Jul 13 2012

A Portuguese-Chinese snack near Bangkok’s Santa Cruz Church

Published by at 2:40 pm under Food


After the fall of the ancient Siamese capital of Ayutthaya in 1767, a diverse mix of foreign communities — including the Portuguese and Chinese — settled along a now historic stretch of Chao Phraya riverfront in modern Thonburi. Still produced today in a centuries-old bakery near Santa Cruz Church, the Portuguese, Chinese and Thai influenced sweet baked snack, khanom farang kuti Jin, is a taste of the area’s unique cultural heritage.

Let's see if I can get it right this time -- first a picture, then a bite.

Let’s see if I can get it right this time — first a picture, then a bite.

Siam’s (Thailand was known as Siam until 1939) first European settlers, the Portuguese, are credited with introducing bread and other baked goods to Siam as early as 1512. The modern Thai word for bread, pang, is derived from the Portuguese pyo, and early Portuguese influences are evident in modern Thai sweets such as luk chup. In their renewed Thonburi community centred around Santa Cruz Church, the Portuguese continued producing their signature baked goods in the late 1700s.

Over the coming centuries, many Portuguese returned home, passed on, or were assimilated into Thai society, and a growing Chinese population came to predominate in the old neighbourhood near Santa Cruz. The church itself was renovated in 1835 with help from Chinese architects, at which point locals began referring to it as Kuti Jin or “Chinese church” (the church was later renovated by Italians, but the nickname stuck). However, the Portuguese had left the Chinese and Thai in the area with a taste for Portuguese baked goods, and in particular a certain sweet snack.

Santa Cruz Church as seen from a Soi Kudee Jeen alley.

Santa Cruz Church as seen from a Soi Kudee Jeen alley.

The snack’s rich cultural mix is evident in its Thai name — khanom farang kuti Jin — which (more or less) translates to “European snack of Chinese church”. The small Chinese-Thai bakery and coffee shop, Thanusingha, has kept the tradition alive in a historic house down an alley near Santa Cruz church for more than 200 years.

200 years and still baking.

Two hundred years and still baking.

Strictly speaking from my tastebuds’ point of view, I found Thanusingha’s khanom farang kuti Jin to be simple — nothing that will blow pastry connoisseurs away — but good enough to bring a bag of them home. Consisting of wheat flour baked with egg (but no yeast) along with brown sugar for sweetness, the snack has a spongy inner consistency surrounded by a sweet and crusty outer layer that crumbles in the hand.

History on your plate.

History on your plate.

Mixed in are tiny hunks of dried melon and raisins, which were apparently added by the Chinese not only for their flavours but also what they represent. According to Thanusingha, sugar represents stability in life; melon adds peacefulness; and grape contributes value or meaning. Those who regularly eat all three together, then, are believed to enjoy stable, peaceful and meaningful lives — start with a khanom farang kuti Jin each morning and you should be all set.

Whether or not there’s any truth to certain ingredients lending positive life qualities, khanom farang kuti Jin do indeed make for a pleasant snack, especially with coffee or tea. Tastes aside, however, biting into a distinct food influenced by several cultures which has been produced by a small business in the exact same location for centuries is a memorable experience in itself.

A typical shot from Soi Kudee Jeen.

A typical shot from Soi Kudee Jeen.

Strolling through the ancient, narrow alleys lined with equally ancient but still robust wooden homes near Santa Cruz, one can almost hear whispers of 18th century Portuguese and catch a scent of their old bakeries. Approaching Thanusingha, however, one realises that the pleasant aroma of baked Portuguese goods is actually still here in 2012. I always find exploring history in the form of buildings and artifacts to be interesting, but actually smelling and tasting a historical-cultural legacy first-hand is nothing short of compelling — it’s akin to not only reflecting on the historical Portuguese of Siam, but actually inviting them over for tea.

Fresh khanom farang kuti Jeen left out to cool at Thanusingha Bakery.

Fresh khanom farang kuti Jeen left out to cool at Thanusingha Bakery.

Thanusingha Bakery House is tucked in the network of alleys collectively known as Soi Kudee Jeen due north of Santa Cruz church. There’s a gateway to the alleys from the northern grounds of the church itself; just look for a small sign with a black arrow and yellow Thai script that points down the alley. From there, head straight and then take a soft right onto Soi 7, or just follow your nose.

Thanusingha Bakery House
Soi Kudee Jeen 7, Thonburi, Bangkok
T: (024) 655 882
Open
daily 08:00-16:00

 

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