be traced back to a single person: Marie Guimar, the mixed-race Portuguese wife of Constantine Phaulkon, Greek explorer and high-ranking minister of King Narai. Guimar had a strong influence on the kitchen of the royal household, and by introducing the concept of baking and the use of ingredients such as egg yolks and flour—methods and elements unknown in Thailand but integral to Portuguese dessert making—she had an impact on Thai desserts that can still be seen today.

One of the most obvious examples of the Portuguese influence on Thai sweets can be seen in the numerous desserts that share the Thai word for gold, thong, a reference to the yellow/orange color imparted by the liberal use of egg yolks. These desserts include thong ek, thong yawt, thong yip, and foy thong, and are all variants of a family of Portuguese desserts known as ovos moles. Despite the passing of a half-century since their introduction, many of these sweets are still similar in form to desserts that can be found in Portugal to this day. To learn more about the production and origin of these desserts, I paid a visit to the factory of Kanomthai Kao Peenong, the largest producer of Thai sweets in the country.

Thong yawt.

I am given a tour of the factory byArin Pipattawatchai, Kao Peenong’s head of quality control, and an expert in the production of Thai sweets. She explains that all of Kao Peenong sweets are made by hand, still employing the same methods that were introduced by the Portuguese nearly 500 years ago. In the case of the Portuguese-influenced thong sweets, this process typically involves immersing duck-egg yolk combined with various other ingredients in simmering syrup. “For Thai people in the past, eggs were dinner food—they weren’t used for sweets,” explains Pipattawatchai. “This concept was introduced by the Portuguese.” We watch the production of thong yawt, made by dropping a thick paste of duck eggs, coconut milk and jasmine-scented flour into boiling syrup, resulting in firm, bright yellow balls that are both sweet and fragrant. The process for thong yip is similar, however the still-warm golden disks are pressed into small ceramic bowls to obtain their flower-like shape. The most interesting process of all is that of foy thong, whereby egg yolks are streamed into simmering syrup through a fine sieve, resulting in delicate, golden ‘noodles’ of egg yolk.

Making thong yip at Kanomthai Kao Peenong.

Another example of the Portuguese influence on Thai sweets can be found alongside the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi, in the neighborhood surrounding the Santa Cruz Church. This area was allocated to Portuguese and French traders when the capital of Thailand was moved from Ayutthaya to Thonburi, and is today known for khanom farang kutii jiin, a cake of Portuguese origin. The cake, a simple mixture of duck eggs, sugar and flour, is prepared by an improvised method of baking, which employs a bottom layer of heated gravel and a top layer of hot coals to simulate the effect of an oven, a kitchen tool not found in Thailand during the Ayuthaya era.

Along with food, the Portuguese also introduced Christianity to Thailand.

To learn more about this unique sweet, I pay a visit to Thanusingh, a family bakery that has been making khanom farang kutii jiin in the shadow of Santa Cruz Church for more than 200 years. Pong, a fifth-generation baker, and Thai of mixed European and Japanese descent, is one of the few people in Thailand still making this dessert, and explains how every effort is made to preserve the original recipe and methods. “The Portuguese tourists who come here recognize the cakes immediately,” explains Khun Pong of the sweet that has changed little in several centuries.

Khanom farang kutii jiin fresh from the oven.

To make khanom farang kutii jiin, duck eggs and sugar are beat at a very high speed until slightly stiff and peaked. Formerly this was done by hand using an improvised pulley system turning a wooden paddle, but today modern electric blenders do the job. Flour is then carefully folded in, and the mixture is poured into small hand-made metal trays. These are then baked in a modern, custom-made oven that recreates the effect of the original method of employing a bed of heated gravel topped with hot coals. When the cakes are done, I try a hot one, and find the cake dry and generally unremarkable, but to Ayuthaya-era Thais not familiar with bread or sweets, it must have been nothing short of a culinary revolution.

Khanom farang kutii jiin, a Thai snack of Portuguese origin, are still made using traditional methods.

Khun Pong goes on to mention that the Santa Cruz Church area is also known for other dishes almost certainly of Portuguese origin, including a dish of a roasted calf’s leg inserted with dried spices, and a hearty vegetable stew probably with origins in the Portuguese cozido, both of which are typically are only made during Catholic festivals nowadays. Portugal’s influence on Thai cooking is a unique culinary heritage, the result of a centuries old cultural exchange, that is both thriving, and in danger of dying out.