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The Ancient Art Of Watermelon Carving

By Crystal Wakoa

Watermelon and other fruit carving is an ancient and venerable tradition dating back to 14th Century Thailand. Each year on the November full moon, the Thai people sent their floating lamps and rafts down a river to honor the spirits of the water during the Floating Lantern Festival. Legend has it that one of the king’s servants carved a flower and a bird from a melon to adorn her lantern in an effort to please her king. King Phra Ruang was so taken by the beauty and grace of the carving that he encouraged all Thai women to learn to carve, giving rise to the new culinary art form called Kae Sa Lok.

Melon, fruit and vegetable carving are now popular worldwide. Carved melons, radishes, papayas and cucumbers adorn the white linen tablecloths of fine restaurants, country clubs and cruise ships, as well as at weddings and other fancy occasions. My nephew, Spencer England, is a chef at a country club in Jupiter, Florida and delights his customers by carving fruits and vegetables in plain view. “People love watching,” he says, “and they’re always amazed by my carvings—which is amazing to me because I don’t consider myself artistic at all.”

Carved watermelon by Spencer England.

I beg to differ, but Spencer’s self-assessment points to the fact that one doesn’t need a load of artistic talent to carve melon. A confidence in one’s ability to learn, a creative spirit and a modicum of perseverance are all that’s required, three qualities that practically define my nephew, and perhaps you!

“Attitude is so important,” says Spencer. “Don’t be afraid to goof up, because you will, so begin with an inexpensive fruit or vegetable, something on sale. Melons and papaya are good because they’re nice and soft.” Tools vary. Some people carve with an X-acto™ knife while others use a sharp, thin paring knife. Once you fall in love with the art you can order a special fruit carving knife from Thailand.

I’ve gleaned three methods of watermelon carving from my on-line research. The first is the most difficult, artistic and visually stunning. It involves cutting the green outer skin off one side of the watermelon, leaving the white inner rind. One then makes a cut, say, in the shape of a rose petal, then an identical cut parallel to the first cut a very short distance away. The slice of melon between the two cuts is lifted out with the tip of the knife, exposing the inner red of the watermelon. This technique makes a single, red and white-tipped petal of the rose. One then continues in a similar fashion to complete the entire rose. This traditional Thai method of watermelon carving is demonstrated in a four minute YouTube video with Thai music that is inspirational, meditative and just plain awesome.

The second method involves carving the green outer skin of the watermelon in a pattern, resulting in a mostly green and white carving, with some red background. A desired pattern, such as a fish or a swan, can be laid over the watermelon, traced with a pencil, leaving an indented pattern in the melon by which to guide the carving.

Carved watermelon by Spencer England.

The third technique I call the arts and crafts method of creating cute watermelon animals. It involves cutting a large chunk of the watermelon away and scraping out the inside to create a basket or bowl in which to later return the watermelon, either chunked or shaped into balls. The pieces of removed skin and rind are then carved into feet or eyes, etc. and attached to the animal with toothpicks. Many patterns with instructions can be found on-line for creating porcupines, sharks, turtles and baskets. This technique is great to do with children.

The three methods are illustrated in the included pictures, along with a fourth, which is a combination of methods.

August 3 is officially Watermelon Day in the U.S., so go get yourself a melon and try your hand at this ancient, accessible art form.

 

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