The art of fruit carving has gained a lot of popularity
over recent years. Nowadays most five-star hotels hold Thai cooking
classes that incorporate fruit carving into the methodology although,
quite a number of establishments offer courses that are centered
around the carving of fruit into decorative garnishes.
Fruit carving in Thailand has been around for centuries and was
originally exclusive to meals prepared for the royal family. In
order to retain one's position as a royal chef, the meals needed
to be attractive as well as highly palatable. The tropical fruits
of Thailand made a sweet and colourful addition to the presentation
of the royal meal.
Khun Worapot Srabuo, Executive Assistant Manager of the Thavorn
Beach Village, explained that "basically, you can carve any
fruit or vegetable, except durian!' although he would not specify
as to whether this was because of the smell. When considering carving,
fruit and vegetables may be loosely categorized into two groups;
hard and soft. Working with hard fruits and vegetables allows for
more detailed carvings such as the animals of the Chinese horoscope
or intricate flowers. Firm vegetables such as pumpkin, potato and
carrot are often used and perhaps the most commonly used hard fruits
are watermelon, pineapple and cantaloupe. Watermelon is very popular
with carvers for its vibrant pink and white flesh and green skin.
A skilled fruit carver will use all the colours of the fruit to
add dimension and definition to the contours of his design.
Soft produce such as mango, banana and papaya can be shaped into
flowers, buds, leaves and any form that does not require too much
detail. Soft fruits are difficult to handle; they become mushy and
loose their juice rapidly. Carving soft fruit needs to be performed
by a deft hand that can carve fast enough to finish the job before
the fruit starts to spoil.
The fruit-carving artists at the Old Siam were amazing. Within
ten minutes, I saw the transformation of modest guavas into graceful
lotus flowers and mangoes into modern works of art. They told me
you get faster with practice and I believe them, but wow, it is
difficult enough to give the fruit or vegetable a meaningful form,
let alone doing it with speed.
In addition to molding the fruit or vegetable into a recognizable
form, the carver may also be able to use the skin in some artistic
manner. Skins from apples and oranges, in particular, are useful
for decorating platters by curling the skins into loopy frames for
portions of food. Some fruits are naturally exciting to look at,
such as star fruit and dragon-fruit and need only be cut into appealing
shapes rather than actually carved.
Thais are very proud of their cuisine and often even simple roadside
stalls will invest time into the presentation of their meals. Fruit
and vegetable carving is at home and is even included in the national
school curriculum to preserve Thai cultural arts. I once watched
a sixteen year old boy carve a watermelon into dozens of rosettes
within half an hour. When I asked him where he had learned this
skill, he gave me a teenage shrug and said he started learning in
primary school with potato stencils. I remembered with slight humiliation,
my childhood potato stencils consisting of unsymmetrical circles
and squares, not garlands of flowers.
The tools of a seasoned fruit and vegetable carver are by no means
extensive. In fact, he only needs one small carving tool that is
razor sharp and no bigger than a cheese knife. With this tool he
can peel, slice, dice and carve any piece of fruit or vegetable
into a uniquely decorative embellishment for food.
The Thavorn Beach Village runs Thai cooking classes and fruit carving
classes weekly, on Saturday and Tuesday. The classes start with
a trip to the Thai market to buy fresh produce, which is always
an eye-opening experience. Next, Chef Krisada explains in detail
the ingredients and the techniques involved in cooking or carving.
The course is topped-off with the all-important follow-up lunch
where students can eat the wonders they learned to prepare. A Thai
cooking class at the Old Siam restaurant costs THB1,650 and a course
in fruit and vegetable carving costs THB1,250. For people who want
to do both, a combined cooking and carving class is held for THB2,000.
Students participating in the Thai fruit carving course will be
given three small carving knives to take home with them so they
can apply their newly acquired knowledge immediately to almost anything
in the fridge. Carrot conchs, banana boats or watermelon monsters,
the scope of possibilities is enormous and open to you every time
you carve up an appetizing meal.