Why could anyone bother to carefully fashion an ordinary papaya or pumpkin into a bouquet of flowers or a carrot into a rare orchid when they are to be eaten just the same? The answer lies in the Thais’ love for art backed by an oversupply of time and patience.
And more importantly, in Thai culture, form is often as important as substance. Appearance at all levels of society is important in this country. And it can be seen even in the preparation of food. As an art, fruit – or vegetable – carving would have not flourished better than in Old Siam, a country over-abundant with food, where people lived uncomplicated lives, were known for their limitless patience and had plenty of time to spare. Historians say the art began in 1364 when a certain Nang Noppamas decorated a floating lamp for the royal Festival on the night of the full moon of the 12th month of that year.
She carved fruits and vegetables to make them look like flowers and used them to decorate the floating lamp. The King, Phra Ruang, was impressed by the sculpted fruits and vegetables that he later decreed that such a skill, locally known as “Kae Sa Lak,” be encouraged among Thai women, particularly those in the royal household. Some of the most skilled practitioners of fruit and vegetable carving now work for up market hotels and restaurants. Buffet tables in the country’s best hotels are repositories of some of the finest examples of this art.
A watermelon cut into an elaborate basket to hold a m lange of fruits is a favorite item, as are centerpieces 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 chili peppers to elaborate blossoms fashioned from carrots and white radishes. Next time you visit a Thai restaurant, take the time to appreciate the food’s visual appeal before enjoying its good taste. To Thais, food should feed not only the stomach but also the eyes.