Last Friday marked the start of Songkran, a three-day festival celebrating the Thai New Year. Minneapolis locals kicked off the holiday a little early on Thursday night at Amazing Thailand in Uptown, with traditional dance demonstrations, a display of elaborate fruit carvings, all-night happy hour, and a high-heat papaya salad eating competition which attracted a surprising number of willing volunteers.
The family-run establishment prides itself on authentic dishes from all regions of the country, and the owners are always looking for ways to share their Thai culture. We were there to take part in the festivities, emceed by Amazing Thailand employee Laura Murra. Stunning traditional costumes and insanely upbeat Thai pop music were part of the fun, but one of the evening's biggest highlights came from manager P'Kob, who is married to P'Yin (pictured above) and is an expert in the art of kae sa luk, or traditional fruit carving.
"You learn it in school, but it's not something you do every day or for everyone. It's mainly for like the royal family," P'Kob explained. Still, he was kind enough to demonstrate his technique and even give us a chance to try our hand at carving, with mixed results. P'Kob uses just a single pen-like knife to create all his designs, which proved challenging for the untrained (me). Imagine trying to both carve a pumpkin and decorate a wedding cake using only an X-Acto knife and relentlessly keeping the concept of negative space in mind. P'Kob could do it, and all freehand.
"These took me probably about five hours to do," he says of the several melons he had on display. "First I think of them, then start from the outside. Don't start from the inside," he warns. Apparently that is a rookie mistake.
Like New Year celebrations in many other cultures, Songkran is about renewal and washing away the misfortunes and mistakes of the previous year. In Thailand, the main celebration of Songkran involves the throwing of water either from buckets, or the more modern and fun method of shooting people with water guns. We didn't get doused, but a lucky few competition winners from last night's festivities did get a table keg of beer, which Amazing Thailand just recently started selling.
P'Yin and some of the other female members of the staff performed a slow, meditative candle dance before capping off the night with a papaya salad-eating competition. One of the staff's chefs prepared the spicy dish in a giant mortar and pestle, adding more and more chiles, fish sauce, and acid as she went. Brave souls stepped up, teared up, scarfed down, and walked away with bragging rights.
Amazing Thailand celebrates Songkran every year so mark your calendars. It also celebrates happy hour daily and has added a small patio space for outdoor dining.