Like most immigrant food stores, Toronto-based Patchmon’s, which bills itself as Canada’s first Thai dessert shop, began with a hankering for the taste of “home.”
Were it not for Romyen Tangsubutra’s sweet tooth, his wife, Patchmon Su-Anchalee, would not have unleashed an untapped talent for creating traditional Thai desserts that are not only a delight to behold, but are insanely delicious.
These are not the mango-sticky-rice-and-banana-fritters variety that passes for Thai dessert in Toronto. Patchmon’s has about 20 desserts on its menu, each of them beautifully and delicately handcrafted, with an interesting history to boot.
“It started with my Dad missing homecooked desserts in Thailand,” recalls daughter Aleen Tangsubutra. “So my mom started making dessert for us. Afterwards she shared them with [Toronto’s Thai] community.” It wasn’t long before friends and acquaintances started asking Patchmon if she could take orders for special occasions.
Patchmon, who had been working for ACE Bakery Cafe, decided to quit her job and in the spring of 2015, Patchmon’s officially opened at Bloor and Jane, in Bloorwest Village, in a spot that used to be a waffle place.
“We were worried at first,” says Aleen, who acts as the store’s general manager and spokeswoman. They had wanted a storefront in Chinatown, where they were certain customers would be, but rent was prohibitive. Their fears proved unfounded – through word-of-mouth and publicity in the media, customers near and far (all the way from Vancouver, in fact) came, and came back for more.
“My mom initially just wanted to sell Thai curry puffs [curried potato pocket pies], but when she started presenting more Thai desserts they actually became the [bestsellers].”
Patchmon’s desserts are the biggest draw, but it helps a lot that visitors to the store are not only warmly welcomed by Patchmon, who remains cool as cucumber, even when she emerges from the steamy kitchen, or when she’s not in school, by the affable Aleen. Customers are encouraged to try samples.
The ingredients in each dessert are also listed and classified (e.g. vegan, gluten-free), and whoever is in the counter will gladly explain the cooking process and respond to any questions one might have.
Romyen Tangsubutra, Aleen Tangsubutra and Patchmon Su-Anchalee
Aleen explains what goes into her favourite Kha-Nhom Chun (Thai coconut layer cake), an ancient Thai dessert that is a combination of coconut cream, pandan juice and tapioca flour. Each layer is steamed one at a time, and she says, can be pulled out and nibbled for fun. The layers, “like ladders towards prosperity” also symbolizes good luck, according to Patchmon’s website.
Traditional Thai desserts are steamed, not baked, says Aleen when asked what makes them different. Thailand doesn’t grow wheat so a lot of its desserts are rice-based, she adds. “So the texture is different; it’s a little more sticky and chewy.”
In terms of taste, “we incorporate savoury and sweet together,” she says. She cites the steamed pandanus cake (Kha-Nhom Thuay, which has pandan juice (sweet) with rice flour and coconut cream (salty) at the bottom and coconut cream on top. “They balance each other out.”
The sweet tapioca with coconut cream follows the same savoury-sweet principle: the bottom has tapioca pearls, young coconut and sweet corn, and the top, coconut cream.
“Another important ingredient which is really representative of Thai desserts or Asian dessert is the pandan flavour,” adds Aleen. “We squeeze out the juice and the colour from it.”
Some Thai desserts like the flower-shaped cookies and moon cake, also involve a ritual, which adds to their ethereal quality. “Traditionally, we scent the desserts with candle. There’s a special candle for smoking desserts, which are made from different kinds of herbs. We light up the candle, blow it and let the dessert absorb (the smoke),” explains Aleen.
Patchmon’s also feature “auspicious” desserts, which include “golden family desserts” that trace their origins to Thailand’s Grand Palace, says Aleen. These desserts — golden in colour to signify prosperity — are typically bought for special occasions such as birthdays, the new year, a new business or a new house.
Among the “auspicious” desserts Patchmon makes are golden egg yolk threads (Foi Thong), which uses only egg yoks and sugar but involves a delicate and labour-intensive process of threading the egg yolks in circles over heated syrup.
Thai desserts are best when eaten fresh, says Aleen.“In Thailand, we eat it on the day of, so you make it on a day-to-day basis.”
Food also needs to be ready early in the morning because most Thai, who practice Buddhism, don’t just buy for themselves, but for the local monks, adds Aleen. “It’s very related to the religious aspect, where people buy either food or desserts (to earn) good merit. Monks only have a certain time to eat, between 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., so people start giving it early.”
The same practice applies even here in Toronto, where Thai Buddhists worship at the Yanviriya Temple in Richmond Hill, Ont. “People pre-order and we go and drop it off for them.”
Photo: The Origami
Looking back, Aleen — whose family moved to Toronto 14 years ago — says the most memorable part about setting up the business was getting certified by Toronto Public Health. The process involved explaining the unfamiliar nature of traditional Thai desserts (steamed, not baked) to the landlord and the food health staff. “I remember my mother saying she almost cried when we got certified,” she says.
For Aleen, having Patchmon’s officially as a store meant it was now able to represent and show another side of Thai culture.
“I always think of us an underdog. A lot of people know about Thai food, but not Thai desserts.”
Aleen, who is studying to become a nurse, says the best part of her job is talking to customers. “It’s very touching because a lot of times people read these articles [about Patchmon’s] a long time ago … and then they find their way here,” she says.
She has learned from customers that Thai desserts share some things in common with other cultures. “Cassava, I’ve always thought of it [as] just in mine, but it’s in the Philippines, the Middle East, South africa, and they also use it for dessert,” she says.
But then again, she muses, Thailand’s history has been influenced by different cultural communities and its people have found ways to incorporate and indigenize new knowledge into the fabric of their daily lives. [The use of eggs in Thai dessert was influenced by Portuguese cuisine, adds Anchalee.]
Patchmon’s get a lot of customers who hail from China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, and they often say that Thai desserts are very similar to what they have in their own cultures. “They eat our desserts and think of home. I’ts very nice that it allows them to reminisce,” she says.
Patchmon herself says she is “very proud to have our products [regarded] as a Canadian treat.” It makes her happy, she says, when Canadians who have travelled to Thailand recognize the desserts that she sells.
Her desserts now popular, Patchmon is setting her sights on other things. Patchmon’s has started to offer “authentic Thai food” for pre-order and delivery, three days a week. Some customers have been urging her to offer cooking classes, which she says, is in her “future plan.”
She has also asked Aleen to write a book that will feature recipes for Thai desserts as well as facts about Thai history, which she says is her husband’s forte.
What accounts for Patchmon’s success is that her family values “authenticity,” says Aleen. “We want to make the desserts that we ourselves miss from home and want to eat here.” The biggest compliment, she says, is when Thai-Canadians eat them and say, “This is exactly what I miss, what I have in Thailand.” Or, when Canadians who have visited Thailand and have tried desserts say, “This is exactly what I had there and this is what I’ve been looking for here.”