Khantoke: Savouring the Flavours of Folk Culture
Food and dining customs are another facet of a nation’s culture. Different regions of the same nation often have their own unique cuisine and dining habits. This is found, in particular in the northern part of Thailand in the ‘khantoke’ custom of dining .
The word ‘khantoke’ or ‘toke’ is northern Thai dialect for an object used in serving food. This object is made of wood which has been lathed and rounded to give it a tray-like appearance. It stands on legs no more than 50cm high and is commonly lacquered or painted red with cinnabar. The khantoke has been designed in this manner to accommodate the Lanna eating style where the people sit on the floor, the men in the cross-legged position and the women with their legs folded to one side. In Lanna, these are considered the polite sitting positions.
The food is placed on the khantoke in small bowls and comprises local dishes such as kaeng om (varieties of meat curries), kaeng khae (mixed vegetable curries with meat or fish), kaeng hang le (pork curry adapted from a Burmese dish), sai ua (pork sausage), khaeb mu (pork rind), nam phrik ong (minced pork and chilli dip), and lahb khua (roasted minced pork or beef) served with steamed vegetables. These dishes are eaten with glutinous rice which is served in individual containers made of woven bamboo and fitted with a lid to protect it from insects and dust. Deserts include popular dishes made from rice flour such as khanom chok, khanom thien, khanom pad, and khao taen.
In former times the people of Lanna used a spoon made of coconut husk to serve the curries. The glutinous rice they ate with their hands. Consequently, the khantoke also has a small finger bowl and napkin. Drinking water is served from an earthenware vessel known as khan or khon to. No khantoke can be considered complete without an hors d’oeuvre of miang, a savory made of fermented tea leaves, and cheroots.
The miang, which has a sour, astringent taste, is traditionally used by the local people to welcome guests to the house. It helps to digest the food and is good to chew after a khantoke meal. The cheroots are made from tender banana leaves which have been heat pressed and rolled with locally grown tobacco. A special additive made from a local plant is added to the cheroot to reduce the harshness of the tobacco.
Guests at a formal khantoke dinner dress in traditional style which means the baggy, Chinese-pajama style trousers and cotton shirt for men and an ankle length tube skirt woven with horizontal stripes or decorative patterns and a short cotton blouse for women. The body is decorated with silver ornaments and the hair is rolled in a bun and adorned with fresh flowers.
As guests arrive at the dinner, the hosts welcome them with a garland of fragrant jasmine and invite them to take their seat at their designated place. Once guests are seated, a procession carries in the khantoke to the accompaniment of traditional music. The principle khantoke and a large rice container are placed before the guest of honor. Once the khantoke have been placed in position, food trays are placed before the guests next to the water container and spittoon. The hosts then invite the guests to enjoy their meal.
As the guests are enjoying their meal, they are entertained by traditional dances including the nail dance, the sword dance ,the maiden’s dance, and hilltribe dances. These are authentic folk dances of the Lanna region and modern hilltribe dances.
Khantoke dinners are generally organised during special merit making ceremonies and rituals such as the start of the Buddhist Rains Retreat, the Merit Making Ceremony in the 12th Lunar Month, Novice Ordination Ceremonies, House Blessing Ceremonies, Weddings, and Longevity Ceremonies. Traditionally, they are not held for general entertainment in the Western fashion. A later development, however, is the Khantoke Dinner which is arranged to entertain guests at evening functions.
The new style Khantoke Dinner was introduced in 1953 by Kraisri Nimmanhaemindra who adapted the traditional dinner to welcome distinguished guests to the city. Since that time it has become popular among the local people, people of other regions and even foreigners. The types of food and entertainment along with the placement of the khantoke have been adapted to suit the guests. For example, the khantoke may be served at a higher level for foreigners who are unaccustomed to sitting on the floor, or the food may be varied for people of the central region to include mixed vegetables and fried chicken. Local desserts have been adapted to make them look more appetising and sometimes fruits are included.
Apart from welcoming guests in the traditional Lanna fashion, the Khantoke Dinner also helps to preserve and propagate traditional customs and culture for the benefit of future generations. At the same time, foreigner visitors to the northern region are given a chance to learn more about local cuisine and dining customs, traditional dress, and entertainment.
Visitors to Chiang Mai can experience the flavour of an authentic Khantoke Dinner in a variety of places such as the Chiang Mai Cultural Centre and the Khantoke Palace. Your meal will give you the chance to savour another aspect of Chiang Mai.