Samui Wining & Dining
Exporting Thai

A look at why Thai food is now oneof the world’s most popular cuisines. 13 Was it a bit of a shock the first time you ate real Thai food? I think so! I can clearly remember when I knew I was coming to Thailand. I’d landed a teaching job, and was due to fly to Bangkok in five or six months. And suddenly I had a new interest. I read all I could about Thailand. The historical stuff didn’t exactly fire me up. But the internet info did. And so did the food. It just so happened that a not-so-far-away pub did Thai food – the manager had a Thai wife. Therefore, every weekend was spent munching through the menu and chatting with said wife about life in Bangkok. But when I got there it was a different story altogether.

When it comes to the cuisine of different countries appearing in new places, there’s always a reason. Many thousands of Chinese went to America, in the mid-1800s, as cheap railroad labour, and they took their cuisine with them. ‘Chinatowns’ sprung up in California, where the restaurants catered for a huge local Chinese population. But the first recorded Chinese restaurant aimed at an American audience didn’t open until the 1930s

Exactly the same thing happened after the Second World War, and again with the Vietnam War, causing a sudden spread of both Japanese and Vietnamese restaurants and food. Thailand, however, has always been an insular nation, unconquered and uncolonised, and it took an entirely different reason for Thai cuisine to appear abroad. True, a small number of American soldiers went back with Thai wives in the ’70s, but nothing like the numbers today. It took universally cheap international air flights to accomplish this. And this didn’t really happen until the last couple of decades of the 20th century.

However, it was in 1997 that, along with 30 or so other very pale-skinned English folks, I landed in Bangkok for the first time. I was amazed by the way all my pores exploded with sweat as I stepped off the plane. I was fascinated at the view from the bus of glittering skyscrapers and temples of gold alongside tin sheds and slums. I was taken aback by the smell and humidity. I was baffled by the language. And, most of all, I was terrified by the food!

What happened to the mild and creamy curries I had trained on? Where was the nice brown rice, or the aromatic jasmine stuff? Why were there five different sorts of noodles to pick from? Why were the portions so tiny? Why did everything I ate blister my throat, nose and occasionally my ears? What happened to the baby sweetcorn, the cauliflower and the broccoli, and what were all these weird vegetables? And so it was that for my first three months in Thailand, I lived on a daily diet of chicken fried rice and spring rolls. So much for all that ‘Thai food’ back home!

Wandering back towards the point, now that Thailand has firmly established itself as a major tourist destination, ten million or so visitors come here each year. And for a very long time, decades perhaps, holiday romances have led to innumerable ex-bachelors returning home with Thai wives in tow. And so there are two reasons why Thai cuisine has become the world’s third most-popular food. One is that there are already thousands of Thai people living in these countries, and believe me, Thai people just love Thai food! And the other reason is that, with so many visitors having visited Thailand, a great many people abroad do too.

Which brings me back to where I began. Khun Po is the owner and chef of a Thai restaurant in New York. And he cheerfully laments the food he is forced to make. “Sure, I can cook real Thai food when there is a function or party with Thai people but, day to day, in the restaurant, nobody will eat it! Something as simple as a fish deep-fried in garlic and pepper will be only one-third eaten – nobody will go near the head. Anything that smells at all ‘fishy’ will be untouched, so I can’t use fish sauce or dried shrimp. If I use Thai spices then so much is just left behind – even something like kaffir lime leaves will be complained about. I have to substitute what I know people will eat. And that means vegetables they recognise, like carrots, peas, mushrooms, sweetcorn, onion, capsicum peppers and broccoli. And that’s not taking into account all the people that tell me they have peanut, gluten or shellfish allergies!”

Do you see what I’m getting at? Thai food is based around the four balanced attributes of sweet, sour, salty and spicy. And, in Thailand, this means very sweet, very sour, very salty and very spicy. I’ve actually seen one foreigner over here shudder and spit out his first mouthful of ‘gaeng som kung’ (sour shrimp soup). Therefore, the wide range of usual Thai flavourings is dulled down for consumption abroad, otherwise it would simply overcome palates which have been brought up on less volatile mixtures.

And to go along with this, Thai restaurants have to cater for what people expect. People expect to see pad Thai and spring rolls on the menu. And then there’s the thing about sticky rice – chef Po recounts that the majority of his diners have got the idea that this is very ‘Thai’ and ask for it on the plate with curries. Not to mention that a great many people expect to use chopsticks on the table too - something which Thai people only ever use for noodles.

It’s an acquired taste, that’s for sure. And even though Thai restaurants now span the globe, you’ve probably not eaten real Thai food yet. So get out and experience the real thing – but do take care, you’ve been warned!


Rob De Wet


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