Caught in the culture wars


Thai food: a focal point of the culture wars


I vowed never to talk about this again, but Sunday’s “Bangkok Post” opinion piece about the state of Thai cuisine drove me, once again, to the keyboard (I don’t have many interests, and nothing else to talk about). Like a Katherine Heigl movie, it starts out reasonably enough, and then somehow turns crazypants somewhere in the middle.

The basic premise is, modern Thai food has atrophied as a result of the culinary shortcuts commercial cooks take today, resulting in processed dreck that bears little resemblance to the dishes they are supposed to be (while this is very true, it sounds a little to me like running into a McDonald’s and complaining, “Why do they only use cheap ingredients? Why is everything so poorly made? Where is the care and thought put into my hamburger?”)

The media also deserve blame for the commodification of Thai food, concerning themselves only with “tasting this or that dish” and on “atmosphere and decor rather than offering any real knowledge concerning the food” (Because NO ONE cares about that stuff! Silly journos. Tell me once again about how the Indians and/or Portuguese inspired coconut milk-based curries).

Because of these shortcuts, Thais DESERVE to lose their mastery of their own cuisine. Because we’re so stupid! Now David Thompson has blown into town and his place is packed and that sucks, because our lives suck and so his should too! But we’ve done this to ourselves, because we bear witness to culinary crimes like this:

“…pizza with a dry version of gaeng kiew waan luk chin pla or with dry tom yum goong. These combinations are a slap in the face to both the Thai and Italian cooking traditions.”

First of all, what’s with all the slaps in the face? Is there no other way for writers here to convey getting insulted? No tug on the ear, perhaps, or maybe a kick in the pants? Get a new rhetorical device!

Secondly, well, I am no fan of crap-topped pizza either. That said, I’m sure someone probably thought tossing spaghetti with pla kem (salted fish) and dried chilies was once a daft idea, too. Now you wouldn’t bat an eye seeing this dish on a menu. And how did Thais take to the first bowl of khao soy, a “fusion” creation of egg noodles and coconut milk said to be invented by cooks in Chiang Mai from a dish originated by the Chin Haw Chinese-Muslim minority group?


Khao soy at Khao Soy Islam


(photo by @SpecialKRB)

I was lucky enough to get the chance to help work on the first English-language cookbook by Thai TV chef McDang (“The Principles of Thai Cookery”, in case you’re interested — it’s very good! Not that I’m biased or anything …) In it, Chef McDang discusses quite clearly how all the different parts of a Thai meal fit together (a minimum of five elements: a clear soup, a curry, a fried dish, a stir-fried dish, and a kreuang jim, or chili dip with vegetables), why Thais use forks and spoons (in order to kluk, or mix the different elements of the meal together to your liking), and how all the ingredients in a Thai dish are supposed to interact. That’s why traditional Thais get all crazy about substitutions like onions for shallots, or adding spring onions instead of coriander leaves.

That said, Thai cuisine is also the beneficiary of a number of foreign influences that have seeped in from interaction with the rest of the world over the course of Thailand’s history. In the Sukhothai period (1238-1438), we were scarfing down fish, fruit and wild boar on rice flavored with peppercorns, cilantro roots and palm sugar. And then, in the Ayutthaya period (1351-1767) the Portuguese came along, and gave us this:


"Golden threads" and "golden drops": traditional Thai sweets that are also Portuguese


They also introduced us to eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and sugarcane; co-introduced us to savory uses for coconut milk; and showed us a crazy new way to flavor our food with these things called “chilies”. They also found a way to form a curry custard by mixing fish and egg and steaming it; the result was called hor mok:


Steamed seafood curry at Aor Thor Kor


(Photo by @SpecialKRB)

And then there were the Chinese. What to say about the Chinese? Without them, Thai food would not be “Thai food”. From them we got: shrimp paste, fish sauce, the use of duck meat in cooking, pans, stir-frying, and frying. Another innovation: an interesting alternative to rice in the form of long, thin strands of rice flour (and sometimes egg-based flour), which can be served in soup, blanched, fried, or even in desserts. They are popular in Thai street food, so keep your eyes peeled for this rare, strange delicacy:


Bamee at Sukhumvit Soi 38


So sometimes fusion isn’t so bad after…..zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzOh, sorry, you’re still here?

Thailand is at a point in its history where its future — like that of the rest of the world — is uncertain. Maybe people are unsure of where they stand and so long to return to a time when things seemed more secure. Food serves as a convenient stage on which to act out this current identity crisis. But that doesn’t mean we should shut out foreign influences, or, for that matter, a foreigner who is doing the exactly same thing as us.



Filed under Asia, bamee, Bangkok, celebrity chefs, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, Japanese, noodles, Portuguese, restaurant, rice, Thai-Chinese, Thailand, TV chefs

27 responses to “Caught in the culture wars

  1. Pls see: twitter/kanitthaifood, twitter/thaistreetfoods
    It’s all about accuracy as much as pos.
    Very Old Recipe claims with evidence or just imagination??!
    In 17th century AD, no printing press in Siam.
    1801-1900 AD = 19th century not 18th century AD.
    I possess what are thought to be oldest original books with Thai recipes.
    So, my problem is that I have the means to check info. Many may not!
    Therefore, some interviewees may not like me because I can check info.
    Dried fish with melon was served (recorded) to thousands of monks during the reign of King Rama I the Great (1782-1809AD).
    Pls ask one of the experts about the 17th century claim in his interview!
    I do appreciate efforts made by Thais and Non-Thais and Farangs …to bring back old recipes but they must be evidence-based (book, author, location, year,page)…the usual citation!
    Please consider my suggestion. E-mail me for full citation. O.K.?

    • Hi Dr. Kanit, nice to hear from you again. I would consider your suggestion but citations seem to take a lot of work! I will have to depend on what other Thais say instead.

      • gautam

        HI BG,

        You make a number of interesting points, but perhaps could revisit some of your assertions:

        1. Solanum melongena, common eggplant: perhaps filtered through from India, which is a primary center of diversity for this nightshade that might have originally been domesticated in Africa, along with a couple of more Solanums that are treasured for their leaves.

        I wonder why some of the West or East African vegetables failed to be transmitted by the Portuguese. BTW, when we study the agriculture fo Moazambique, we see 2 striking things, at least from an Indian perspective: the tapping of Phoenix radiata and relatives to produce brown sugar, just as in Bengal, the same, but done with Phoenix sylvestris, was very very central to the Bengal AND Indian economy, forming a significant part of goods traded to SE Asia, as well as points west.

        The second point is the use of ApUpa, pronounced aapoopa, for flour, in Mozambique. It is a word derived from Sanskrit. There were many points of contact between the Indian and Malesian civilizations with those of Africa

        The Solanum that did arrive with the “Columbian Exchange” was S. torvum, which today in Thailand is called the pea eggplant. We find it also introduced into the arid southern parts of India, especially Tamil Nadu, where it is called vatral, in its cured and sun-dried state

        2. Regarding the palm sugar, the major sugar palm of peninsular India was the Borassus flabellifer, taal, that exists in various ecotypes fromt the Bahr el Ghazal in the Sudan-Libyan right up to the islands of Indonesia, where its sap ios sometimes used as a staple carbohydrate source. Lots of people have had the idea of making “Mountain Dew”or its slightly alcoholic cousin, the major part of the daily diet!! lol

        In Thailand you will see an interesting convergence of 3 cultures in the term naam taan bip. There are significant Thai sugar palms, of which the taal forms just one species. But the taal, is very definite an Indian name for the same tree, Borassus, abundtly native to all of SE Asia,

        Nam, of course is the local term for water or fluid, and “bip” probably is derived from the Portuguese word for BARREL, pipA??

        Without a doubt, nam taan, terminal “l” being nasalized in Thai dialects, as in BhUmibala becoming Phumiphon, existed several millenia before the Portuguese came. YES, millenia, and I have done a lot of research into the sugar palms.

        But barrels and barrel stave construction arrived with the Portuguese. I wonder why “bip” was indissolubly joined to nam taan? Palm sugars in South and Se Asia would have been stored in clay jars.

        However, there was a huge export of brwon sugar from Borassus palms from southern India as well as sugar from the Phoenix palm(s) from the Bengal region, right up to colonial times. The British imported HUGE quantities of Borassus brown sugar from the province of Tamil Nadu.

        Was there a time, I wonder, when the Portuguese also were not involved in the movement of Borassus sugar to south east Asia as a major trade commodity? Hence the transport in barrels, and the identicfication with “bip”?

        • Thank you, Gautam. I learned a lot from your comment! I did not know the Portuguese also brought barrels. And I believe you about the sugar. Lots more research to do.

      • gautam

        If you will forgive a tiny bit of nitpicking. You say, Chiang Mai, Chinese-Muslims and Khao Suay. That line of reasoning is not correct, but perhaps my own is not.

        The Muslims in Chaing Mai have exactly NOT ONE THING TO DO WITH CHINESE MUSLIMS OF ANY STRIPE!

        Thai Muslims still refer to themselves as “pathAns” from where you get Pattani, a source of discontent in the Thai polity.

        Khao Suay was very well known in India, among the Anglo-Indians, as well as in families of those Indians [ like my own] settled in Brahmadesha for generations.

        In the “Burmese” [pardon me for using a colonial term] way of perceiving things. PANTHE ALWAYS WAS ADDED TO KHAO SUAY, to specify it MUSLIM origins, no matter that northern Burma was among the focal points of Muslim settlements in that land.

        All the Anglo-Indian cooks I personally have met, ALL use the term Panthe Khao Suay. “Khao” is rice, derived from an ancient pre-sanskrit term, from a culture that was shared from sotne age central India to the iron age peoples of Thailand as early as 7000 BP. “Dao” is another common word.

        There have been a lot of movement among the people of Brahamdesha, Thailand, and KAmboja, another very, very interesting cultural member of the Indic, vs. the Sinic cultural spheres. Wars, and even peacetime resettlement of large groups from these lands into each other’s territories. I am told Siam Riep [ fish] is not a nice word, because it means Killers of the Siam.

        These curry like foods cooked with a strong dose of ground dry spices like turmeric [ as opposed to the fresh turmeric ;oved in more tropical areas of Asia], coriander, cumin, and more is a strong pointer to the Indian origin of these Muslims, not the Chinese. Other than cumin, Chinese Muslims simply do not cook in these ways.

        Panthe Kaho Suay as I have known it in the India of 1960s-1970 comprises noodles of rice or wheat, served in a separate dish, along with a “curry” made in several different ways, and what is totally different from the Indian style of eating, a large number of toppings, including fried onions/shallots, egg sheets or omelets sliced into ribbons, balichow, a dry shrimp “pickle” very similar to nam prik pao, shredded scallions, and many more.

        You took the noodles in a large bowl, adding the soupy curry, and then, topping the lot with your favored toppings. This is NOT how you would eat ANY Indian food derived from any of the 3000 autogamous groups of India. But it is strikingly similar to common ways of enjoying noodle dishes in much of SE Asia.

        • Apologies for missing this earlier, Gautam.

          • gautam

            Not a problem. I learn a lot from you, about Thai foods! Visited just once for 2 days in March, 1988, but fell deeply in love. Not an uncommon reaction to Thailand, one is let to believe. Had my first taste of “Thai” cooking, shrimp in green curry, off a small lane in the Sukhumvit area where we had been dropped off, from the Airport Hotel, to enjoy dinner.

            Quite an experience, as you might suspect, for someone quite unused to the world at large, and nighttime City of Angels [ celestials, rather, thep= dev, deva!! ] in particular!! Whoa! But the food was amazing, and for the next day and a half, ate only shrimp or chicken in green curry at every meal.

            Hope all is going well with you and your loved ones in these troubled times.

    KANG PHET KAI [Vocal = Kang P’het Kai) = (THAI) CHICKEN CURRY
    2. EDITOR OF 1889/1890 AD Magazine-book with Thai recipe =
    Ninprian/ Nin Prian [Vocal = Nil Prian]
    KANG PHET PLA LAI [Vocal = Kang P’het Pla Lai] 1890AD = (THAI) EEL CURRY.

  3. NB. Reference = Mr. G.B. McFarland’s dictionary- written in 1937 and published in 1944 AD as US edition (Stanford, Stanford University Press).
    PRAWN = GKUNG (Th)

    • Principles of Romanization for Thai Script by Transcription Method. Please note that “RIPRTS” will be the acronym for “Royal Institute: Principles of Romanization for Thai Script” by Transcription Method and “RIRTGST” will be the acronym for “Royal Institute’s Royal Thai General System of Transliteration”.
    • Vajiravudh, H.M. King Rama VI of Siam (Thailand). The Romanisation of Siamese Words. Journal of the Siam Society 1913 AD, volume 9.4: pages 1 – 10.
    • Vajiravudh, H.M. King Rama VI of Siam (Thailand). Notes on the Proposed System for the Transliteration of Siamese Words into Roman Characters. Journal of the Siam Society 1913 AD, volume 10.4: pages 24 – 33.
    • Council of the Siam Society. Proposed System for the Transliteration of Siamese Words into Roman Characters. Journal of the Siam Society 1913 AD, volume 10.4: pages 1 – 23.
    • Thiengburanathum W. (Thailand, 1984 AD). Thai – English Dictionary. Bumrungsan Printing, Bangkok.
    • Charoenporn T, Chotimongkol A, Sornlertlamvanich V (2010 AD / 2553 BE). Automatic Romanization for Thai. Software and Language Engineering Laboratory, NECTEC (National Electronics and Computer Technology Center, Thailand.
    IF “DTOM” IS EITHER PREFERRED OR IS CONSIDERED AS MORE PHONETIC THAN ”TOM”, PLEASE CONFIRM THAT YOU ARE USING “Mr G.B. McFarland’s (1944) System” and please give him the credit by citing his publication !
    The following Thai letters when used as initial consonants will be transliterated as follows:
    • ก = k, ข = kh, ฃ = kh, ค = kh, ฅ = kh, ฆ = kh, ง = ng, จ = ch , ฉ = ch,
    • ช = ch, ซ = s, ฌ = ch, ญ = y, ฎ = d, ฏ = t, ฐ = th, ฑ = th, ฒ = th,
    • ณ = n, ด = d, ต = t, ถ = th, ท = th, ธ = th, น = n, บ = b, ป = p, ผ = ph,
    • ฝ = f, พ = ph, ฟ = f, ภ = ph, ม = m, ย = y, ร = r, ล = l, ว = w, ศ = s,
    • ษ = s, ส = s, ห = h, ฬ = l, อ = not simple transliteration, ฮ = h.

  5. Dear one of The most famous writers on Thai Food,
    Mae Khrua Hua Pa was published after 1900AD.
    We call that “published in the twentieth century AD”
    Not the 19th century AD!
    Rachanupraband/ Rachanuprapun published in the 19th century AD as the first ever(?) Thai cook book nearly two decades before Mae Khrua Hua Pa.
    You can always disagree…I wait for comments…I love your work

  6. Oops!
    Darunee…Satri-Wanglang School!
    I’m sorry I have made atyping error!
    Pls forgive me. I forgive others’ typing errors too!

    Prian-N, Ed. “Pratithinbatr Lae Jod Mai Het”I (Thai language). Bangkok: Bangkok-Prasitkan Ltd, 1889 – 1990 AD (2432 – 2433 BE).
    Prian-N, Ed. “Pratithinbatr Lae Jod Mai Het”II (Thai language). Bangkok: Bangkok-Prasitkan Ltd, 1889 – 1990 AD (2432 – 2433 BE).
    Prian-N, Ed. “Pratithinbatr Lae Jod Mai Het”III (Thai language). Bangkok: Bangkok-Prasitkan Ltd, 1889 – 1990 AD (2432 – 2433 BE).
    Prian-N, Ed. “Pratithinbatr Lae Jod Mai Het”IV (Thai language). Bangkok: Bangkok-Prasitkan Ltd, 1889 – 1990 AD (2432 – 2433 BE).
    Prian-N, Ed. “Pratithinbatr Lae Jod Mai Het”V (Thai language). Bangkok: Bangkok-Prasitkan Ltd, 1889 – 1990 AD (2432 – 2433 BE).
    Prian-N, Ed. “Pratithinbatr Lae Jod Mai Het”VI (Thai language). Bangkok: Bangkok-Prasitkan Ltd, 1889 – 1990 AD (2432 – 2433 BE).
    Rajanupraband S. “Tam Ra A-han” (Thai language), 1890+ AD/ 2430+ BE.
    Rajanupraband S. “Tam Ra Kup Khao” (First Thai Cookbook, Thai language), 1890 AD/ 2433 BE.
    Darunee. Patanukrom Kan Tam Khong Khaow Khong Wan Yang Farang Lae Siam (Thai language). Bangkok: Sri Wanglang School, 2441 BE/ 1898 AD.
    Khun GN is still alive having published in 1999 NOT 1899AD!
    I am sorry if this evidence does not please you!

  8. From French information and more on 17th century foods in Ayutthaya, there existed fish, eel, dried fish, fish sauce, shellfish, crabs, tortoises, squirrels, deer, rhinoceros, chicken (pullets), ducks, hogs, kids, muttons (rare ?), pigeons, peacocks and eggs (of birds, fowls and crocodiles), rice, maize, millet, beans (faveroles?), chilli, ginger, saffron (turmeric mistaken for saffron?), Thai lime leaves, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, onion, bay leaves (local?), pepper (Indian black pepper grown in Siam or Pattani), Thai basil leaves , galangal (kha, Th), lemongrass, onion, garlic, tamarind, ata / noine (custard apple), figs (Indian figs = bananas), citron (lime?), coconut, durian, grapefruit (probably pomelo), guava, longan (lamyai, Th), jackfruit, sapodilla (lamut, Th), Thai lime/ Kaffir Lime (ma krut, Th), mango, orange (also green skinned orange), mangosteen, papaya, pineapple, pomelo (as big as a man’s head), pomegranate, and man-made vermicelli (probably twisted rice noodles). Out of these, several food items had been introduced from other continents i.e. maize (corn), custard apple / ata / noine (noina, Th), guava, sapodilla (lamut, Th), papaya and pineapple.
    AND on the Portuguese…In the 16th century and early half of the 17th century (AD), the Portuguese shipped maize, sweet potato, tomatoes, papaya, guava and custard apples to Siam.
    Pls help me with more evidence…it all helps in data collection

  9. To be fair, I suspect coriander (UK) / cilantro (USA) possibly arrived in Ayutthaya Period but I need more solid evidence and would be grateful if you can provide it. By the way, I can read Thai.

  10. On evolution of several Thai food dishes, I hold some similar and some dissimilar opinions to yours…where is the evidence on…
    Sukhothai period’s black peppercorns and coriander/cilantro roots?
    Ayutthaya period’s hor mok?
    Pls send me evidence in English, French or Portuguese?
    Did you hear this from another source?

    pls see my Gastronomy in Asia III- Thai Food History and Transliterations.

  11. M.L. Saksiri Kridakorn

    Thanks for a very enlightening article.

    This seems to be a non-issue that has been blown way out of proportion by English speaking expats and English newspapers and websites. Evidenced by lack of any news or opinions in Thai newspaper, most Thais are oblivious to the fact that there is even a Nahm restaurant in Bangkok operated by a farang named David Thompson. And contrary to some opinion, Thais are still eating real authentic Thai food everyday. As for variety, I have been seeing and enjoying new and innovative dishes being incorporated into local Thai restaurants on a regular basis ever since I can remember. Who said Thai cuisine was static? Who’s to judge, if not Thais? I don’t see Thais abandoning Thai food in droves for green curry pizza.

    Having waded into this controversy via my earlier opinion published in the Nation on 25/9/2010, it is my contention that most Thais do not object to any Westerners injecting new ideas into the art of Thai Cuisine or embracing it as their cuisine of choice for consumption or as a profession. After all, we do not actively reject reasonable ideas that Westerners have been bringing us for centuries. But instead assimilate them into our unique Thai life style, good or bad. I think most of us welcome anyone who could make a real contribution to Thai cuisine. By raising the awareness of our great cuisine via his London restaurant, Mr. Thompson has already made substantial contribution. This fact alone will get him recognized as a forerunner in Thai cuisine in the western world. More over it helps large Thai food companies in their effort to expand internationally. See This is good for the Thai economy and, hopefully, will lead to a world-wide push to know and better understand Thai culture and history. May be then we won’t have to put up with the “Oh you’re from Taiwan” remarks any more. Just basing this on the fact that I haven’t seen any Taiwanese restaurants in Europe and America lately. Or, for that matter, anywhere except in Taiwan. Coinciding with the opening of his restaurant in Bangkok, Mr. Thompson’s comments on the decaying of Thai cuisine seem to be aimed directly at driving more customers to his restaurant. And seem to be working for his target market.

    In Bangkok, Nahm restaurant does not stands out either in its taste or uniqueness. At 1,500 Bahts per person for a set menu, every Thai I know will steer a clear path from Nahm. It is just another high priced restaurant catering to western tourists and expats in Bangkok. We have plenty of those: Blue Elephant on Sathorn Road and The Face on Sukhumvit 38. I’ve been to both to see what they were all about. The latter can’t even get Thai spelling of its name right on its own website! Check it out. But who’s to know? Certainly not their non-Thai reading customers. No rich-enough-to-afford-it Thai with any brain (or taste) will go there for food. Grilled chicken for 450 Bahts at The Face? No, thanks. I am not putting down any of these high priced restaurants for doing what they do well to cater to their customers. The more the merrier and better for Thai cuisine as a whole. My point is this: We are happy to see another Thai restaurant get all the accolades it can (especially outside Thailand), but it has nothing to do with the revival of Thai cuisine for locals. When Mr. Thompson has made a real non-commercial, non-self-aggrandizing contribution to Thai cuisine, he will be applauded by Thais and we won’t have to argue about it. We have done this for many Westerners. Search for Ercole Manfredi or Jim Thompson (designer) in wikipedia.

    • Thank you for reading! Glad you took the time to add to the comments here. P.S. I am also frequently mistaken for being Taiwanese. It drives me crazy.

      • Jenn

        Great piece.

        And er, I know this is besides the point, but as a Chinese-American whose parents grew up in Taiwan: Taiwan has some of the best Chinese food in the world. Go to New York or California — plenty of Taiwanese restaurants there. Hello, Din Tai Fung? Proudly Made in Taiwan. Sorry, just felt like I needed to stand up for renegade province.

        • Oh, absolutely! And do not in any way mean to sound anti-Taiwanese by bemoaning the fact people are always asking if I am from Taiwan; if anything, envious of fact people actually know Taiwan, but not Thailand.

  12. Jarrett

    You should send this piece to the BKK Post. Suthon’s criticism of Naam and DT’s cooking, whilst refusing to actually visit the restaurant, is both mean-spirited and intellectually dishonest.

    I’d write more but I have faces to slap. Great piece.

    • Agreed, thanks for reading! I think this obsession with DT springs from the same place as the anti-Dan Rivers sentiment of a few months ago; this feeling of being chronically “misunderstood” by The Man, and that The Man cannot possibly understand the complexity of the situation involved when what they see is at odds with how we view ourselves. Thai self-perception is undergoing a shift and it’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

  13. clapclapclapclap.

    i couldn’t help thinking during the thompson controversy how it’s all part of this same (new? old? ancient?) narrow/facist idea of purity that folks are clinging to lately.

    now we’re objecting to fusion and treating our cultural relics as static and petrified and essential markers of our (unchanged) identity. and why is thompson’s revival of old, slow-cooked thai recipes divine retribution? we should be happy and thankful.

    • I agree. Thompson is doing exactly what a handful of Thai-born cooks are doing — reviving old recipes. Yet somehow he gets all the scorn because he’s white. It’s a slippery slope from food to business and making a living for yourself.

      That said, no French person would look kindly on Thomas Keller opening a French restaurant in Paris either. Or a traditional Japanese person on Momofuku’s David Chang opening a branch in Tokyo. But discouraging foreigners from setting up businesses here and hiring Thai people? Very short-sighted.

  14. You had me at dreck. 🙂
    Great article, Chow! Makes me sing “assimilate, try not to hate, papaya grate…” to the tune of INXS’s Mediate.

    I got the link to the Bangkok Post article from your Twitter feed:

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