Friday, July 15, 2011

In Siam.

All going according to plan, I will be in Bangkok when you read this. On my mission to find out what earlier travellers thought of the food of Thailand, I came across some interesting comments in a book written by Sir Thomas Bowring, the Victorian diplomat and politician. Bowring visited Thailand (which was 'Siam' at that time), while he was Governor of Hong Kong. His memoir of the visit is called "The kingdom and people of Siam: with a narrative of the mission to that country in 1855", and I give you an extract from it below. His description of the method of preparing a cake of glutinous rice will serve as our recipe for the day.

"A sauce called nam-phrik is used by all classes in Siam. It is prepared by bruising a quantity of red pepper in a mortar, to which are added kapi (paste of shrimps or prawns), black pepper, garlic, and onions. These being thoroughly mixed, a small quantity of brine and citron-juice is added. Ginger, tamarinds, and gourd seeds are also employed. The nam-phrik is one of the most appetite-exciting condiments.
The Siamese prepare considerable quantities of curry as their habitual food. These are generally so hot that they burn the mouth of a European. I recollect one of the Regents complaining bitterly that a sore mouth deprived him of the pleasures of the table: the wonder to me was that a sound mouth could tolerate such ardent comestibles as he habitually used. One of the eel tribe furnishes a material for fish curry which is specially esteemed—an eel said to be singularly sagacious, for it opens its mouth near holes where the currents of water pass, which convey to its gullet without other care or concern,—it being among the privileged who "while waiting are served,"—a supply all-sufficient for its appetite.
Fish, in the early stages of putridity, is mixed with a variety of exciting substances, such as capsicums and chillies, mynth, sprouts of the mango, the orange and citron trees, cocoa-nut milk, sugar: lard and pork fat are used to modify the stronger flavours.
The Siamese have learnt from the Chinese the art of salting and preserving eggs, which, in their estimate, rather improve than deteriorate by time. The egg is covered with a thick paste of ashes and lime. Eggs so prepared may be sent on long voyages, and have become a considerable article of export to California and other places.
The tables of the opulent are crowded with a succession of dishes. In our intercourse with the high authorities, it was their purpose to entertain us in European style—and wonderfully well did they succeed. On one occasion, however, I requested the Krom Hluang (King's brother) to give us a genuine Siamese repast. On arriving, we found the table spread in the accustomed and approved European Oriental style, with an abundance of plate, glasses, wines, soups, fish, roasted and boiled meat, horsd'oeuvres, with a variety of pastry, jellies, &c.; but, apart, the Prince had provided what he called a Siamese dinner for one, and I imagine the succession of dishes could have been scarcely less than sixty or seventy. He said he wished to gratify my curiosity, but that courtesy required him to entertain me according to the usages of my country, and not of Siam.
The ordinary meals of the Siamese are at 7 am. and 5 pm. but the more opulent classes have a repast at mid-day. The guests help themselves out of a common dish with spoons or with their fingers, using or not small earthenware plates which are before them.
Of the meals of the Siamese, Bishop Pallegoix says, " The Thai take their repasts seated on a mat or carpet. The dishes are in great brazen vases with a cover, over which a red cloth is placed; the meat is cut into small pieces, and the rice is kept apart in a large deep porringer on one side of the floor, while a great basin of water is on the other, having in it a drinking-cup. The guests have neither knives nor forks, but use a mother-of-pearl spoon to dip into the various dishes, of which after having eaten a sufficiency, they drink pure water or tea. To help themselves one after another from the same plate, to drink one after another from the same cup, has nothing strange. The husband is served at table by , his wife. Social repasts are always silent, and seldom last more than a quarter of an hour. But no interruptions are permitted during meals, even in the case of dependents or slaves.
Tea is nearly as generally used as in China. Coffee has made its way among the opulent classes. Arak is manufactured by the Chinese, and consumed furtively by the Siamese, though sobriety is certainly one of the virtues of the national character: but where a passion for strong drinks once takes possession of a Siamese, it becomes irresistible, and almost invariably leads to his own perdition and the impoverishment of his family.
The Siamese, in cooking their rice, wash it four or five times, and place it in a pot or kettle filled with water: after boiling about three minutes, the water is poured out, the pot is placed upon a slow fire, where the rice is steamed without being burnt; its flavour is preserved; the different grains do not adhere to one another, or stick to the fingers when eaten. Rice is used by the poor as the main aliment of life; by the opulent, as an accompaniment to their meals, as bread in Europe. Glutinous rice is employed either in flour or grains; a favourite cake is thus prepared:—the rice is cooked without water or steam; it is then sprinkled with condiments consisting of ginger and other spices; it is divided into small parcels, which are wrapped up in plantain leaves, and in twenty-four hours a sweet and vinous liquor exudes, when the cake is fit for eating: if kept longer they become intoxicating, and if distilled produce arak, which, subject to re-distillation, gives a strong and fragrant drink."

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