The new year is almost here, and with it comes many good times. It is a time to forget about the dispiriting and boring things such as the endless political scrapping.
BRIDGING CULTURES: ‘Kui tio kaeng’.
Thailand was once home to a diverse collection of ethnicities, each with its own language, culture, way of life, belief system and artistic tradition. But over long years of peaceful coexistence these various cultures exchanged ideas and intermingled in an environment of shared respect, and the resulting blend has been durable.
There are many examples of this transferring and blending of thoughts, beliefs and artistic traditions, and they extend throughout the entire spectrum of society, from the highest nobility to ordinary villagers.
The frame around the entrance to King Rama IV's original throne room in the Royal Palace provides one example. Such ornate door frames were usually decorated with images of an angelic celestial being called a thawaraban, which was believed to protect everything located beyond the door. But the portal leading to King Rama IV's throne room shows the image of a Chinese male angel whose duty it was to prevent all men from entering. This feature shows the influence of Chinese culture.
Similarly, every time prayers were offered to Phra Siam Thewathiraj, an important Buddha image created at the request of King Rama IV, the offerings made to the image were specified by Chinese tradition.
One further example _ every Chinese New Year a ceremony making offerings to ancestors in the Chinese style is held at the Royal Palace. These are ways in which Thai and Chinese cultural features and beliefs have mixed at the highest social level.
In ordinary society, this blending of Thai and Chinese cultural ideas can also be seen. The influence of Chinese art can be seen in many temples; Wat Khanon at Amphoe Ban Pong in Ratchaburi is well known in connection with efforts made to preserve the shadow play performances presented there. The ubosot, or main Buddha image hall, is very old, and its architecture is purely in the old Thai style, but the ornamental designs around the doors and windows are Chinese. They are simple, like folk art, created by Chinese village craftsmen whose intentions were purely religious and intended for the community. They were offered with sincerity and welcomed by the local people.
MELTING POT: Above, the various stages of preparing ‘khanom bueang yuan’, a dish that has its origins in Vietnam.
Likay is a performance art that was once very popular. It is believed that people in the Central region imported the Muslim style of performance called dikir from the South and combined it with Central Thai music and plot material. Before the performance began, however, there was an introductory episode called awk khaek in Thai, where a man in Muslim dress came out and summarised the plot of the performance that would follow, much as the Shakespearean character Chorus does, also offering a prayer for the organisers of the performance and the audience.
These are just a few examples of the way different cultures have been combined in Thai beliefs and in art. But there is another aspect in which they join and blend, one that is closer to everyday life _ food.
Many Thai dishes are made with ingredients that were originally Chinese, and there is a long list of foods that are true Thai-Chinese hybrids. One example is tao jio lon. The salty fermented soya bean condiment called tao jio is Chinese. To make tao jio lon, tao jio is pounded and simmered slowly with coconut cream, then shallots, pork and shrimp are added, followed by chillies. Finally, it is seasoned with palm sugar and fish sauce.
Tao jio lon must be eaten with fresh vegetables, which might include white turmeric, cucumber and the small aubergines called makhuea poh. The turmeric is a purely Thai medicinal herb, and the entire dish is an excellent example of Thai and Chinese ingredients blending perfectly to make a delectable whole.
Even pad thai, despite its name, is made almost entirely from Chinese ingredients. The rice noodles, hua chai po (Chinese radish), tofu, beansprouts and kui chai (Chinese celery) leaves all come from Chinese cooking traditions. When all of these primarily Chinese ingredients were combined for the first time into the familiar dish, it was pointed out that they were being fried together in the Thai style, and the name stuck.
Chinese tofu and hua chai po are used in so many dishes that they can almost be seen as symbols of this combination of cultures. For the most part, the centre for this mixing of cooking traditions has been the Central region.
An example of another dish that draws on two cultures is khanom bueang yuan (taco-shaped shells filled with various ingredients). This dish originated in Vietnam. The batter for the shell of the Thai versions combines rice flour, soya flour, turmeric and coconut cream. The filling includes chopped shrimp, shredded coconut, hua chai po and chopped and fried tofu.
To make them, batter is poured into a hot wok and beansprouts are put on top, followed by the other ingredients. Khanom bueang are eaten with an ajad, or relish made from cucumber, chillies and shallots in vinegar seasoned with sugar and salt.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS: ‘Salad khaek’.
For the authentically Vietnamese version made in Vietnam and some of Thailand's border provinces, the batter for the shell is largely the same, although the coconut cream might be omitted. The filling is shrimp and pork together with beansprouts and fresh coriander, nothing else.
Two other dishes in which cultures meet are the kui tio kaeng and salad khaek made in the Muslim community in Bangkok (you won't find them in the Muslim South). The noodle dish is made by simmering curry seasonings in coconut cream, then adding sen lek (small gauge rice noodles), beef that has been boiled to extreme tenderness, tofu, chopped hua chai po, a boiled egg, crisp-fried shallots and kui chai leaves.
Salad khaek is made from lettuce, onion, cucumber and tomato with a dressing of curry seasonings simmered in coconut cream with fried chopped tofu and fried sweet potato chips.
These are a few examples of dishes in which different cultures and traditions combine. All are favourites that have taken on their own identity, creations that we can be proud of in a culture where harmony between differing approaches is not always the rule.
About the author
- Writer: Suthon Sukphisit