Why We Love (Kae-Sa-Luk) Watermelon
Kalaya Tonghcareon Paragas, “Thai-Styled Watermelon Carving” (photo © Saveur Magazine)
A few months ago the September issue of Saveur arrived on my doorstep. On its cover was emblazoned the confident tagline—”Why We Love Watermelon”—a pugnacious answer to an unbidden question. Personally, I prefer the more meaty varieties of melon, such as cantalope and honeydew. As a result, I had every intention of skipping the article. But that was before my eyes came to rest on a page-size resolution of a this watermelon carved to resemble a camilla, or perhaps a lotus?
What a tour de force of ornamental embellishment! It caused me to turn back the pages and read this article on the global joys of watermelon. Well, read superficially anyway. What hooked me, though was the following little tidbit from Saveur author Katherine Cancila—
In Thailand. . . the elaborate carving of watermelon and other fruits is a long-standing and respected tradition that dates to the 14th century, when the art evolved in the court of King Phra Ruang. Chefs for Thai nobility and royalty were expected to make food that was not only delicious but also beautiful, even fantastical. Today in Thailand, carved fruits and vegetables are presented as religious offerings, used as displays at weddings and banquets, and entered into judged competitions.
As I discovered through additional digging, the carving of fruits and vegetables (Kae-Sa-Luk), has a long history in Thailand. Legend suggests that the tradition was created during Loi Kratong (Krathong), a popular festival during which Thais launch krathongs—banana leaf boats filled with incense, flowers and other offerings—as inducements for the water spirits to carry away their troubles. The story tells of one of the King’s (though not specifying which one) servants, alternately referred to as Nang Noppamart, Lady Nopphamat, and Thao Sichulalak, who, wishing to please the King, distinguished her krathong by carving beautiful flowers and birds from fruit.
Reality is no doubt more prosaic. Many believe the artform was adopted from the Chinese, although scholarly sources on the subject are difficult to find. It may well have originated, as Ms. Cancila suggests, under Phra Ruang, although this was not one king but a dynasty of kings, which ruled the in north-central Thailand from 1238-1368. The dynasty is generally considered to be the forerunner of modern-day Thailand, because its first ruler, Phokhun Si Intharathit, led the rebellion against the Khmer regime that established the first independent Thai state. The appellation of their kingdom—Sukhothai (Dawn of Happiness)—derives from the dynasty’s capital city. Today, Sukhothai is a UNESCO World Heritage site; parenthetically UNESCO sites are always well-worth the visit. In its short 100+ years, the Phra Ruang dysnasty successfully expanded its territory along the entire Chao Phraya River basin (to present-day Bangkok, situated at the delta of the river), and is credited with lasting influence on Thai culture and political custom.
In her description above, Ms. Cancila may actually be referring to Pho Khun Ramkhamhaeng (Ramkhamhaeng the Great), the third king of the Phra Ruang dynasty, who ruled the Sukhothai from 1277-1317. Ramkhamhaeng is credited with establishing the Khmer-derived Thai alphabet, still in use today, and with promoting nascent Thai art forms, including painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, and of course fruit & vegetable carving.
Kalaya’s other watermelon carvings
Kalaya is a 55-year-old Thai immigrant (she lives in Long Island, NY), who has been carving fruits and vegetables since her teens.