I’m both amused and terrified every time someone writes me asking for advice on how to carve fruits and vegetables “like the Thai people do.” When that happens, I’d search the archives looking for something – anything – that might lead them to think I actually have that kind of talent. Of course, I’ve found nothing, and am left wondering where folks get that idea.
For darn sure, it’s not from the way I shape my Thai fish cakes.
The truth, people, is that I can’t carve, at least not like this. And that’s just one of the many, many artistic things I can’t do.
Okay, so I reluctantly put some grooves into winter melon pieces for the soup accompanying Khao Man Gai. But that doesn’t count as carving. To come up with beautifully-carved fruits and vegetables like those highly-skilled people do, you need to start off with at least some rudimentary skills, the right tools for the task, some guidance, and lots of opportunities to practice. Having none of those things, I’m at a loss even as to where to start.
But fruit and vegetable carving has been such a celebrated activity in the Thai culture. It’s done in all strata of the society with varying degrees of intricacy and elaboration. This makes my utter incompetence as a carver a bit difficult for me.
I think the guilt (self-inflicted, for the most part) began when my maternal grandmother and I used to read together a classic Thai literature, The Golden Conch,2 wherein the protagonist comes to remember his long-lost mother towards the end of the story because of vegetable carving. After having overcome many obstacles including being separated from his mother, the Golden Conch finally rules as king at that point, and his mother disguises herself and works as a cook in her son’s palace. To give her son a hint as to who she really is (since, as a servant, you can’t exactly knock on the king’s door and say, “Yo, open up! It’s your mommy!“), the mother carves various key events during the Golden Conch’s childhood onto pieces of winter melon, puts them in a soup, and sends the dish to the royal table.
Noticing that the winter melon pieces are more elaborately carved than usual, the king examines them more closely and starts to recognize some events. After arranging the winter melon pieces in chronological order, memories come flushing back and the king realizes that the only person who would know so much about his life can’t be anyone else other than his mother. The cook is immediately summoned to the king’s presence, mother and son are finally reunited, and everybody lives happily ever after. The end.
And poor little me would get all sentimental and stuff until my grandmother asked, “Isn’t it great to be able to carve vegetables like that?”
It would be, Grandma, if I wasn’t such a non-dexterous dunce.
But everywhere you go in Thailand, you see this type of things. You jump into a cab and the first thing you notice is garlands of fresh flowers (jasmine, rose petals, marigolds, etc.) which the driver often hangs on the rear view mirror to appease the gods. (And it’s quite possible that many of these garlands are made by men.) It’s not uncommon that middle-tiered restaurants would garnish their dishes with –at the very least– frilly cucumber slices and roses made out of razor-thin tomato skins.
But then I’ve figured that just because I am currently incompetent doesn’t mean I have to remain that way forever. Last time I was in Thailand, I even dabbled with garland making and a bit of lotus flower preparation. And I had fun! So even though vegetable carving is generally more complicated, I thought I’d give it a shot.
So, armed with nothing but a very sharp paring knife and basic dexterity of a mammal vertebrate, I’m going to be carving my way to artistic glory — one baby step at a time. What you see here is just the beginning. Wish me luck. If you’d like to follow along on my carving journey, please do. There will be more easy carving projects to come in the future.
Place the assembled lotus flowers on two inverted bowls3
Arrange 2-3 leaves around the flowers, covering up the bowls as you go.
1 Collard greens are perfect for this as their water-repellent surface mimics the same characteristic of actual lotus pads.
2 The Golden Conch (Sang Thong สังข์ทอง) was composed by King Rama II who had ushered in the so-called golden age of Rattanakosin literature. Siam had just come out of a war-ridden era, established our capital city in what is now referred to (by non-Thais) as Bangkok, and started to enjoy a time of peace and prosperity. No more swords for a while; time to pick up a quill.
The story of the Golden Conch, a baby who came out of his mother’s womb in a golden conch in the manner of a hermit crab, is loosely based on Buddhist mythology concerning the previous lives of Buddha (Jātakas जातक) which has been adapted to fit into the culture as well as allude to actual locations in Thailand. While only few have read the original composition by King Rama II, the abridged and simplified version of the Golden Conch is one of the most read pieces of Early Rattanakosin period.
3 Use the smallest, shallowest bowls you can find. I used a small dipping sauce bowl seen in my Thai fried chicken post.