In Bangkok’s historic Chinatown, chestnuts are everywhere! In fact, you will see one, if not two, vendors raking the reddish-brown nuts on a hollow drum of dark charcoal beads right on the threshold of the Shanghai Mansion entrance on Yaowarat Road. Freshly roasted chestnuts are fragrant, warm and delightfully toothsome. Why is it so popular in Chinatown? What is the story here?
Chestnut trees are native to many areas in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. Their history and lore in eastern Asia – including Japan and China – goes back for thousands of years, all the way to the Neolithic times. Chestnuts have been found in the tombs of emperors, decreed an auspicious food, along with mulberry, apricots and jujube, on oracle bones and written about in 2000-year old cultural texts like the famous Shih Ching, the Book of Odes and Li Chi, the Book of Rites.
With culinary roots going back to antiquity, chestnuts have been used in daily food preparation and in religious and social ceremonies. Harvested in fall and winter, fresh chestnuts are highly perishable. Several methods are used to preserve them. Traditionally, chestnuts were given a quick boil, peeled, sun-dried and stored in sand-filled earthenware. Other methods include roasting, canning in water and drying and grinding into flour. Depending on the region of China, chestnuts are used heavily in soups, stews and stir-fries. In Shanghai, it is a popular addition to poultry dishes. As a snack, sweet tooths enjoy chestnuts with molasses and sugar. Meanwhile, a sprinkle of salt, cumin and pepper gives it a savory kick. Today, chestnuts are incorporated within Chinese cooking in the same way.
Chestnuts are considered a good omen, and thus many trees were planted near temples and court mansions. During the ninth lunar moon, chestnuts are a traditional temple offering, along with oranges and small red beans.
Exceptionally aromatic, with a subtle nutty flavor, chestnuts are roasted and enjoyed in Bangkok’s Chinatown year around. They are sold by vendors whose families have been doing this for generations. Don’t pass up a chance to try some. Buy a small bag and enjoy one of our neighborhood’s healthy snacks!