East meets West in the culinary history of Ayutthaya

Thailand is one of the classic holiday destinations for many Britons. Lured by the country’s ‘exotic’ appeal, hedonistic reputation and tropical beaches, many flock to the ‘land of smiles’ every year. Yet off the beaten track, there’s an endless abundance of cultural treasures to be explored, offering a more illuminating experience of Thai culture. Just one of Thailand’s countless cultural treasures is located 80 kilometres upriver from Bangkok, in the historical city of Ayutthaya.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the old capital of Siam is a city of ruins made up of rows of headless Buddhas, the remnants of once-grand monasteries and beautiful reliquary towers whose intricate stonework has withstood the passage of time. Even from its ruins, you get an inkling of the grandeur that once characterised this fallen city. A few hundred years ago, these crumbling edifices were the heart of a civilisation on par with the greatest foreign powers of its time. After all, Thailand is the only country in South-East Asia to never have been colonised by a European power, which is no small feat.

In its heyday, Ayutthaya was renowned worldwide as a cosmopolitan city – and the influx of foreigners had a profound impact on the national cuisine. It was in the royal kitchens of this city that Thai desserts took a new turn. Under the direction of Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali descent, the desserts of the court became infused with Portuguese influences, turning into the staples of Thai cuisine that they are regarded as today. In the West, she is overshadowed by the more famous figure of her husband. But in Thailand, she has become an admired figure in culinary history due to her services for the nation’s sweet-tooths.

Her desserts were yolk-based in contrast to the traditional coconut base previously used in Thai sweets. Borrowing from the Portuguese tradition, the main ingredients used by Maria Guyomar de Pinha in her desserts were eggs, sugar, soybean starch or cassava starch.

One of the most famous of her desserts is known in Thai as foi thong. The word thong means ‘golden’ and represents prosperity in Thai culture. As an auspicious dish, it is offered as a gift to bring luck, but also eaten casually. The dessert consists of egg-yolks squeezed out into thin strands and boiled in jasmine-scented sugar syrup. The end result resembles a nest of sugared golden threads heaped on banana leaves or simply served on a plate. The strands are rolled into little bundles to sell in the markets, and are sometimes shaped into stars or flowers. The golden threads can also be used on top of cakes as an icing alternative and served up with a cup of tea or coffee.

These days you can find foi thong practically anywhere in Thailand. It’s sold in almost every food market and café, a quintessentially Thai dish. And it was within the ruins of this city where its story began.

Serves 4:

6 egg yolks

200g sugar

200ml water (scented with 2 drops of jasmine for Thai style)

  • Add the sugar to the jasmine-scented water in a large saucepan and place over a medium heat. Allow to cook until the mixture turns to syrup, stirring from time to time.
  • Pour the egg yolks into a funnel and drizzle into the syrup. (You can stick a bit of tape over the end of the funnel to make a smaller hole – this allows the yolk to be drizzled into the syrup in a very thin trickle, creating a thread-like appearance.)
  • Allow the threads to cook for about a minute before fishing them out. Repeat until you run out of yolks.
  • Serve them drizzled with the remaining syrup to stop them drying out.

From here, you can be creative with how you serve them. Options include topping them with fruit or chocolate spread, eating them with ice cream or cake, using them as a filling for tarts, or simply eating them straight.

Enjoy fresh or give to a friend to bring luck!

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