Exploring Saraburi, the country's curry puff capital.
Travelers passing through the small town of Saraburi, about 100 km north of Bangkok, may have noticed the almost absurd abundance of a particular snack. Resembling a small round pocket of dough similar to an Indian samosa or a Mexican empanada, the dish is sold in countless shops in the town and is known in Thai as kalee pap. If this doesn’t ring a bell, it may help if I reveal that kalee pap is the Thai pronunciation of the English words “curry puff”, and is a snack with obscure origins that has become wholly associated with this otherwise unremarkable town.
Being one of the first major towns one reaches when driving north from Bangkok, the streets at the southern end of Saraburi are strategically lined with shops selling this deep-fried snack. On my way through the town one day I was astonished by the amount of curry puffs for sale, as well as the amount of people buying, and decided to stop by to learn about the origin of the snack and what it is that makes it so popular.
I stop in for a few curry puffs at Renu, one of the many shops selling the snack, and speak with the owner, Somjai Likhananusorn. “I’ve been making kalee pap for about six years,” explains Likhananusorn, who has been cooking all her life. Today she makes 13 varieties of curry puff, selling them every day from 5 AM to 9 PM. She estimates that she makes more than 1,000 a day. “Our best selling kalee pap are chicken and pork. After that it’s our fruit-flavored ones,” she explains.
I ask why curry puffs are so popular in Saraburi, and Likhananusorn says that the snack actually originates in nearby Muak Lek district of Nakhorn Ratchasima province. “Travelers liked the snack but complained that they had to go all the way to Muak Lek to buy it,” explains Likhananusorn. She describes how somebody got the idea of selling the snack in Saraburi, which is conveniently located along the main north-south highway. In typical Thai fashion, this person’s success inspired an almost overnight rush of people to start set up their own curry puff shops, and today kalee pap are now more associated with Saraburi than their original home just up the road.
Making curry puffs is a time-consuming process that I am able to witness first-hand at Likhananusorn’s tiny shop. She explains that the best method involves the cooperation of three people, the first of whom rolls out two discs of dough into a flat sheet about the size of a hand. By rolling two discs of dough on top of each other the snack obtains its characteristic layered look when deep-fried. Likhananusorn’s daughter then fills the dough with a heaping tablespoon of filling and folds the curry puff into its rough shape. Likhananusorn then finishes the process by deftly twisting its edges into something like a ropelike braid to seal it.
When a batch is ready, the curry puffs are then deep-fried for about 20 minutes in a specially designed deep fryer with two frying basins. Working as a team in this manner, Likhananusorn’s daughter estimates that they can make as many as 400 curry puffs in an hour.
I mention that that kalee pap are very similar to samosa, and that the majority of the vendors I saw selling the snack in Muak Lek were Muslim, which coupled with the name, seems to suggest that curry puffs are Indian or Muslim in origin. “I’ve been told that it’s a Muslim dish,” says Likhananusorn. “But their kalee pap are different, they use butter in the dough and they don’t eat pork.”
In any event, as the name suggests, Renu’s chicken kalee pap are seasoned with a liberal amount of curry powder. However, as a result of the intense competition in Saraburi, vendors have to be creative, and today kalee pap can be found with fillings diverse as pork and shitake musroom, and pineapple and raisin.
Upon leaving I am given a box of curry puffs to take home. Finding myself stuck in traffic on the way back to Bangkok, I can’t resist the urge to nibble on a few. Crunching through one, I realize that curry puffs really are the ideal road food. They’re small, savory, filling, and at five baht each, a terrific value. Now if they could only do something about the crumbs…