In Thailand, conventional meals can be beautiful and elaborate. Nothing epitomizes this greater than the usage of tian op, Thailand’s culinary candle.

Although its identify merely means “scented candle” in Thai, this double-wicked curl of beeswax is not any unusual room freshener. Tian op is a flavoring agent, or quite, a scenting agent, used to reinforce particular dishes in Thai delicacies.

Cooks gentle the U-shaped candle at each ends, place it on prime of the meals to be scented, and canopy it with a lid. Lack of oxygen snuffs the flames and the enclosed house fills with flowery smoke. Minutes and even hours later, the cooks raise the lid and serve the meals, now garnished with the candle’s delectable aroma.

Tian op is infused with quite a few substances additionally present in fragrance and incense, like patchouli, ylang-ylang, mace oil, sandalwood, frankincense, and musk, to call just some. The candle’s smoke accommodates a fancy mix of scent molecules, together with vanillin, named for vanilla but additionally present in woodsmoke.

This offers the scent of tian op a novel, musky sweetness which lends itself particularly properly to desserts. “It’s very, very distinct, very acknowledged,” says Thai cookbook creator Leela Punyaratabandhu. “For me, conventional Thai desserts don’t style the identical, principally, until they scent just like the candle.”

Tian op as used on  <em>kleeb lamduan</em>, flower-shaped cookies made with sugar, flour, and lard.
Tian op as used on kleeb lamduan, flower-shaped cookies made with sugar, flour, and lard. Leudej Rodjanapaitoon / Alamy

In some recipes, tian op is a of completion, as with flower-shaped kleeb lamduan cookies, that are infused with smoke after baking. Different preparations name for substances to be individually smoked, corresponding to sarim, which mixes smoked sweetened coconut milk with multicolored starch noodles and crushed ice.

Although almost all conventional functions of the tian op are for sweets, the candle can be used to make khao chae or “soaked rice,” a chilly dish standard within the summertime. Cooks smoke rice with a tian op, then chill it in jasmine-scented water to offer aromatic refreshment between bites of crispy aspect dishes. “This candle is a part of the larger image of Thais liking to scent issues,” says Punyaratabandhu. Although cooks world wide use aromatics to infuse meals, Thai delicacies has a specific appreciation for perfume. Particularly prized are aromatic substances just like the herb pandan, which owes its nutty, roasty aroma to a taste compound shared with jasmine rice.

 <em>Khao chae,</em> candle-scented rice in jasmine-scented water, is associated with Songkran or Thai New Year.
Khao chae, candle-scented rice in jasmine-scented water, is related to Songkran or Thai New Yr. Williamvonga / CC BY-SA 4.0

Tian op isn’t even the one type of enclosed smoking used to aromatize meals in Thailand. There’s additionally dhungar, a way of scorching ghee on scorching charcoal in a closed oven, which is especially related to the delicacies of Thai Muslims. Although dhungar and tian op are superficially comparable, Punyaratabandhu, who has written on each, believes that they’re unrelated. Dhungar is primarily used for savory dishes, not candy, and whereas dhungar originated in India and is present in different South Asian international locations, tian op is exclusive to Thailand.

Tian op’s spectacular mix of aromatics carries, for Punyaratabandhu, “the scent of dwelling, of custom—of one thing that’s dying nowadays.” Initially derived from the unique delicacies of the Thai royal courtroom, tian op continues to be largely the provenance {of professional} dessert-makers, quite than dwelling cooks. These dessert-makers now have the duty of preserving a practice that’s liable to disappearing as a consequence of reducing demand.

Conventional Thai sweets are fading in recognition, within the face of competitors from international desserts like macarons and cupcakes, that are generally extra inexpensive than the labor-intensive conventional choices. And as Thai desserts go, so goes the tian op. Punyaratabandhu describes the candle as a “uni-tasker,” intimately tied to the aim it was made for. “The candle doesn’t have a life outdoors of this,” she says. “We now have to speak about it as a subset of what’s happening with conventional Thai desserts.”

The iced dessert sarim or salim is made with tian op-infused coconut milk.
The iced dessert sarim or salim is made with tian op-infused coconut milk. Iudexvivorum / CC0

But whereas globalization threatens tian op’s unique context, it additionally presents new alternatives. Trendy Thai cooks have created fusion recipes with tian op, scenting Western-style cookies, truffles, and pastries. New York Metropolis’s Spot Dessert Bar previously supplied a candle-infused cheesecake, the brainchild of consulting chef Ian Chalermkittichai. In 2023, the show-stopping signature dessert at San Francisco restaurant Prik Hom earned its personal profile within the San Francisco Chronicle: coconut ice cream smoked with a tian op for 15 seconds beneath glass. It’s served with the lid on, in order that diners can launch the candy smoke themselves.

Punyaratabandhu cautions that as a result of the scent of tian op is so particular, it doesn’t essentially enhance each dessert. When she used the candle on shortbread cookies, she didn’t like the way it masked their unique scent. “You’re imagined to scent butter, not frankincense!” she says.

Like all flavoring, tian op’s energy to raise and remodel should be used with care. But it surely’s a testomony to the attract of this royal ingredient that cooks, in Thailand and past, are nonetheless drawn to experiment with its aromatic smoke.

Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drinks.

Join our e-mail, delivered twice per week.