You may have heard of Trang cakes. Trang, a city in Southern Thailand, is a kind of crossroads city for Nakhon Si Thammarat, Krabi and points further south, including many of the islands in Trang province. If you’ve spent any time in Trang you probably noticed the stacks of square boxes at various food stores and wondered what they were. The boxes contain a type of cake called Trang Cake and they are one of the food items that Trang is known for. Another is pork that is roasted in a particular way. There’s even a Cake festival in August.
A Thai traveling around the country usually plans to stock up on food items that a particular town or locale is known for, such as salted eggs in Chaiya. Travelers to Trang will often pick up several Trang cakes to take home as gifts. On her trips to Southern Thailand I always looked forward to Trang, because we would get to have Trang cake for several days. Kasma always picked up a couple to take to the staff at our favorite restaurant, Ruen Mai in Krabi.
(Click on an image to see a larger version.)
When buying a Trang cake you want to make very sure that you buy the correct one. The one Kasma and I recommend, and the only one we can, in conscience, recommend, is that made by Kook Ming. Their motto is: “The Original – The Best” and you should look for the logo, which has two black birds flying over the name and the motto. When asking for them, you can also specify “Kook Ming, the cake from Lampura.” On the trips, we pick them up from a kanom store in town (see first picture to upper left). The one time that Kook Ming cake was not available (it is popular and can sell out), we tried another brand and found it to be nowhere near as delicious.
Although you can buy the cakes in Trang town, I recommend an excursion to the bakery itself. Simply head north on Highway 4 towards Krabi. Lampura is roughly 14 km from Trang in the district of Huai Yot. The bakery will be on your left as you head north.
Kook Ming cake is very much like a sponge cake. It is light and bouncy with good flavor. They make it without preservatives of any kind and no baking soda but with plenty of eggs and shortening. Their website lists 10 different flavors (opens in new window). My favorites are the kehk som (orange cake), kehk dteuy hawm (pandan leaf cake), kehk neuy sod (butter cake) and the kehk sahm roht (three flavors cake, the three flavors being orange, coffee and plain). In addition to the standard cakes in the large square boxes, they also sell cakes that are similar to jelly rolls, rolled up with frosting and sold is smaller, rectangular boxes (see picture to right, below); I’ve only seen these jelly-roll cakes sold at the bakery.
The story of the bakery is that of a rags-to-riches Chinese immigrant to Thailand with the name of Kook Ming. Born on the island of Hainan off the southern coast of China in 1916, he was sent by his parents to Thailand when he was 18 (an elder brother was already there) because of the great unrest and fighting with the Japanese. He originally lived in Narathiwat province, where he worked at a series of odd jobs, mostly manual labor; he earned 7 baht a month. After a year he moved to Hat Yai, where he began working for a distributor of soft drinks for 12 baht a month. A hard, diligent worker, after three years he was made a regional manager and sent to Trang district with the magnificent salary of 25 baht a month.
After a time, Kook Ming took a liking to the cross roads town of Lampura, 15 km from Trang; he moved there and opened a small coffee shop to serve locals and travelers through the town. He bought the coffee beans and roasted them himself and served the coffee along with a number of snacks; his wife made fried bread, a type of dumpling called sara bow and curry puffs and they supplemented these with kanom from elsewhere. One of these kanom was a European-style cake: Kook Ming would bicycle the 14 kilometers into Trang in the early morning to purchase the cakes.
His patrons, however, did not care for the cake, which had a frosting, so Kook Ming decided to come up with a good cake recipe that would better suit the local tastes. He made a stove out of a 200 liter oil drum and began experimenting. He also invented an appliance to beat eggs. He was having difficulty getting the cake to cook evenly so he invented a type of pan with a hole in the center, much like a plain bundt pan. He then spent a fair amount of time perfecting his recipe. Once he mastered the recipe his cakes became very popular and the popularity began to spread. As the demand grew, customers wanted to buy cakes to take home, so he began selling them in the square boxes.
A break came in 1960 when an group of men on a electricity commision travelled through and loved the cake. One of the men recommended the bakery to an agency that gives a seal of approval to certain restaurants and food stands, recognized by the logo of a green bowl (which can be seen on the side of the cake box). The delicious cakes became more widely known and at one point Kook Ming was the guest on a popular television game show that spread his fame even wider. The Kook Ming website (completely in Thai, unfortunately) has many pictures of celebrities who have visited the store and a couple from the game show. The bakery continues to flourish, run now by his daughter, who came up with recipes for many of the different flavored cakes. Kook Ming died in 2004.
In Thailand, as elsewhere, the sincerest form of flattery is imitation. I’ve counted at least another half dozen brands of Trang cakes; but this was the first and is still, as they say, the best. More than once when we’ve stopped at the bakery to have cake and coffee and to stock up for the ride north, there have been tour busses that have stopped – nearly all of the people on the bus were buying cakes, often several boxes.
Aside from a chance to see where the cakes are made (in a clean, modern bakery in the back of the store – they’ve long outgrown the 200 liter oil drum!), their store in front still offers a number of other delicious treats that are made on the premises. I’ve included pictures of two of my favorites. The first is a curry puff, a flakey outside with delicious chicken curry on the inside – garee pahf sai gkai. They also make a pastry filled with sangkaya, a rich egg custard. The second is a substantial, tasty cookie, very crunchy. Their website contains several pictures of other snacks (opens in new window) that are made on the premises.
Check out the Kook Ming Website (offsite, opens in new window)
Written by Michael Babcock, July 2010.