Return to the brass age

March 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Cookery School

The more things change in cooking, the more nostalgic we become for the original

So much in our lives works in cycles. We retire things we’ve used for years and grown tired of, replace them with something new, and then come to miss the originals, which we recruit back into service, their attractions revived. This principle can be seen in the cycles of fashionability that revolve around clothing, furniture, styles of decoration, movie genres and much else. It even applies to household tools and kitchen utensils. These days Thai consumers of kitchen items place the emphasis on convenience and the appearance of modernity. Pots and frying pans are lined with Teflon to keep food from sticking, plastic electrical water heaters are preferred to stainless steel ones because they look more attractive and pepper grinders are made of clear plastic so that the level of the peppercorns inside can be seen. But the cook whose kitchen is equipped with a copper-coated frying pan with brass handles, expensive items that must be imported, will be seen as the most up-to-date of all. Copper and brass kitchen equipment is now seen in Thailand as especially desirable.

But this is a return to the past. Brass and copper utensils were almost universally used in this country in the past, when there were no other materials to use in place of them. Drinking vessels, tho (serving bowls for rice) and the paraphernalia for betel nut chewing were all made of brass. But the materials used changed together with the Thai lifestyle. People stopped chewing betel; rice was more easily served directly from the electric cooker. The brass and copper items lost their importance and were thrown away or sold, then replaced by more modern versions. Brass woks are still used to make old-fashioned, egg yolk based “golden” sweets like thong yip and foy thong. This is one old tradition that has not changed. Their survival might have something to do with convenience, or because of their character as a long-standing symbol of expertise in sweets-making. There are other examples. The vendor who sells khanom jeep (sheets of wheat noodle stuffed with minced pork and shrimp and steamed) on Plaeng Nam Road off Yaowarat still uses an ancient-looking brass steamer, a touch that looks very appealing to knowledgeable customers. It gives the impression that he has been making and selling the khanom jeep since the old days. Shops that specialise in kraphoh pla (a thick soup made from fish air bladders and other ingredients) often serve the soup from big brass cooking pots. Customers tend to think that the soup that comes from pots like these will be tastier than that served from stainless steel ones. In the same way, noodle shops who seek out brass cooking pots of the kind used in the past will be especially

popular. Brass cooking equipment creates confidence in the kitchen skills and fastidiousness of the cook who uses it because it requires special care. After use it must be cleaned thoroughly so that its golden sheen can always be seen. When brass woks are used to prepare sweets for merit-making events at temples they are polished until they shine. The same is true of brass pots used to make kui tio to be served to monks. The noodle dishes should look more attractive than usual, and the shiny brass enhances their appearance. The idea of using brass cooking equipment in restaurants as a way of inspiring customer confidence is helping to fuel the cycle that is bringing these items back into common use. Many establishments are now serving curries in small brass bowls, and if these bowls are set on top of a small, ceramic, charcoal-burning cooker, so much the better. It is a creative touch that customers respond to. These days the use of brass utensils is becoming widespread once again. In the area around Woeng Nakhon Kasem and Charoen Krung Road, where they were once available but where sales had been sluggish for decades, old-fashioned brass kitchen items are doing very well, especially woks, which are offered in many sizes. People who want to refurnish their kitchens with brass or copper pots and pans don’t have to look far to find them, and even those who don’t want to change over might consider them as an investment. Copper and brass cookware appreciates in value with time, while stainless steel drops rapidly in price after purchase. In the city of Lijiang in Yunnan, China, a World Heritage site, one of the ancient handicrafts is the fashioning of kitchen utensils from copper. The people there have traditionally used copper pots, woks and kettles that are all made of copper, and continue to use them now. As a result the craft of making them continues to flourish. The workmanship is very fine and the utensils are durable, because the craftsmen are generous with the copper and it is very thick. Although their products are more expensive than they used to be, the price is in yuan, and is very low when converted to baht or dollars. For most visitors the copperware of Lijiang will be must-buy purchases. It is available from vendors in the city’s fresh market, which is located outside of the old city wall. So the cycle of preference in kitchen equipment continues, just as it does in fashion and entertainment. Now that items as attractive as these are back in use, cooks who own them can take pleasure in their art that might evade those who stick to steel and aluminium.


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