A particular dish can reveal much about the ways of eating and beliefs of the culture that created it. It can also show how certain non-native ingredients came to be accepted into local cuisine and the ways culinary traditions have changed over generations.
Chinese food, for example, was brought to Thailand by the different Chinese ethnic groups that immigrated into the country. Each style of cooking reveals aspects of the ethnic group with which it originated, including its standard of living, special skills and abilities to adapt to the circumstances of a new environment, including the incorporation of new ingredients available there into their cuisine.
Many Chinese dishes have absorbed Thai ingredients and concepts. Some examples are tao jio lon (the fermented soya bean condiment called tao jio is Chinese, but here it is simmered with coconut cream and chillies) and Chinese-style kaeng karee mu (a mild pork curry), which uses the curry paste for Thai-style kaeng karee but substitutes flour for the usual coconut cream. It is eaten with fresh prik chee fa. The readiness of Chinese immigrants to accept Thai culinary ideas can be seen in the many ethnic Chinese who like purely Thai dishes such as nam prik pla thu (a spicy, kapi-based dipping sauce eaten with fresh vegetables and fried mackerel), the sour-sweet-spicy Thai soup kaeng som and the steamed, curried fish in coconut custard called haw mok.
There are many interesting Chinese-style sweets and desserts, especially from the Taechew ethnic community. Most are simple recipes, because in their original homeland in China most of the Taechew were hard-working farmers with no time for elaborate recipes. They were best at making steamed or grilled dishes based in roots and seeds that were easy to find or had been grown for use in making sweets. They liked to eat them hot because they lived in cool areas. Taechew sweets are not complicated to make. They do not require pounding, fancy cooking procedures, or the combination of a large number of ingredients the way Thai sweets, or those made by some other Chinese ethnic groups, do.
Some old Taechew desserts that have been popular since they first appeared in Thailand, all of them very easy to make and to eat, are thua daeng tom nam tan (red kidney beans simmered in syrup), luk dueay tom nam tan (Job's tears simmered in syrup), khao nio daeng tom nam tan (red sticky rice cooked in syrup) and man thate tom nam tan sai khing (sweet potatoes simmered in syrup with ginger). When the weather is cold the sweet potatoes can be grilled. Not only are they delicious, but they help keep the hands warm.
Fifty or 60 years ago, these Chinese sweets were sold by vendors who meandered through neighbourhoods with a set-up suspended from a plank balanced on the shoulder. Hanging from each end of the plank was a wooden box. The front one had a hole cut through the top where the pot holding the sweets was inserted. Beneath it was a container holding burning coals that kept them warm.
The pot was divided into three compartments. One held tao suan, (mung beans that had been peeled and split, then cooked in sugar syrup with starch added as a thickener). The second compartment held red sticky rice that had been cooked the same way. The third held mung beans again, cooked in syrup, but without the starch thickener.
The box at the back held small plates, spoons and a basin for washing the dishes. When a customer ordered the sweet beans or sticky rice, the vendor would top it with thick coconut cream that has been cooked with starch and salt.
Shops that sold sweets operated differently from the wandering vendors. The had a larger variety of sweets on display for customers to choose from, not only tao suan or sticky rice in syrup _ both with and without the starch thickener _ but also Job's tears in syrup, sweet potatoes cooked in syrup with ginger and Chinese jujube fruits stewed in syrup.
This list shows clearly that the basic character of Taechew sweets was simple. Once they were introduced in Thailand they underwent some adaptations. Extra starch was added, as was a salted coconut cream topping.
People of all ages ate them, and not just those of Chinese origin. Many Thais liked them, too. But with the passage of time many new kinds of sweets appeared, and the wandering vendors who specialised in the older Taechew sweets are now long gone. Shops or stalls selling sweets on the corners of shophouses are now scarce, even in traditionally Chinese neighbourhoods such as Yaowarat and Charoen Krung Road.
But if you want to see or taste the sweets, it can still be done. Go to Plaeng Nam Road, off Yaowarat. Roughly across from the entrance to Plaeng Market there is a stall that offers them daily from 6am on into the afternoon.
The vendor is Lim Saelim, a second generation Taechew Chinese who rents a house in a congested neighbourhood in the area. He has been making Chinese sweets and selling them on Plaeng Nam Road for more than 40 years, but often moves his stall when he finds a shophouse willing to allow him to set up in front.
Mr Lim said that he sells only five items. ''I make Job's tears, red beans, mung beans, sweet potatoes with ginger and barley or oats, all cooked in sugar syrup. I don't put in any starch.
''After I finish selling I have to go to buy different grains. I get them along Charoen Krung Road. I buy them on a daily basis and don't stock up because I don't have anywhere to store them. Once I have them I have to sit down and pick out the sand or bad grains and throw them out. The Job's tears have to be washed in salt water first to get rid of an odour they sometimes have. The other kinds of grains just need to be rinsed.
''Cooking them isn't hard. I just let them boil until they split, then gradually add sugar. I don't make them as sweet as they used to be in the old days because people now don't want things to be very sweet. They worry about diabetes.
''I finish cooking at about 5am and then load everything into a pushcart to sell on Plaeng Nam Road. Each pot has a charcoal stove to keep the sweets hot. Almost all of my customers are Chinese, usually from the older generations.
''Younger people don't eat these things, but older Chinese still like them because they are soft and easy to eat. They also believe that they are good for you. For example, mung beans are supposed to be good for rawn nai.''
Rawn nai, or ''hot inside'' is a condition with no English-language equivalent. The body feels hot and ''cooling'' foods are supposed to alleviate it. Job's tears are believed to detoxify the body, and kidney beans are believed to fortify the blood. Sweet potatoes cooked in sugar syrup with ginger are said to act as an anti-flatulent.
''I start in the morning and keep on selling. I have one daughter, and later in the day she comes to take over. She also buys grain and takes it home to sort and clean. It's a kind of cycle for both of us. There are only the two of us doing it because my wife died a long time ago.
''I haven't changed my prices in a long time. I charge 14 baht for a bowl of bagful. The time that everything sells out varies from day to day. Sometimes it's gone by noon. People tell my daughter that we should keep on selling these sweets because there will always be people to buy them. There are still plenty of older people who come to buy, and with time the younger ones will get old and come to like them, too.''
So these old Taechew favourites are still with us, and they still reveal much about the lifestyles of the people who created them back in China.
They have absorbed some Thai influences, undergone some adaptations and been passed on from one generation to another, but the basic simplicity and appeal still remains as it was.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit