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Saturday 7 September 2013

Maria Guyomar de Pinha:
The Seventeenth-Century French Countess 
who became Master Cook of the Siamese Royal Court

  One of the most interesting stories that I have come across in my studies is that of Maria Guyomar de Pinha (c.1664-1725). Not exactly a figure in European food history, de Pinha played a most remarkable role at the Thai royal court. 

  Born in Siam (Thailand) during a period when various European nations were vying for control over the kingdom, de Pinha came from a respectable Christian family of Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali ancestry. Living in Lopburi, Thailand, she married Constantine Phaulkon (1647-1688) who was an ethnic Greek and a high officer at the Thai royal court under King Narai (r.1656-1688). Due to their mixed European-Asian backgrounds and their Catholic convictions, Constantine and Maria quickly became key elements in the French bid to have greater access in Siam. So important were they that they were ennobled as a French count and countess. The remains of their house in Lopburi can still be visited.

Former residence of Constantine & Maria Phaulkon, Lopburi, Thailand.

  In 1688 a dynastic crisis spurred a coup d'état when Narai was on his deathbed. The new king, Petracha (r.1688-1703), seized power with support from factions from within the Siamese royal court that were against foreign interference. At the top of their list of enemies was Constantine who was arrested for treason and beheaded before Narai was even dead. Maria fled for protection to the local French garrison, but was later handed back to Petracha after much diplomatic manoeuvring.
  And this is when Maria unexpectedly entered culinary history ...

  Since she was returned to Petracha a scorned foreign meddler, she was forced into slavery in the royal kitchen. Not much is known of her life in the intervening years, but by 1703 she had been released from slavery. Interestingly, she stayed working in the royal kitchens and eventually rose to the position of master cook to the Siamese royal court. De Pinha is still famous in Thailand today, credited with popularizing a number of new desserts at the royal court: a baked pudding named "Khanom mo kaeng", and a famous Portuguese dish known as "Fios de ovos" or "golden threads". Many sources say she "introduced" the dishes to Thai cuisine, though it is likely that earlier Portuguese traders were the first to introduce them with their place in Thai cookery later being solidified by de Pinha's work at the court.
Fios de ovos is also a popular dish in Brazil, again due to Portuguese colonization.
  She received an allowance from the French government in later life and her two sons held posts in the Siamese royal court; one was even given the task of overseeing the building of a European-style pipe organ for the court. Her husband has remained highly controversial in Thai culture, though Maria's image seems to have been rehabilitated. Her service in the king's kitchen, the fact that she stayed on cooking after she was freed, and the tasty new desserts that she is credited with introducing to the Siamese seems to have won her a special place in Thai gastronomic history.

Khanom mo kaeng: pudding made from coconut milk, eggs, palm sugar and flour. Sweet fried sliced onions are sprinkled on top.

Golden Threads

Note: Maria Guyomar de Pinha does not receive much attention in English literature. She has an entry on wikipedia though her husband seems to have received more attention. A 2004 master's thesis written by Walter Strach III at the University of Hawaiʻi, entitled Constantine Phaulkon and Somdet Phra Narai: Dynamics of Court Politics in Seventeenth-Century Siam, is available online and gives excellent coverage of the political situation that Constantine Phaulkon was embroiled in. 

By: Ryan Whibbs

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