April 12, 2011
At a Thai restaurant last week, my dining companion convinced me to forego the tantalizingly spicy offerings in favor of a chicken dish served with ginger, pineapple chunks and cashews in a sweet and sour sauce. When the dish came out, I was thrilled to see that it was served in half of a hollowed-out pineapple, with the fruit’s spiky green crown adding some visual flair. How novel! It was the sort of presentation I had seen only at picnics when someone would carve out a watermelon into a bowl or basket to hold bite-sized chunks of fruit. But in Thai cuisine, food carving is an intricate art form meant to turn ordinary dining into a visual spectacle.
Kae sa luk, the centuries-old Thai tradition of transforming fruits and vegetables into elaborate displays, began in the court of King Phra Ruang. Meals were expected to please both the palate and the eye. Using specialized tools to make intricate incisions and excisions, artisans—either palace chefs or the daughters of aristocrats—would craft foodstuffs to resemble plants and animals. Onions become chrysanthemum blossoms, cucumbers are fashioned into leaves to ornament soups, and the vibrant colors of a watermelon’s pulp and rind are used to dramatic effect in the creation of flower blossoms. And while pieces are generally made for garnish and table decoration, produce such as pumpkins may be carved into serving vessels and even some salads are presented as a floral spray to be dismantled and consumed by diners. And the Thai take on the watermelon basket is above and beyond anything I’ve seen at the picnic table.
Radish rosettes suddenly seem pedestrian by comparison (not that I could even carve one of those).
And for those of you wanting to learn the craft, there are books and DVDs on the market to get you started. For the rest of us who don’t have the time or patience, YouTube lets us admire kae sa luk masters and their edible masterworks from afar.
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