Kae Sa Luk, the Thai art of fruit and vegetable carving, is about more than creating beautiful garnishes. Like much of Thai culture, it's about elevating simple natural items---in this case, foods---to heights of spectacular, showy beauty. Happily, any cook can learn the art form's basic skills.
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Kae Sa Luk came into its own as a Thai art form more than 700 years ago. According to Thai legend, a servant of the king invented the art for a festival in the northern province of Sukothai. Written record of the art form is scattered throughout Thai history.
Kae Sa Luk nearly perished after a revolution rocked the country in the 1930s, since most Thai citizens were focused more on day-to-day survival than creating beautiful foodstuffs. As a result, many of its practitioners and patrons rushed to ensure its survival. As a result, the art is now taught in the Thai state school system and in a number of private culinary schools around the country.
Best Items to Carve
Kae Sa Luk practitioners tend to favour firm fruits and vegetables with regular shapes and different colours on and under the skin, such as apples, cucumbers, radishes and carrots. Watermelons hold a special place of favour due to their size, firmness and the range of colours that are exposed as the fruit is carved. However, a skilled carver can do amazing things with even the softest, oddest-shaped subjects. Spring onions are split and curled into grass, soft tomato flesh is spun out to become roses and winged insects, and pineapples reveal cheery, yellow butterflies.
There are five main tools used in Kae Sa Luk. The first of these is a small knife with a short, thin, straight blade that is usually made specifically for Kae Sa Luk and fitted with an embellished handle. This first tool is tailor made for dipping lightly and carefully into the surface of hard-skinned, soft-fleshed fruits and vegetables. The second tool is a tiny-tipped carving knife used to carve out fine details, such as fish scales in a carrot. Then there's a carving knife with a longer blade to trim larger parts of the fruit or vegetable, a simple peeler and a melon baller, which is used to scoop ball shapes from soft-fleshed fruits. Edible inks and paintbrushes are sometimes used to paint details on the finished carvings.
Since Kae Sa Luk was born in the inland province of Sukothai, many traditionalists argue that Sukothai is the best place to learn this art. Even so, Kae Sa Luk schools and classes are not uncommon in the rest of Thailand. Bangkok boasts some excellent facilities, and many cooking schools in the Chiang Mai area have special classes in carving technique.
For those unable to hop on a plane to Thailand, there are plenty of Internet videos that can guide a carving knife. In the absence of a teacher, it's helpful to keep a few things in mind. First, strive to avoid over-carving. Cut the smallest possible amount of material away from the vegetable or fruit you are carving. Secondly, work with cool, clean, firm-fleshed fruits and vegetables. Thirdly, try to carve shapes and sizes that are pleasant to dip into sauces and eat without requiring additional cutting on the plate.
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