Dining and discovery in Bangkok’s historic old Portuguese quarter
Though Thailand was never colonized, a number of foreign influences have nevertheless managed to leave a footprint in the Kingdom. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Siam in 1511, which jumpstarted positive trading agreement between the two nations—a harmonious union that continues to this day. Older than Bangkok itself, on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River, the tight-knit Kudichin community is all that remains of the Portuguese quarter after the fall of Ayutthaya in the 18th century.
Although Kudichin’s winding sois and squat houses resemble a typical Thai neighbourhood, the crimson dome of the Santa Cruz Church is visible across the river, indicating that the fifth-generation Portuguese descendants here have managed to hold fast to many of their traditions. Built in 1770 and then rebuilt in 1916 after a fire, this Renaissance-neoclassical-style church is just one vestige of Kudichin’s European past. Catholic imagery can be found elsewhere in Kudichin, including mosaics of the Virgin Mary. Though they represent a minority, the residents of Kudichin continue to celebrate their unique heritage through public museum education and distinctive Thai-Portuguese cuisine.
Siamese-Portuguese relations can be traced back to Siam’s ancient capital, Ayutthaya. Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya was cosmopolitan in nature and at the centre of international commerce and foreign relations. The capital’s welcoming attitude and wealth of resources attracted many foreigners, most notably merchants and traders, from diverse areas of the globe, including Persia, India, China, Japan, and the Dutch Republic.
Though Siam was friendly toward a number of European powers, a coup in 1688 against the Western presence in the Kingdom expelled most of the Europeans—except for the Portuguese. King Taksin was appreciative of the weapons the Portuguese had supplied to the Siamese military, which proved invaluable during the wars against Burma. Many Portuguese settlers integrated deeply into Siamese society, including important court positions.
However, in 1767, the Burmese launched a massive assault on Ayutthaya, ultimately sacking the city and forcing the Kingdom to relocate. According to legend, King Taksin watched the first rays of sunlight break across Thonburi, and declared the illuminated land Siam’s new capital. As a gesture of gratitude for their service in the war against Burma, King Taksin allocated a plot of land along the riverbank to Portuguese soldiers and the families, as well as Muslim and Chinese settlers too.
This resulted in the community now known as Kudichin—a compound of the Thai words kudi, meaning “a building where monks live”, and chin, meaning “Chinese” (the neighbourhood was once the spot for the homes of Chinese monks, hence the name). Despite its rich history and scenic riverside location, few modern tourists make the time to visit, but Navinee Pongthai hopes to change that. About a year ago, Navinee converted her aunt’s house into the Baan Kudichin Museum, which displays historic photographs and artifacts illustrating Portuguese life in this historic district. Though small in size, it describes Portuguese history in Siam with surprising detail. The museum also offers free admission, though a donation is encouraged. On the first floor, visitors can relax in a semi-open air courtyard lush with greenery. Silhouetted against the backdrop of blue azulejo tiles, a statue of the Virgin Mary clasps her hands together in prayer. In the background, you can hear the hourly peal and toll of the Santa Cruz Church intermingle with the sound of schoolchildren.
The highlight of the museum is its café, where Navinee serves Thai-style desserts, alongside her signature dish sappayak. Influenced by the Portuguese heritage, sappayak is a simple but very tasy snack of minced pork, chili, and potatoes sprinkled with tamarind. After the ingredients are mixed together, it’s cooked over a tao, an old-school charcoal burner in her home kitchen across the way, and then stuffed in a buttery soft bun.
Kudichin is a bike-friendly neighbourhood, as there are no large roads, only labyrinthine alleyways. You can also follow the walkway along the riverbank, which leads to the beautifully preserved Kuan An Keng Shrine, which is one of the oldest in Thonburi. Adorned with hand-painted murals and intricate carvings, is an exquisite representation of traditional Chinese architecture.
Kudichin is best known for its light and crumbly, duck egg-based khanom farang, or “foreigner cakes”. When Portuguese settlers first arrived in Ayutthaya, they didn’t have access to dairy or yeast, explains Teepakorn Sudjidjune, the owner of Thanusingha Bakery. As a result, his ancestors had to adjust their traditional sponge cake recipe. Teepakorn uses his great-great grandfather’s original 500-year old recipe, which effectively introduced bread to Thailand. In fact, the Thai word for bread—pang—comes from the Portuguese word pão.
If you come at an opportune time, you can also watch Teepakorn and his family prepare the cakes in the cozy kitchen of their dual home and bakery. It’s a delight to watch the thick, white cake batter being stirred and then poured slowly into the antique baking tray. The cakes are also packaged and distributed to various shops across Bangkok, connecting the rest of the city to this culinary treasure. Each khanom farang is topped with various dried fruits, a Chinese tradition imbued with special significance; the dried persimmon, in particular, promotes good fortune.
Kudichin’s history has become important to even its residents who aren’t of Portuguese descent, like Kanita Sakulthong, whose home-style restaurant Baan Sakulthong showcases a medley of Thai-Portuguese cuisine—from recipes bequeathed to her from her husband’s third-generation grandmother. For Kanita, this is how she preserves her family’s history. Her husband’s grandmother was paralyzed and couldn’t cook anymore, but still wanted to eat the foods she grew up with. So, she instructed Kanita on how to cook these dishes for her. However, she unfortunately passed away before she could share all the recipes she knew with Kanita.
Though Kanita is not of Portuguese descent, her ancestors used to work in the kitchen of the Royal Palace, and those recipes were handed down through the family, including Kanita. Not surprisingly, her restaurant has received local notoriety. In particular, she’s known for her bird-shaped Thai dim dum. Her food has also been featured at food fairs in the city and will continue to be in the future.
However, her signature dish is khanom jeen, a Thai recipe with a Portuguese twist. According to Kanita, the settlers wanted to have Portuguese food, so their home cooks searched for local ingredients to use for substitutes, swapping white sauce for curry paste and coconut milk, and vermicelli noodles topped with minced chicken in place of potatoes. Another specialty is tommafad, a Thai version of the Portuguese stew cozido, though her version is loaded with spices and served with rice in true Thai fashion. According to Kanita, the Portuguese Ambassador of Thailand praised the dish when he first arrived in Bangkok and dined at her restaurant. She’s also opened her home to Portuguese travellers who’ve likewise complimented the unique authenticity of her cooking.
Kanita is also looking forward to expanding her business in the future. Her restaurant currently requires a reservation beforehand, and she hopes to also one day have a stall in front of her house to sell Thai-Portuguese baked goods. Similarly, Navinee hopes to expand her museum’s upstairs exhibition to include additional translations for foreigners to continue to share this unique culture with both Bangkok residents and visitors from around the world.
Getting to Kudichin can be a schlep, but it’s easy enough aboard the Chao Phraya River Express boat. The most scenic route is to get off at Memorial Bridge and then walk across the river to the Thonburi side. From there, the route is obvious, as you can simply walk in the direction of the Santa Cruz Church, the centrepiece of the Catholic neighbourhood which is visible from every vantage point.
By Allison Nicole Smith