October 28, 2016
Thailand is renowned the world over for its wonderful food, yet few know that some its glorious desserts have a hidden meaning
The Thai peoples love of desserts (Thai: khanom), can be traced back centuries, with a few dishes, mentioned in The Trai Phum Phra Ruang, or the Three Worlds according to King Ruang; an ancient Khmer script written approx. seven hundred years ago, by a former King of the ancient Kingdom of Sukhothai. The script refers to talat khanom or dessert markets, while other historical notations mention Ban Mo or pottery villages where earthen pots, pans, stoves and other equipment, for making khanom were made.
Thai desserts are mostly made from ingredients that are abundant through-out the country and readily available almost all year round; coconut flesh, coconut cream, mung bean and rice flour. Many of these simple but labor intensive desserts have, and to a lesser degree still do, play an important role on auspicious occasions and festivals.
In the past, some types of khanom were prepared only once in a year, e.g. khao niao daeng and kalamae, both are made with glutinous rice, coconut cream and sugar, and were produced for Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year Festival falling in April.
This is in part due to the fact that it takes a lot of time and hard work to make these particular desserts, especially in the kalamae-making process, of stirring flour with other ingredients to a thick consistency.
This time consuming process, once brought local communities together, as they joined forces in making these annual desserts. This ritual is still found being practiced today by the Mon ethnic people, but unfortunately few other communities still undertake this ancient tradition.
Celebrations and Merit Making
|While it is true the Thais do not have their own autumn season, they do celebrate the end of the harvest season and the planting of new rice crops, in which desserts feature. In eons past, this time of year was called simply the ‘First Planting’ or ‘First Rice’. Later local Beliefs across the Kingdom were infused, with the Hindu religion and events, took on a part of the Hinduism tradition of the ‘Pali’, in which a rice pudding called Kheer is offered to Ganesha the elephant god.
Thailand has three important events, that take place in September – October each year. They are the end of Buddhist Lent, the Festival of Offerings to the Dead, or Sat Rite and the Kathin ritual, all of which feature Thai desserts.
The heart of these Thai customs is the desire of the people to make merit, which they do by taking alms including food, to nearby temples. The food may consist of small species of banana called kluai khai (mini bananas) and a special kind of sweetmeat called kraya sat.
Kraya sat is made from a combination of peanuts, sugar cane, sticky rice, sesame, and coconut, cooked into a sticky paste and then wrapped with a banana leaf. (Kraya sat is similar in appearance to a granola bar, but with a sweeter taste). One the Kingdom’s largest festival celebrating this particular dessert is the Kluai Khai Fair in Kamphaeng Phet, North Central, Thailand.
It is also around this time of year, across Thailand (in areas with large Chinese communities; Thailand is home to the largest overseas Chinese community in the world, accounting for 14 percent of the Thai population (2012), you will see festivals, featuring Moon Cakes. The Mid-Autumn Festival (เทศกาลไหว้พระจันทร์ ), also known as the Moon Festival, takes place at the full moon of the eighth month in the Chinese Lunar Calendar. This is the closest full moon to the autumnal equinox when the moon is said to be at its fullest and roundest – the so-called harvest moon.
These same Chinese communities also celebrate the Lantern Festival, held annually on the 15th day of 1st lunar month, which coincides with the last day of Chinese New Year, when it is customary to eat Yuanxiao, also called tangyuan, a dumpling ball made of sticky rice flour stuffed with different fillings.
A sign of Friendship
Sweetmeats are also served to guests and monks, invited to give prayers for blessing, both to complete a meal and due to the fact that khanom is treated as a special dish for meritorious people. Moreover, khanom is seen as a sign of friendship and love.
Weddings and Dessert Superstitions
While Thai weddings do include a number of uniquely Thai traditions, they do not traditionally include wedding cakes. That said Thai desserts do play a part in the ceremonies, with a special kind of dessert, called sam kloe (Thai: three friends).
Made of coconut, mung beans and sesame seeds, the mix is molded into three small balls attached to each other and then fried in oil. It is said the shapes of sam kloe when being cooked, can foretell the future of the newly-weds; If the three balls stay attached to each other, it signals a happy married life. The down side is if one ball detaches then the couple will have no children. It gets worse, if all three balls separate or the dessert does not expand during the cooking process, then the marriage is doomed to failure.
A show of respect and loyalty
Khanom is also given as a token of gratitude and as a sign of another’s success; if a person is promoted at work they could receive (or give to their superior) a gift of ja mongkut (chief crown) also known as Dara thong (ดาราทอง) or thong ek krachang (ทองเอกกระจัง), a kind of crown-like yellow sweetmeat mainly made of yolk and sugar.
Luk Chup is a dessert that while it has a traditional Thai flavor, is actually an adaptation, of a sweet almond snack that was introduced to Thailand, by the Portuguese in the 1600s. Luk chup are made by boiling mung bean, sugar and coconut milk into a pulp, which is then worked into the shapes of miniature fruits, that is finished with a glazing to match the colour of the real thing. This fancy dessert is traditionally given by a senior employee to a person of lower rank.
While the world moves on in an ever increasing hectic pace, and these wonderful Thai desserts are still widely available, their meaning in the Kingdoms culture and heritage is slowly being confined to the history books.
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