stories about strangers

thailand's portuguese cakes // kudi chin

A centuries-old Portuguese community in Bangkok are baking cakes just like their ancestors.

thailand's portuguese cakes


Thailand is a nation of sweet-tooths. Sugar is an essential topping on anything and everything. Fresh fruit gets a sugary bag with purchase, pad Thai needs a requisite sprinkling before consumption and there’s no such thing as a Thai drink that doesn’t get a decent squirt of sugar syrup or condensed milk added to the mix. As for dessert, well, there’s hundreds of them. 

Cake actually came to Thailand via the Portuguese, who were in search of fruit and spices but stayed to help fight against the Burmese during the 16th Century wars. As a thank you for their help, King Takhsin rewarded Portuguese, Chinese and Muslim soldiers with a plot of land by the Chao Praya river known as Kudi Chin, literally Chinese Building. With it’s own Catholic church and no roads, just tiny walkways, this little community became a melting pot of cultures – the Portuguese, Chinese, Muslim and Thai coming together to form their own special spot.

Kudi Chin today is still a strong example of these multicultural traditions, and the Portuguese influence can be seen in everything from the architecture to the local food. The pastel-pink Santa Cruz church still stands as the beating heart of the village, the privately-owned, family-run Baan Kudi Chin museum offers a historic look into the community's traditional culture, and the tiny home-style bakeries scattered around the narrow maze of laneways bake Portuguese cakes just like they have for the past 500 years.

Teepakorn Sudjidjune makes khanom farang (literally foreigner cakes) just like his great, great, grandfather did, in their family bakery, Thanusingha. “I am the fifth generation owner, this bakery is more than 100 years old,” he says, stirring a batch of thick, white cake batter in the dark open-space kitchen of their home and bakery.

Using just flour, duck eggs and sugar, khanom farang were introduced by the Portuguese settlers here, who improvised on their traditional sponge cakes by baking without European ingredients like milk, butter or yeast. The cakes are sold in two sizes and topped with a range of dried fruits – an addition brought about by the Chinese ancestors of the community.

“We use raisins, dried sweet gourd, and on the bigger size we use dried persimmon... they all have a special meaning in Chinese,” says Krissadee Sudjidjune, Teepakorn's wife. The gourd is said to balance the temperature in your body so you have a cool life, the raisins signify good health and the dried persimmon is for good luck.

“Do you know how much sugar is on top?” asks Krissadee, pointing to the glistening sugar coating on top of the cake. “The sugar represents getting rich, and hopefully you will be so rich you can't tell how much money you have, like the sugar on top!”

The Thanusingha recipe for khanom farang is almost exactly as it was when the original Portuguese settlers started making this cake 500 years ago. They add no rising agents, no dairy and cook in an old brass tray to ensure a nice crispy exterior. After the eggs and sugar are beaten, the dough is mixed by hand, too. “There is no measurement for how much flour exactly to use, but Teepakorn can tell if it needs more based on the feel of the mixture. He just uses his experience,”  she says.

The cakes are a little dry and crumbly, but are adored by the people of this community for the history they bring, and Krissadee packages up more than 300 cakes a day for bakeries around the city. I ask her if they have any desire to ever make another cake, now that baking ingredients abound in Bangkok. “Our family needs to keep this going," she says. "This is a 500-year-old tradition... this is the start of making cakes in Thailand.”

Photographs: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki
All words and images are under copyright © 2019