Unravelling the threads of a culinary legacy.
Perhaps it will manifest in its full elegance as delicate golden tresses, resting languorously on a gleaming banana leaf; or, maybe as a sort-of straggly yellow toupée atop the sweet Thai crepe, Khanom Beuang. It may also show up ruthlessly squashed into a plastic-wrapped styrofoam tray. Yet, despite its ubiquity in everyday Thai life, few realise that this peculiar dessert has a decidedly long and cross-cultural past, harking back half a millennium – to the convents of Portugal. Whether whilst squeezing through sweaty lunch-hour crowds or on a weekend amble through the crisp, air-con climes of a shiny mall, a Bangkok resident is, at one time or another, going to encounter the golden-yellow, stringy phenomenon that is Foy Tong (“Golden Threads”).
The original Portuguese version of the confection, Fios de Ovos (“Egg Threads”) is said to owe its creation to the culinary genius of some enterprising nuns. With a surfeit of egg yolks—owing to the extensive use of whites for filtering wines, starching habits and wimples; and even applying gold and silver leaf to church altars—an influx of sugar from new colonies, and a lot of downtime, hitherto quiet convents transformed into pioneering food-waste labs. The resulting innovations were what are still known today as Doces Conventuais, or “Convent Sweets” and in particular, Ovos Moles: pastries characterised by a filling of—you guessed it—egg yolks and sugar.
In parallel, significant advancements in naval construction and sea-going exploration were allowing this tiny nation on the westernmost edge of Europe to accelerate its formidable, global expansion. Portuguese conquests included many parts of Asia; however, unlike Goa in India, or Malacca in Malaysia, Ayutthaya, in then Siam, was never colonised. Instead, it signed a treaty of friendship and commerce with Portugal, marking the first time Siam had ever allied itself with a European nation.
Many traders subsequently chose to settle in Ayutthaya, creating a Portuguese quarter in the old capital. It is believed that it was during this period that Maria Guyomar de Pina, or Thao Thong Kip Ma—a Siamese woman of mixed Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali descent, and wife of Phaulkon, the high-ranking minister to King Narai—introduced egg-based Portuguese sweets to Siamese royal cuisine. These included Fios de Ovos, or what is now known as Foy Tong. Traditionally served in propitious ceremonies, the golden colour of the dessert represents prosperity, while its long threads represent longevity and everlasting love.
Today, Foy Tong is made in much the same way it always has been, using duck and chicken egg yolks, and sugar, combined into a silky, deep yellow mixture. The batter is strained through a narrow funnel into a simmering syrup infused with jasmine, resulting in delicate ‘golden threads’ of egg yolk. Having myself just returned from Portugal—experiencing first-hand the full spectrum of its eggy delights—I can only marvel at how this five-hundred-year-old friendship—between two countries at opposite ends of the earth—has engendered one, incredible, shared culinary legacy.
by Rosalind Yunibandhu