Easy Vegetable Carving: Lotus Bowl Centerpiece


easy vegetable carving

An edible mini lotus pond is a perfect centerpiece for your dinner party, especially if you serve Thai food.

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.

easy vegetable carving

A very sharp paring knife is all you need. Also, for this project, a white onion.

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.

easy vegetable carving

Cut a leaf of collard1 into a round piece with the main vein running down the middle.

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.

easy vegetable carving

Cut the onion in half crosswise, and cut out 3/4-inch triangles all the way around the edge.

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.

easy vegetable carving

Trim 1/4 inch off the bottom of the onion half and separate out the layers. The inner layers will have blunt ends, so further trimming will be needed to get the pointy ends.

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.

easy vegetable carving

Cut a carrot into a 1/2-inch slice and make v-shaped grooves in the tic-tac-toe pattern.

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.

easy vegetable carving

Layer 2-3 onion “petals” to create a lotus flower in full bloom, rotating the onion pieces to alternate the petals. Place the carrot stamen in the middle (some trimming may be needed).

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.

easy vegetable carving

Fill the base of a wide, shallow bowl (I used the base of my terracotta tagine) with water.
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.

20 Responses to Easy Vegetable Carving: Lotus Bowl Centerpiece

  1. Anonymous February 6, 2011 at 4:03 am #

    That is absolutely beautiful. I will certainly be trying this out. Thank you for the wonderful idea and tips

  2. Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets February 6, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    Wow what a wonderful delightful idea! I’ve got to try this for a party sometime :).

  3. OysterCulture February 6, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    I never would have thought to carve an onion, mostly as it gets my eyes watering. Your carved veggies are beautiful and definitely worthy of a place that makes them the center of attention.

  4. shaz February 7, 2011 at 8:56 am #

    Whoa, you sure could have fooled me! They look expertly done. Very impressive.

  5. Evil Shenanigans.com February 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm #

    Ok, I love that! I wish I had better knife skills. I admit that when I had to do veggie and fruit carving in culinary school I did not do so well. Your veggie lotus looks beautiful.

  6. Angry Asian February 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm #

    allow me to tell you why someone would think to write you & ask for advice on how to do something thai related, without sounding like a simpering person kissing your ass: it’s because you do things so flawlessly and beautifully. i mean really, i have a whole list of items in your recipe archives that i’d love to tackle, because you make it seem easy, your instructions are clear and if i fail it’s because *i’m* the one sans talent. for sure.

  7. petitecuisine February 10, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    I just Love it ! Great blog – thanks for all the tips – I am thrilled :)

  8. virginiawillis February 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm #

    That is so sneaky smart! Very cool. Thanks for sharing. Best Virginia

  9. kuriouskitteh February 14, 2011 at 6:30 pm #

    I wish you luck on your journey, and will definitely be following along. Though really, honey,you’re not knife-challenged; you’ve made a lovely start!

    ~Kurious

  10. Christine February 24, 2011 at 1:22 am #

    Beautiful! I always wondered how they did those carved vegies.. thanks for sharing!

  11. David February 25, 2011 at 1:43 am #

    Beautiful!

  12. Rakesh Sharma August 29, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    I would love 2 c more like this type of carving
    I really loved it. good one who Created

    @@@@

  13. Anonymous June 4, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    woaahhhhhhhhh thats sooooo cool! lol

  14. Asha Ram November 28, 2012 at 4:56 am #

    How gorgeous!

  15. Anjum December 17, 2012 at 6:46 am #

    Wow….. it’s so beautiful i like sooooooo much.

  16. keerthu December 25, 2012 at 2:31 am #

    it’s an outstanding work!!!!!!!!!!!
    I did like to get some updates of this.

  17. Pavi January 4, 2013 at 4:12 am #

    Its really creative…….. i liked it so cute…………………

  18. mimi February 2, 2013 at 10:58 am #

    splendid,a great idea, thanks alot… want more ideas from u.

  19. banglarecipes June 27, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    I am speechless to see the beauty and simplicity.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Lotus in Thai Cuisine and Culture | SheSimmers - January 16, 2013

    […] But I like to float them in a large bowl of water like this and call it my “Serenity now!” lotus pond. Or if you prefer a lotus pond that’s completely edible, here it is. […]

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