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New Year food worldwide: Thai jackfruit curry and 'gold droplet' sweets in April

The egg sweets "thong yot" eaten during celebrations in Thailand, round sweets on the lower level, and "foi thong" are seen on Dec. 5, 2018, in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi)

TOKYO -- In the majority Buddhist country of Thailand, the New Year comes not once, but three times. The first is Jan. 1 in the Western calendar. The second is the Lunar New Year in late January to early February based on the Chinese calendar. But the biggest celebration comes in the hottest season of April -- "Songkran."

Also called the watering festival, Songkran celebrates a new year as the sun completes its 12-month journey and returns to the astrological season of Aries. Currently, April 13-15 are set aside for the celebration of Songkran. In northern Thailand, families gather together at the end of Songkran on April 16 to eat the soup curry "kaeng khanun." Cuisine researcher Pensri Ajisawa, 51, made both this curry and the egg dessert dish "thong yot," which is often eaten during celebrations.

Kaeng khanun is a curry made from tropical jackfruit and pork. Jackfruit are one of the largest fruits in the world, coming in at 30 to 60 centimeters long and sometimes weighing more than 30 kilograms. The flesh is yellow, and resembles a pineapple. Even before it ripens, it can be boiled or fried like a vegetable, and when it does ripen, it can be also be eaten as a regular fruit. Cut into slices, the jackfruit is boiled with pork rib cartilage, red chili peppers and curry paste with added miso made of small shrimp. Seasoned to taste with Thai fish sauce, it makes for a curry with a rich flavor.

Passersby splash each other with water during the April New Year celebration of "Songkran." (Photo courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand)

Ajisawa used canned jackfruit when making the curry this time, and the fruit looked like taro or bamboo shoots, and had a mysterious crunchy texture. The exquisite balance of spice and sourness of the soup whetted the appetite, and the kaffir lime leaf often used in other Thai dishes such as tom yum soup hid the smell of the pork meat, and a refreshing fragrance expanded in the mouth.

Over 90 percent of Thais are strong believers in the Buddhist faith, and in the northern part of the country, there is a custom of bringing kaeng khanun to the local temple on the morning of April 16 in time for the monks there to enjoy it for breakfast. While waiting for them to finish their meals, neighbors interact and families eat together. The ingredients used and the flavor of the curry varies from household to household, so doing some taste-testing is also part of the fun. By eating kaeng khanun, the people pray for good fortune in the New Year.

The "Songkran" ritual of washing the hands of elders is carried out in the southern Thai province of Songkhla. (Photo courtesy of Pensri Ajisawa)

In southern Thailand, from where Ajisawa hails, she says there is no special dish associated with Songkran, but relatives gather together to eat a meal in a way that is similar to what Japanese people do for New Year's. "Just like Japanese 'otoshi-dama,' those who are wealthy or elder give money to children or the poor," she explained.

--- Sweet drop of gold

The soup curry eaten at the end of Songkran, "kaeng khanun," foreground, made from slices of jackfruit and pork, is seen along with the Thai rice it is eaten with, on Dec. 5, 2018, in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi/Motohiro Negishi)

The other dish Aijsawa prepared was thong yot, which means a drop of gold. Thong yot is a sweet, yellow egg dessert made from plenty of egg yolks and sugar. The yellow of the yolk is envisioned to resemble gold, and when there is something to celebrate, Thais eat this sweet at home or in restaurants. It can often be seen being sold on the streets.

It is said that once in the lifetime of a Thai man, he must leave the house and take part in religious training practices. When he embarks on his training, there are times when he will call monks and neighbors to his house and they will treat him with thong yot. There are also many other sweets made from the same ingredients with changes to how they are made or in what shape they are presented. When the sugar and egg yoke is mixed together and pulled into long strands like thread and bound together, it is called "foi thong." All of these sweets are said to have been passed down from the times of the royal court.

According to the Royal Thai Embassy in Japan, Songkran originated from a traditional rite of purification by splashing water on the hands of Buddhist statues and elders. April is the hottest time of year in Thailand, and the ritual has been embraced as a way to beat the heat as well. In recent years, completely separate from the traditional festival, young people or passersby having fun splashing water on each other with buckets or hoses have caught the eye of tourists.

"For young Thais as well, it is a very exciting event," said Ajisawa. "It is also said that it is an opportunity to meet a romantic partner."

(Japanese original by Naomi Hayashi, Lifestyle News Department)

*Main ingredients for Foi Thong (roughly 40 pieces): 6 egg yolks; 25 grams of rice flour: Part A (1.2 kilograms granular sugar; 350 milliliters of water; 1 pandan leaf for flavor): Part B (500 grams of granular sugar; 400 milliliters of water)

1. Put the yolks into a bowl, whisk and scramble while mixing in the rice flour.

2. Put A into a pot, and boil until the bubbles from the granular sugar become small.

3. Put B into a separate pot and dissolve the sugar.

4. Scoop out the egg yolk mix from (1) move into a teacup with a spoon, and drop it into the pot containing A while using your thumb to make it into a droplet shape.

5. Once the pot is filled with droplet-shaped egg yolks, boil for 3 to 4 minutes while adding water.

6. Scoop out the droplets using a net, and submerge them in the pot from (3). Use a colander to strain.

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