…and why you usually don’t see them in a restaurant!
The Thai nation has its own style of eating. If you’ve only visited Thailand a time or two, you may not be aware of this. And it’s all made more confusing by Thai restaurants abroad. Because many of them have adapted their traditional cuisine to what they think Westerners expect instead of keeping to traditional thai desserts. We have been brought up expecting a meal to have several consecutive courses, and for each person to have their own plate that’s full of everything needed – apart from seasonings. And so many Thai restaurants in the West try to copy this, presenting their menus in sections such as starters, curries, soups noodles etc., and winding up with a selection of desserts at the end.
This doesn’t only happen abroad; there are more than a few restaurants here, particularly in resorts with many Western guests, where the Thai meals offered also follow this approach. But, when you think about it, it’s a lot more friendly and harmonious to eat a meal Thai-style. A typical Thai meal consists of a soup, a curry dish, a salad, a fried dish and a dessert. Normally there would be a mix of spicy and mild dishes for balance. Also, a Thai meal is served all at once (as opposed to presenting dishes in the form of separate courses) by way of five or six big bowls in the middle of the table. People help themselves to as little or as much of whatever they fancy, in whatever combination appeals to them.
In the West, the dessert course has become elevated to an art form, often the most looked-forward to of all the courses, with literally thousands of different approaches and recipes to pick from. However, in Thailand, with everything on the table at the same time, a ‘dessert’ as one of the elements in a sit-down meal never actually gained any significance. The usual ‘sweet thing’ on the table will be a bowl of sticky rice with fruit, in one form or another. This kind of dessert is normally made from a combination of coconut cream, coconut flesh, rice flour, palm sugar, eggs and fruit.
But – and it’s an enormous ‘but’ – the entire attitude towards food and eating is different over here. The Thais eat frequently throughout the day, usually at least once between breakfast and lunch, and then again a time or two between lunch and the evening meal. In fact, it’s quite common at any time of the day to see shop workers and even bank clerks popping outside to visit a just-arrived travelling food stall, and then munching away beneath the counter in-between serving customers. Also, apart from family meals in the evening, when everyone sits together, most of the food is eaten on the move, as and when, from street vendors or nearby food markets.
And that brings us to ‘kanom’. This is loosely translated as ‘any snack-food which is on the sweet side’! And if the Thais have only a few basic mealtime desserts then, boy, do they make up for it here. There must be almost as many different types of kanom in Thailand as there are desserts in the West. It’s rare to find them in Thai restaurants, except for the ubiquitous sticky rice with fruit or/and ice-cream, simply because most of them take such a long time to make. This type of delicacy originated in the Royal Palace, where the servants in the kitchens would often spend days in their preparation. And, over the years, these courtly kanom, and their associated traditions, gradually filtered out to the rich merchants and then down to the ordinary folk.
To be analytical, the spectrum of Thai desserts/kanom can be divided into several broad bands. There are those based around sticky rice, and then a whole set of others which use jelly or custard and tend to be gooey. You’ll find a lot that come in the form of cakes, bread, or pancakes (beware if you’re tempted to sample some of these, as they contain far, far more sugar than a Western palate expects!). Another category is fruit-based, with or without ice-cream. And then a final and less-common type is in the form of soup and/or pudding. These are hard to come across on Samui, as they borrow a great deal from their Chinese origins. But something like, for example, ‘Mochi Rice and Sesame Balls in Ginger Water’ is commonly found in and around Bangkok’s Chinatown, and is undoubtedly one of the classic Asian sweet dishes of all time: the dumplings with a black sesame seed paste in the middle have been often ‘borrowed’ and featured in Western gourmet desserts!
But there is one particular occasion when you’ll find a direct link to the courtly traditions of old – a Thai wedding. (Actually there are other formal events when these dishes crop up too; banquets and official functions and the like.) There are seven kanom that are guaranteed to bring you luck or fortune, especially at the time when a man proposes to a woman. All but one are of a yellow hue, symbolising wealth or gold. The dish of ‘Thong Yip’ in translation means getting rich by gold, i.e. ‘wealth’ in Thai. And it’s made of yolks from duck eggs with coconut milk, which is all then boiled in syrup and moulded by hand into the shape of a flower.
It’s hard to find such succulently sweet surprises on Samui. Few restaurants have time to make thai desserts, and you’ll need to tour the food markets and temple fairs to strike it lucky. But there is one place where you’ll at least come across one of the most startling combinations of taste, texture and . . . aroma, to be found. Sticky rice with a mango topping is quite common. But, for four months every year, it’s the durian season. Head for one of the best genuine small Thai restaurants, in Maenam. It’s got no name – just ‘Thai Food Restaurant’ underneath its Thai title. And it’s right next to the police station, across the road from Soi 1. There they’ll do you real Thai sticky rice, on a banana leaf, with segments of durian on top. It might take you by surprise, with its texture and aroma, but the taste is out of this world. Regard it as an adventure to ’round off’ your stay – try Thai desserts at least once!