By Michael Moore
Cucumbers are transformed into leaves, carrots into delicate roses, a watermelon into an elaborate blossoming chrysanthemum – there’s no end to the beauty a skilled Thai carver can create with simple fruits and vegetables. These intriguing creations often delight visitors to Phuket, who find them gracing dining tables and dishes. And when they appear on a platter set before a group of people, someone invariably asks, “Can we eat them?” Yes, you can, but if you’re like most people, you’ll feel a twinge of guilt when you bite into something so painstakingly created.
Turning a pumpkin into a carriage or a watermelon into a peacock not only requires a great deal of effort and skill, but also years of training and practice. Originally, these talents were possessed only by women of the Royal Court and exercised solely for royalty and the nobility, but in the democratic Thailand spread into the society at large. Mothers teach their daughters; there are how-to books and television programmes on the subject; and numerous classes are available, ranging from single lessons at hotels for interested foreigners to elaborate courses with certificates for those interested in working in the food and beverage industry.
Some of the most skilled practitioners of fruit and vegetable carving now work for upmarket hotels and restaurants. Buffet tables, including those at Phuket’s best hotels, are repositories of some of Thailand’s finest examples of the art. A watermelon cut into an elaborate basket to hold a mélange of fruit is a favourite item, as are centrepieces made from intricately carved pumpkins. In classical Thai restaurants, platters of food always arrive at the table with some sort of carved decoration. These range from simple flowers made from chilli peppers to elaborate blossoms fashioned from carrots and white radishes. At Baan Rim Pa, a leading Patong Beach restaurant, for example, customers are not only treated to beautiful carvings, they can watch them being created by a lovely girl sitting in the lobby.
When it comes to fruit and vegetable carving, the “why” question often arises. Why take the effort to make a leaf out of a slice of papaya or a flower from a tomato? One commentator answers that “it is the Thai appreciation of beauty and craftsmanship, whatever the medium.” But this seems too pat, too simple and too much like a public relations spiel. There is obviously more to it than this.
In Thai culture form, is often as important as substance. This is a society where ticket collectors wear uniforms with chevrons and a chest full of ribbons, where politicians print pictures of themselves in graduation robes in an effort to garner votes. It’s a country where professionals applying for a work permit must wear a tie in their identification photograph. Appearance at all levels of society is important in Thailand, a fact shabbily dressed foreigners quickly discover when attempting to straighten out a visa problem.
Appearance is also important in the preparation of food. In any meal of consequence, what is eaten must look attractive as well as taste good. The amount of effort spent in making a dish aesthetically appealing is usually directly related to who’s eating it and where it’s being served. Meals served to important persons in august surroundings always contain numerous elabo- rately presented dishes. Intricate fruit and vegetable carvings are inevitably a part of the presentation. To serve a meal that wasn’t visually appealing as well as delicious would be insulting to the distinguished guests and reflect badly on the host.
Elaborate fruit and vegetable carvings obviously don’t appear at everyday meals. Even if the chef possessed the necessary talent to produce them, time constraints make involved creations impossible. Simpler creations, however, are often found in dishes at humble restaurants and at dinner tables in Thai homes. They do much to add charm and excitement to eating ordinary Thai food. When a plate of fried rice decorated with a chilli flower appears at a roadside stall with fold-up tables, it says much about Thailand and its charming people.
Flowers made from the omnipresent chilli are one of the most common decorations. They are created by holding a narrow chilli at the base and making several cuts along its length, leaving the portion where the pepper is held uncut. The chilli is then placed in a bowl of ice water, causing the cut strips to curl and open into a “flower”. The seeds are usually removed before the finished product is added to a dish.
Other simple creations include baskets made from oranges and tomatoes. Westerners used to serving stuffed tomatoes have no trouble making tomato baskets. When cutting the top off for stuffing, don’t cut all the way through. Simply make two parallel vertical halfway through the tomato and then make two horizontal cuts through the middle of the tomato that reach to the vertical cuts. Remove the resulting wedges and you have a handle. Scoop out the seeds, as for a stuffed tomato, and you have a basket that you can fill with your favourite stuffing. The same technique can be used to create a basket from an orange.
Of course, nume- rous other simple carvings aren’t so time consum- ing as to make them impractical for modern home kitchens. You can learn how to do many of them at Phuket hotels and restaurants. Many of these establish ments, for example the Boat- house, in Kata Beach, offer classes for those interested in fruit and vegetable carving or other aspects of Thai cooking. A great thing about taking one of these classes is that the knowledge gained can be used to add charm and beauty to the food you serve when you return home.
When you sit down to your next meal at a Thai restaurant, take the time to appreciate its visual appeal before enjoying its good taste. This is the way the Thais do it, and it’s an important part of the way they look at the world.