Most people prefer to start and end their days with food they are familiar with, the kind they have enjoyed from an early age. So it is natural that most foreigners would need to acquire certain tastes to enjoy Thai breakfasts and desserts. Accustomed to sweet porridge, many palates might be put off by slippery congee and its savoury flavours. The same goes for dessert. While many Westerners turn to the comforting, yet exotic, flavours of mango and sticky rice, the repertoire of Thai desserts actually goes far beyond this popular dish. For those willing to try them, these desserts send taste buds on a voyage of discovery.
Thais call desserts kha-nom, and they come in such a wide range that they are not necessarily limited to after dinner. In the morning, it’s not unusual to see people enjoy kha-nom khrog, mortar-grilled coconut milk pudding, or khao-dtom mud, steamed banana-filled sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, or khao-nhiew bping, grilled taro-filled sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. While most Thai desserts would satisfy any sweet tooth, some may taste slightly savoury. They all depend on the five vital groups of ingredients for traditional Thai desserts: flour, sugar, beans, fruits, and coconut.
Different types of flours created from Jasmine rice, glutinous rice, and corn are used in Thai desserts, according to their consistency. The levels of sweetness, from subtle to cloying, come from various sources, such as the patty form of palm sugar, light sugarcane juice, sticky mud-like molasses, treacle, and honey. Beans, nuts, and seeds are often used in desserts, considered propitious because of their fertility. Beans every shade of the colour wheel, from yellow to red to green to black, can be used or mashed into a paste. The same goes for peanuts, cashew nuts, sesame seeds, lemon basil seeds, and watermelon seeds.
Considering the country’s abundance of tropical fruits, it’s hard to imagine Thai desserts without them. Banana might be the most popular staple item. Even its leaves are useful in dessert-making, as they can be used as wrappers. Other fruits, such as palm fruit, jackfruit, rambutan, and durian, the most notorious of all, can be consumed fresh, in syrup, or preserved. They come in pastes, jams, and candies. Sometimes they are just glazed.
Coconut deserves its own category. Thanks to its many useful parts, it appears in all manner of desserts. Coconut meat, juice, cream, and milk, as well as its burnt husks, leaves, and branches, turn into edible ingredients, colouring additives, or packaging materials. Take kha-nom saii-sai or kha-nom sod-sai as an example—caramelised shredded coconut meat goes into coconut pudding, which is then wrapped in banana leaves and tied with coconut fronds and small branches before being steamed. All that’s missing is the shell.
Colours and scents make Thai desserts both earthy and otherworldly. Perfuming adds another dimension to a dessert lover’s delight. Scented candles and incenses are lit to “smoke” some desserts. Flowers like jasmine, ylang-ylang, and rose provide beautiful fragrances are either used directly in desserts or to scent syrups. Organic colours come from fruits, flowers, and herbs, such as purple from butterfly pea flowers, green from pandanus leaves, and yellow from pumpkin and turmeric. Salt and other savoury ingredients can sneak into desserts, too, cutting the sweetness. Don’t be surprised if you find dried shrimp and fish flakes on sweet sticky rice. Lastly, the application of gold leaf brings the Midas touch to culinary creations such as thong ake (an auspicious egg yolk truffle that connotes being the first or at the top) and jaa mongkut (a mini crown-shaped dessert connoting high status).
Like other cultural elements in the country, Thai desserts have also been influenced by Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Mon traditions. However, one of the most curious influences arrived from Europe, namely Portugal and France. Still widely made on the Thonburi side of Bangkok, kha-nom farang khudee jeen is in fact a madeleine in French pastry terminology. Tellingly, Thais call bread kha-nom pang, a term derived from the French word for it, pain.
The European legacy appears in another highly important ingredient, egg. Formerly used in savoury dishes only, the use of eggs was introduced in the late 16th and 17th centuries during the Ayutthaya Era. Although egg-based desserts and bread had already reached Siamese shores thanks to the Portuguese, Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of mixed Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali ancestry, is often credited for making them popular. Married to Constantine Phaulkon, the Greek adventurer who became King Narai’s advisor, Maria was titled Thao Thong Gheeb Mah. Unfortunately, she was jailed following a revolution and her husband’s assassination. Later, during the reigns of King Pate-raja and King Tai Sra, she worked in the rulers’ kitchens and ultimately became the head of the royal household.
Using egg yolks from Portuguese recipes, thong yib, thong yord, and foy thong have luscious golden hues. Gold being a status symbol, the Thai names of these desserts carry auspicious meanings—prestige, wealth, and charm. When holding ceremonies, locals often cater them in, since they are believed to bring good luck, love, and prosperity.
Combining art and science, making desserts is a labour of love for the meticulous masters of the Thai kitchen. Or maybe it should be sweet alchemy.