Thai cuisine is famous for its intriguing delicacy and spiciness. However, Thai desserts have been overlooked. The three Thai desserts famous outside of Thailand are mango with sticky rice, deep-fried bananas and coconut ice cream. There is a broad tradition of desserts in Thailand over the centuries which offers many ideas and choices.
Thai desserts have long been with the Thai people, certainly back to the Sukhothai period (1238-1350). Thais had long traded with China and India, which helped in exchanging cultures and traditions as well, including food. In the Ayuthaya period (1350-1767), Thais started trading with Western countries. The Portuguese were the first westerners to introduce the use of eggs and the oven. Thai desserts like Thong Yip (Pinched Gold), Thong Yod (Drop of Gold) and Foi Thong (Golden Threads) originate from Portugal, not Thailand as most people would guess, including Thais.
Thai desserts are renowned for intricacy and elaborateness, their organization, and the punctilious and patient care with which they are created. Characteristic of Thai desserts is not only a range of sweetness, but also other elements such as a good fragrance, achieved starting delicately and exquisitely from the ingredient preparation to the final product. There are many methods to make Thai desserts, varying from steaming, baking, boiling, or deep frying, to complex processes like cooking egg yolks in syrup. The main ingredients for most Thai desserts include coconut milk, sugar, flour, eggs, salt, food coloring and fragrance.
To make high quality Thai desserts, fresh coconut is a must. Back in the old days, only fresh coconut was used in making Thai desserts. And at present, to make coconut milk, finely grated coconut meat is still steeped in warm water, not hot water. It is then squeezed until dry. The white fluid from the first press is called “Hua Ka Ti”. Warm water is then added again to make the second and third pressed coconut milk, which is called “Hang Ka Ti.” Finely grated coconut meat is generally used about 3 times and then discarded. Freshly pressed coconut milk has a better taste and aroma than commercial coconut milk in a can. However, with a fast pace of life, or the focus more on other elements of life, it becomes more common for a family to use commercial coconut milk.
Sugar is one of the main ingredients in Thai desserts. The two common sugars used in Thai desserts are Coconut Palm Sugar and Palm Sugar. Coconut palm sugar is made from coconut palm, whereas palm sugar is made from the sap of the sugar palm or palmyra palm, called Taan in Thai. Palm sugar is often used interchangeably with coconut palm sugar but they are different in many ways. For instance, palm sugar is dryer and more solid than coconut palm sugar. It is also more expensive than coconut palm sugar. In some dessert recipes, coconut palm sugar is often replaced with palm sugar. The replacement may lend the same general look to the dessert but the dessert will be different in taste and aroma.
Thai desserts are well known for their intriguing light tones. Generally the colors used to attract people are made from natural flowers or plants. The following are examples of the most common color sources used in Thai desserts:
- Pandanus leaf (Bai Toey): giving a dark green color;
- Spathe of coconut or palmyra palm leaf (Kab Ma Prao or Bai Taan) : giving a black color;
- Turmeric (Kha Min): giving a yellow color;
- Flower of Chitoria Tematea Linn (Dok Un Chun): giving a blue color (adding lime juice will give a purple color);
- Flower of Aeginetia Pedunculata (Dok Din): giving a black color (but the flower is actually a dark purple color);
- Saffron (Yah Fa Rang): giving a yellow-orangish color;
- Roselle (Kra Jiab): giving a dark red (maroon-like) color;
- Lac (Krang): giving a red color;
Fragrance is another unique characteristic of Thai desserts. There are many ways of making good aromas with Thai desserts but the most common ones are using jasmine flowers (Dok Ma Li), rosa damascene (Dok Ku Laab Mon – roses family), cananga odorata flowers (Dok Kra Dang Nga) as well as fragrant incense candles (Tien Ob). Since the old days, Thais love using jasmine water in desserts because of its aroma. Thais would pick jasmine flowers around 6pm and gently rinse with water so that the flowers do not get bruised. The jasmine flowers (Dok Ma Li) are then soaked in water with a closed lid, and left until around 6am-7am the next morning. The resulting scented water is then used to make the dessert. Keeping the jasmine flowers for more than 12 hours will start to bruise the flowers and the water will not have a good aroma. Rosa damascene (Dok Ku Laab Mon) is used in a different way. Thais only use the pedals. Each pedal is torn into 2 or 3 pieces and then placed in a closed container that has a dessert in it for a certain period of time, usually overnight. For cananga odorata flowers (Dok Kra Dang Nga), Thais first burn them with a fragrant incense candle, and then place only the pedals in a closed container that holds the dessert. For some desserts, burning fragrant incense candles next to desserts in closed containers will be enough to give the desserts an intricate aroma.
What are the common desserts that Thais eat? Thais loves desserts (called Khanom in Thai). The well known dessert is Mango with Sticky Rice, but it is a seasonal dessert, around April to June. Deep-fried banana fritters (Gluay Tod in Thai) or bananas in coconut milk (Gluay Buat Chee) are also well known desserts in Thai restaurants in the U.S. In Thailand, there are all kinds of desserts, both non-seasonal and seasonal, from deep-fried to steamed. Some of the most common Thai desserts include the egg-yolk desserts; Thong Yip (Pinched Gold), Thong Yod (Drop of Gold) and Foi Thong (Golden Threads). Thong simply means Gold. The color of these three desserts is a yellow-like golden color from the egg yolk, and is used to signify prosperity and auspiciousness. These “three musketeers” desserts are often used in wedding ceremonies or commemoration of a new house as well.
Khanom Chan or layered dessert is another common dessert. The name of the dessert comes from the fact that it has 9 layers with color variations. The dessert uses only 2 colors: white and a light tone of a color like green or purple. White is used in every other layer. This dessert is also used in important ceremonies like weddings or the grand opening of a new business. Thais believe the number “nine” is an auspicious number which represents progress and advancement.
One of my favorite desserts is Luk Choob. Made from mung dal beans, this dessert is a collection of miniature replicas of fruits and vegetables. The fruits and vegetables are colorful and glossy, artistically carved, and styled with vegetable dyes and glazed in the gelatin-like agaragar. Bua Loy Benjarong is another interesting dessert. Bua Loy Benjarong is gluten balls in coconut milk, a dish that has been with Thailand for over 200 years. The little balls, the size of the tip of the pinky, are made from sticky rice flour mixed with natural colors. Benjarong refers to 5 natural colors: green (from pandanus leaf), purple (from taro and Chitoria Tematea Linn flower), yellow (from pumpkin), blue (from Chitoria Tematea Linn flower) and white (from jasmine water).
Additionally, tapioca and black beans in coconut milk (Sakoo Tao Dum), coconut custard in a hollowed pumpkin (Sangkhaya Fak Thong), grilled coconut cakes (Paeng Jee), mung dal beans and lotus seeds with coconut topping (Tao Suan Med Bua) are desserts, to name a few, that are common in Thailand.
Thai desserts have always been a part of Thai culture. They reflect caring, patience and an enjoyable way of life. Unfortunately, as time passes, some of the traditions and beliefs are being forgotten in Thai society, although most kinds of desserts still exist. Their tempting and satisfying tastes leave a lasting impression – which is in turn an integral part of why Thai desserts have not been lost with time.