Thailand’s capital city has long been an international melting pot, where waves of immigrants from China, and even some from Portugal, assimilated into society.
But one sweet snack, originating with the Portuguese and adopted by the Chinese, has endured relatively unchanged.
It is khanom farang kutii jiin — literally the “foreigners’ snack of the Chinese church.”
A few small family bakers produce it in the shadow of the Santa Cruz Church that for hundreds of years has been the neighborhood’s landmark.
The original church was erected in 1769 on a riverside plot in Thonburi, which was briefly the Thai capital before it was moved across the river to Bangkok. The plot was given to the Portuguese by a grateful King Thaksin for their help defeating the Burmese invaders who destroyed the previous capital, Ayutthaya, the year before.
The Portuguese Catholic church was rebuilt after the original wooden structure was destroyed in an 1833 fire. It had Chinese architectural influences, prompting locals to begin referring to it as “Kutii Jiin,” the Chinese church.
The latest renovation in 1916 was Italianate, but the Chinese moniker endures for both the church and the cake.
The historic Thanusingha Bakery welcomes visitors but keeps its oven a trade secret.
“We use the same recipe as in the Ayutthaya era [which ended in the mid-18th century],” said Teepakorn Sudjidjune, owner of the Thanusingha Bakery. “The main ingredients are duck eggs, sugar and wheat flour. We don't use butter, milk or yeast. No preservatives at all.”
The little dry cakes are topped with raisins, gourds dipped in syrup and persimmon.
At the rival Larn Mae Pao bakery, a few alleys away, it is all out in the open: the muffins are baked on a bed of gravel, heated by gas below and coal above.
“It will take about 20 to 25 minutes to bake in this traditional oven,” said third-generation baker Pajongluck Maneeprasith as she toils over a batch. “What makes kanom farang kutii jiin unique is that it is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. But we never make them too crispy.”
A few electric fans cool the shed, where the temperature hovers around 50 degrees Celsius near the rudimentary ovens.
Larn Mae Pao with four full-time bakers produces 1,200 muffins daily.
“My family has worked here for three generations, starting with my grandmother. She made the same cakes with the same recipe. We never change anything,” added Pajongluck.
The Thanusingha Bakery also insists the taste is relatively unchanged from long ago.
“If someone from the 16th century tried these they’d say they’re similar to those of that time,” said Teepakorn, a fifth generation owner. “Some Portuguese who’ve traveled here say they do taste like what their parents and grandparents made.”
The snack has also been deemed fit for royal palates.
In the humble cafe of the Thanusingha Bakery hangs a photograph showing the muffins being presented to the late Princess of Naradhiwas, elder sister of the current Thai monarch, King Bhumibol.
The sweet little export of the Portuguese Catholic settlers continues to make fresh converts.
“It’s my first time having this. I will come back!” exclaims Thanusignha customer Thanatsith Ket-In, who lives in the neighborhood.
The bakers of Thonburi hope future generations, too, will enjoy their snack — a tasty link to the Portuguese militias, merchants and missionaries who first ventured to the Kingdom of Siam 500 years ago.