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Authentic Thai Food

How different is Thai cuisine when eaten abroad


20Food is food, right? Surely a curry tastes the same anywhere in the world? I mean, they’re following the same recipe, aren’t they? Well, maybe not. Perhaps some of the ingredients are hard to come by. Perhaps people don’t like the taste of a certain ingredient and the recipe is tweaked to suit the local population rather than honouring the traditional recipe. So what is Thai food like abroad compared to what it is like here in Thailand? Let’s find out.

      Thai cuisine is now very popular throughout the world but that’s only happened fairly recently. Only after the growth in tourism in the seventies, did the cuisine leave the shores of Thailand and start spreading its tasty, spicy influence, and you can now find Thai restaurants in most cities around the world.

      One thing that does seem to be common in Thai restaurants outside of Thailand is the decor. Most big Thai restaurants in both the UK and US will have some sort of wooden interior with elaborately carved tables, huge chairs and ornate wall hangings. Huge elephant and Buddha statues will be placed either at the entrance or inside the restaurant in an attempt to create that authentic Thai feel.

      But what about the food itself? Let’s start with the ingredients that ‘make’ Thai cuisine, the ingredients that give that authentic Thai flavour. Chilli and garlic of course, go without saying but palm oil, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass, Thai basil, ginger, peppercorns and coriander are all essential in the Thai kitchen. And then don’t forget shrimp paste, oyster sauce, soy sauce, curry paste and soybean paste. Vegetables such as cabbage, bean sprouts, stink beans, soybeans, Chinese broccoli, mustard greens and pak choi are all popular and fruits such as green mango, green papaya, bananas, Thai chestnut, lotus seed and coconut feature in both main courses and desserts.

      Galangal, a root from the ginger family, for instance is hard to come by in England. It is sometimes stocked in the larger supermarkets but its availability is not always guaranteed. Some Thai restaurants have to rely on ordering it from Thai food suppliers or sometimes even health shops.

       You might not find Chinese broccoli in shops in England but if you looked for it by its alternative names of Chinese kale or flowering kale, you might be more successful.

      Green mangoes and green papayas are hard to come by in South Africa purely because they’re seen as ‘not yet ripe’ and therefore not fit to be sold. Even the ones that are a little bit green are still bright orange inside and not the pale yellow as seen in Thailand. Online shops promise shipment of green papayas in the UK and you can even buy them in the US from Amazon! (And you thought they only sold books …)

       But what about Thai restaurants abroad and the food they serve? How different is the actual food there? One of the main differences between food in Thailand and Thai food abroad is the portion size. Anyone who comes to Thailand will see instantly that obesity is not a problem here. The Thai people eat little and often, and when ordering food here, you’ll never get asked if you want to ‘go large for an extra 50 baht’.

         The second difference is most definitely the price of the dishes. Fair enough, the cost of living is cheaper in Thailand but where a dish with perhaps a fried egg on top costs around 60 baht here, you’ll easily pay eight to ten times that amount in other parts of the world. At one of the top Thai restaurants in London, the set meal for two will set you back 2655 baht per person. I don’t even want to think about how much food you could eat in Thailand for that much money!

         In Thailand, most dishes prepared with meat will have a few pieces as part of the dish but it certainly won’t count as the main ingredient. Abroad, the Westerner’s obsession with meat means that most dishes are bulked out with huge quantities of meat, changing the whole balance of the dish.

         Things like flavour can be debated until the cows come home, but abroad, Thai food will always be blander (or certainly less spicy) than in Thailand. Many a Westerner has been caught out coming to Thailand and ordering Thai food, thinking it will taste the same as back home and discovering that it blows their socks off. Some Thai restaurants have clicked on to this and will prepare dishes differently for Westerners. If you want it ‘blow your socks off spicy’, then ask for it to be prepared the same as the locals eat it or ask for ‘pet maak’ (very spicy).

         Sticky rice is associated with Thailand, and often people will think they can substitute normal rice for sticky rice and it will be more Thai somehow. I have seen red curry advertised with sticky rice on a menu in South Africa, which would never be seen in Thailand. Curries are all eaten with steamed rice. Somtam is eaten with sticky rice as is fried chicken. It would be like eating your carbonara on rice instead of spaghetti - it’s just not done.

         The popularity of some dishes changes in different countries. Dishes like green -, red - and yellow curry, tom yum (clear and spicy soup) and pad Thai (stir fried noodles) are pretty much available all around the world but the more spicy dishes such as somtam (green papaya salad), khao phat nam phrik narok (rice fried from chilli paste) or gaeng som (a hot and sour Thai curry soup) you might only be lucky enough to find in Thailand itself or specialist restaurants.

         So really Thai food has become a firm favourite in most places in the world nowadays, but if you really want tasty, spicy, authentic Thai food, there’s no getting away from it - you’re going to have to come to Thailand.


Colleen Setchell


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