An old Portuguese/Chinese goodie
Soi Kudee Jeen 7 (near Santa Cruz Church), Bangkok
T: (02) 465 5882
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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 stretch of Chao Phraya riverfront in Thonburi. Still produced today at Thanusingha 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 compelling heritage.
Siam’s first European settlers, the Portuguese, are credited with introducing bread and other baked goods to the land that's now called Thailand 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 rebuilt under an Italian architect, but the nickname stuck). However, the Portuguese had left the Chinese and Thai in the area with a taste for their baked goods, and in particular a certain sweet snack.
The snack’s culturally mixed origins are 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 well over a century.
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.
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 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, biting into a distinct food influenced by several cultures which has been produced by a small business in the exact same location for generations is a memorable experience in its own right.
Strolling through the narrow alleys lined with old yet 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, one realises that the pleasant aroma of baked Portuguese goods is still here today. We always find exploring history to be interesting, but actually smelling and tasting a historical-cultural legacy first-hand is intriguing.
Thanusingha Bakery 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; 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.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 27th January, 2015.