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Fruit and Vegetable Carving

Display of carved fruit and vegetables Quite apart from the wonderful tastes, the exotic blend of flavours that make up a Thai meal, diners are always impressed with the beautiful presentation that is an integral part of local cuisine. Even the simplest and cheapest fruits and vegetables can be turned into miniature woks of art on the edge of your plate by a few deft strokes of a fruit carving knife. Thus the humble carrot, tomato or cucumber is transformed into a rose or a chrysanthemum, into a fish or an animal.

Much carving is in fact very simple and can be done at home even without specialized tools, but the creation of masterpieces of carved fruit such as watermelons turned into peacocks requires great skill and years of practice to perfect, as well as a range of knives built for the job. Surprisingly much of the most elaborate carving is done not by the gentle hands of women, but by the stronger strokes of men, where the greater power of wrist action influences depth and twist.

The heights of creative and decorative carving are rarely seen. Such artistic excellence was once the preserve of chefs to Royalty and the nobility, but can now be found in the buffet displays of the better hotels, the master carvers of old having taught their trade to the dynamic new generation.

Such classical carving is beautiful to see but is beyond the scope of most visitors to begin to emulate. Simpler carvings are, however, surprisingly easy and can be done in a standard Western kitchen as easily as in Thailand. Tomato baskets, for example, merely require a firm tomato (easier to find in the West than in Thailand) and a sharp knife. Slice off the bottom of each tomato to give a flat base. Make two parallel vertical cuts from the top to about half way down the fruit. Then cut horizontally in from the "equator" on both sides. Remove the wedges of tomato, scoop out the pulp and seeds and there's your basket. Horizontal cutting is more decorative if done in a zigzag pattern. Stuck for ideas? Fill your basket with mixed vegetables like sweet corn, peas and diced carrots or put in some chopped prawns or ham with a mayonnaise and basil, or even a shot of guacamole. Tomatoes of course transform beautifully into roses. Slice off the top of the fruit and set aside. With a sharp (note this magic word) knife peel the tomato, including about 2 mm of flesh, with a circular motion from top to bottom giving one long spiral of peel. Roll this long strip of peel up to form a rose. It sounds hard. It isn't.

Chilli flowers are one of the most common decorative garnishes. They are effective yet simple. All that is needed is that (very) sharp knife again. Hold the chilli by the stem end and make several cuts from base to tip using the point of the knife. The more cuts the better, but that is to practice. Toss the chillies into iced water and watch them open into flowers. Remove the seeds before serving and don't forget to wash your hands. I'd love to show you how to make a cucumber lotus but that needs picture or two. If you go to a Thai cookery school of course you will learn all this stuff, but if not go home, get a (very, very) sharp knife and get practicing. You won't regret it.

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