Ancient Sweets of Ayutthaya_Gastronomer Lifestyle

Ancient Sweets of Ayutthaya

Written by Joe Cummings

June issue ‘Dessert’, 2023

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When in Thailand’s former capital of Ayutthaya, one must take advantage of being at the birthplace of roti sai mai, a sweet snack that requires a lot of ancient wisdom to perfect. 

Ayutthaya reigned as capital of the Kingdom of Siam for over a half-millennium and as such attracts worldwide interest for its rich history, embodied in a myriad of UNESCO-registered temple ruins, reconstructed Dutch and Japanese villages, and two well-curated historical museums.

On the culinary side, modern Ayutthaya is famed for delectable freshwater prawns, once plentiful in local streams, ponds, and waterways but nowadays expertly farmed. Evenings along the banks of the Chao Phraya, Pasak, and Lopburi rivers, which loop around the city to form a quasi-island, find both locals and visitors crowding into floating raft-restaurants serving specimens as long as your forearm, slow-grilled over charcoal embers.

Roti Sai Mai Thai Ancient Sweets Gastronomer Lifestyle

Less well-known among international visitors to Ayutthaya and yet a must-eat for virtually every Thai tourist is roti sai mai, a hugely popular sweet snack that consists of a thin, crepe-like wrap filled with colourful and delicate filaments that vaguely resemble cotton candy or candy floss. This unique and visually appealing treat can be found elsewhere in Thailand but is most plentiful in Ayutthaya, where its history is believed to go back at least a couple of hundred years.

From the 14th to the 18th centuries, Ayutthaya was known for its flourishing global trade and cultural exchange, and it is more than likely that roti sai mai came about as a confluence of various culinary traditions during that time. Roti, a term generally used to refer to any type of flatbread, came to Thailand with Muslim traders from India or the Middle East. Sai mai, meanwhile, translates literally as “silk thread” in Thai, referring to the thin and delicate candy strands that are rolled into the roti, burrito-style.

Over time, roti sai mai gained popularity throughout Thailand and became a beloved street food snack in various regions of Thailand, particularly in night markets. Because it’s easy to eat with the hands and relatively inexpensive to buy, roti sai mai often pops up at traditional festivals, particularly Songkran, the Thai New Year. The vibrant colours of the candy threads and the playful way they’re wrapped in the roti make it an eye-catching and enjoyable treat for people of all walks of life. It has also gained some international traction and can occasionally be found in Thai restaurants outside of Thailand, offering a different take on Thai culture and cuisine.

Roti Sai Mai Ancient Sweets of Ayutthaya Gastronomer Lifestyle

According to Ayutthaya chronicles, the man who created the dish or at the very least introduced it to the city was Salem Saeng-Arun, a Muslim born in Ayutthaya. They say it took Salem many years to master the technique for pulling the long candy floss by hand. If you have a chance to watch the process first-hand at one of the classic roti sai mai shops in town, you’ll quickly understand why. Producing the sweet, aromatic, and colourful candy filaments starts by boiling sugar until it becomes a glassy amber liquid. The sweet liquid is then cooled in a rotating pot of cold water until it reaches the right consistency, after which the thick, translucent blob is lifted onto a steel tabletop. The next stages require sturdy muscle combined with finesse, as the candy is twisted by hand into thick sections, which are repeatedly pulled, stretched, and folded until finally they are twisted into a heavy ring in the shape of a lifesaver. The ring is then placed atop a thin puddle of caramel and stretched and pulled again using thick wooden pegs instead of the hands. There are relatively few people in Ayutthaya who know how to do this properly.

As the substance is stretched back and forth on the table, it becomes coated with the caramel, and once all the caramel has been absorbed, the cook returns to hand-pulling the candy into very light fibres of around 50 centimetres long. There is almost zero comparison between making the contents of roti sai mai and air-spinning cotton candy. Considering how extremely labour-intensive the process, one wonders how long the tradition can sustain itself.

Roti Sai Mai in Ayutthaya

Making the crepes, however, is much simpler. Roti recipes tend to be closely guarded secrets, but basically the dough is prepared from various proportions of milk, coconut milk, sesame, wheat flour, and tapioca flour. It is flattened into rounds of paper thinness and quickly cooked on a flat griddle. The crepes and candy filaments are usually kept separate from each other and sold as a set from which you roll your own, but you can also buy individually rolled roti sai mai.

Prices vary only slightly from vendor to vendor. Typically, a small set goes for 30 baht, a half-kilo set for 50 baht, an entire kilo for 100 baht, and a “jumbo” set for 300 baht. Among the dozens of roti sai mai vendors dotting city roads, Roti Sai Mai Abeedeen-Pranom Sangaroon has been in business for 70 years and traces its family lineage back to Saeng-Arun himself. The shop offers an excellent version of the local speciality, and it’s also a good place to observe the he-man candy tossing. Another highly recommended vendor, Roti Sai Mai Mae Pom, has been serving this sweet from an old wooden storefront for 37 years. Neither of these shops make any rotis in advance, so it’s best to call in your order for later pickup.

Roti Sai Mai Abeedeen-Pranom Sangaroon is located at Uthong Road, Pratu Chai, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. The store opens daily,  from 6am–6pm. To contact, call 089-005-9948.

Roti Sai Mai Mae Pom is located at 51/1 Mu 2, Uthong Road, Ho Rattanachai, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya. The store opens daily, from 8am–7pm. To contact, call 081-485-5108.

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