Thai food rant

The remnants of a "gra moo" (pork crackling stir-fried with herbs)

Scraping the plate clean: the remnants of a “gra moo” (pork crackling stir-fried with herbs)

Whenever a group of people talk about the nature of Thai food, talk inevitably alights on how Thai food is “spicy” and “wild” and whatever other adjective suggests something is “too much” for foreigners. I don’t have to tell you that this drives me up the freaking wall, but I’m going to do it anyway — and tell you twice, and maybe three times. This drives me up the wall. Almost as much as when someone eats rice and curry with a fork or chopsticks (how do you keep the sauce on the rice? Drive me up the wall x2), or when someone orders something like stir-fried morning glory or thom kha gai (coconut lemongrass chicken soup), and then proceeds to bogart the entire thing themselves (it’s meant for the entire table. Drive me up the wall x3).

But one rant at a time. The origins of the myth that Thai food is too challenging for Western palates are murky, but believing in it is still considered as Thai as, well, cherishing the right to take to the streets in protest: equivalent to the French fondness for going on strike. Thai food — much like the Thai political situation itself — is too difficult, too complicated and nuanced for foreigners to understand. And, let’s face it, it’s just too spicy. Hence the need for a gatekeeper to explain it to them, to tame those culinary zigs and zags that Thais take for granted, to turn them to those neutered bowls of green curry and plates of pad Thai, things that are tailored to welcome foreigners to the bosom of Thai food instead of pushing them away. Because ultimately, Thai food — as deemed by Thais themselves — is too strange, and too “other”.

Hence the creation of parallel menus in Thai restaurants abroad, and, in essence, an entire parallel cuisine. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone to a Thai restaurant in, say, Ardmore, and had a menu taken away from me by a Thai waiter, proclaiming it “not what I’m used to”, followed by a promise that they will get me something cooked for the staff. Another gatekeeper: this time in the reverse direction. But why the need for guarding Thai food like a bouncer at a nightclub in the Meatpacking District? I used to think it was a form of self-hatred, that the feeling that Thai food was too “weird” was akin to masking one’s own quirks in order to keep from scaring off a blind date. But now I think it’s something else. Real Thai food is ours, and you can’t have it. It’s too complicated and challenging because we are special snowflakes incapable of being really understood by a bunch of outsiders (aka dumbasses). To be honest, I cannot really count myself among those special snowflakes, because I have been tainted by my long stay in the West. Maybe I am being paid off by an Isaan som tum purveyor.

So the next time someone says Thai food is too “spicy” or “difficult” for foreigners, I want to ask them why the diner can’t make the decision for himself or herself? I feel like Thai food is so wide-ranging, with so many great regional variations of incredible complexity, that it’s a shame it’s being parceled up into these foreigner-friendly packages when it doesn’t need to be. I certainly haven’t had the experience of a Brazilian dissuading me from trying acaraje or a Japanese person telling me to avoid natto because it’s grody to the max. In fact, they are quite happy to let me shove fish sperm or fermented squid guts down my throat without any warning whatsoever (maybe this is just the kind of crowd I am running with). Maybe Thais — many of whom are grossed out by pla rah (fermented Thai anchovy) and sometimes even eschew fish sauce (my husband) — could cede culinary control in a similar way. It could win Thai food — a cuisine that is indeed nuanced, and varying, and detail-oriented, and special — even more fans than it already has.


Filed under Asia, Bangkok, food, Thailand

13 responses to “Thai food rant

  1. Pingback: Exploring Thailand’s Street Food Beyond Bangkok

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  3. Hey Chow!
    I completely agree with this parallel Thai cuisine that’s being served abroad. It’s such a shame. That’s why I love coming to Thailand and try to eat as much as I can to better understand your lovely cuisine (on that note, thanks again for taking me to Soi 38 and introducing me to Pierre’s favourite soup noodle stall – a real treat).
    However, there’s a little gem here in London that serves very authentic Isaan food – it’s called The Heron in Edgware Road. No green curry or pad thai on the menu here. Instead you find a huge variety of som tams, kao nam tod, yellow curry and lots of interesting regional dishes – all extremely spicy and authentic. The place is hidden in the dingy basement of a dodgy pub in West London. It’s always full of Thai people and Londoners who love to eat ‘real Thai food’. They play Thai karaoke on a few TV screens, and it’s really all about the food. I love going and I always tell whoever I take that they’re in for a real treat! If you ever come to London I’ll take you there!
    Also, I’m really trying to come back to Bangkok again at the end of the year, if I do I’ll let you know and we can hopefully meet up again!
    All the best,

    • Hi Anne! It’s great to hear from you. I have heard of The Heron and am excited to try it!
      By the way, thank you for recommending Chili Paste Tours. I got in touch with Khun Chin and she is taking me out this Friday!
      Looking forward to your next visit!

  4. Brian

    You know, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying here and certainly respect your opinion, but to be fair…

    “… or when someone orders something like stir-fried morning glory or thom kha gai (coconut lemongrass chicken soup), and then proceeds to bogart the entire thing themselves (it’s meant for the entire table. Drive me up the wall x3).”

    This mindset actually drives *me* up the wall. You know, I’m all for eating like the locals, of course, but there’s a reason why Hepatitis A is a major problem in many Asian cultures — it’s largely the “let’s all eat from the same plate” approach to dining out. Sorry, but I’m not into swapping spit with friends, or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends just because “it’s meant for the table.” And I’m fairly certain you’d agree that the concept of a serving spoon isn’t exactly common in Thailand.

    If you’re Thai, go for it, but to say that the decision not to go communal with the food drives you up the wall is a little ridiculous. I get it and know it: some (many) dishes are meant to be shared. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a reason why some of us aren’t exactly into eating from the same plate. This kind of goes back to the old “if your friends are jumping off a bridge” cliche…

    Just my two cents.

    • Hi Brian,

      Actually, I don’t agree that serving spoons are uncommon in Thailand. A “chawn glang” (central spoon) is considered good manners. You have to ask for one in some places, however.

  5. Anoop

    Well I guess you have your answer when you realise Brazilian food isnt as popular as Thai, nor is Japanese (outside of the sushi-tempura-ramen trifecta). Most people just arent willing to take a chance on stuff they dont understand, and the market moves to supply to these people. A huge pity really – the delight of the unknown is such a huge part of sampling new things….

    … Except natto. And surstromming. Im not going near those things.

  6. Gautam

    Since we are on rants and Thai foods, I have a tiny one myself. Not directly connected to the BG’s theme, but nonetheless relevant to the authenticity of Thai cooking. It involves Thai fishes and the limited numbers of species that are exhibited to the world as exemplars of Thai fish cooking. To wit, food writers and bloggers generally have held up the snakehead family of fishes, the Wallago attu [much less often], Pangasius, and various other members of the greater catfish clan, besides shellfish, as favored representatives of Thai freshwater/estuarine fish. Surely there are many more species of fish eaten, as in other South and SE Asian countries, fish with bones, and little fish also with bones, none of which conform tot he comfort zones of people eating with fork and spoon? Amblyphyrgodon mola, Chela, Scatophagus, Glossogobius, Puntius, many carps large and small, ditto mullets, and so many others.

    This is not a measure of my petulance. In Bangladesh, more than 166 species of fish were commonly consumed in my formative years. I hear that owing to land use changes, cropping patterns etc. and the introduction of fish farming, only 5-6 species of exotic fish, like Oreochromis/Tilapia, Vietnamese Pangasius, Chinese synthetic hybrids of carp, red PIRANHA and African catfish [a devastating predator, both imported from Thailand] are available as fresh water fish. The effect of Piranha and African catfish [ a pack forming predator with vast literature on its breeding and negative behavior] introduced into fresh water ecosystems like Bangladesh’s can be left to your imagination.

    I have a sincere need to understand the situation of fresh water fisheries in Thailand today, because what little I can see from glimpses into canals etc. is not encouraging. Where are the native fishes of Thailand? I know waht they are, but where have they gone? Are they being eaten? Are they being missed? Or, do people just don’t care, so long as they have snakeheads and catfish to eat, along with pelagic species like mackerel, bombil, barramundi, tenualosa ilisha and others, to furnish their seafood needs?

    Obviously, tourists and those entering the world of an exotic cuisine thrive on whatever food writers tell them is good to eat. Hence, if food writers delve into the issues involved in this rapid disappearance of fish species from South& SE Asian tables, greater awareness of this might begin to seep into the ranks of the food-loving public worldwide, who today are attuned into Asian food. Already, they are beginning to acknowledge the issues associated with Asian demands on reef ecosystems for large groupers, for tuna and other seafood.

    There are no definitive answers as such, and I have no positions whatsoever. What I do find interesting is telling a story and allowing people to extract whatever they wish from it. Since you tell stories so well, perhaps some day you might find the time and interest to look into the subject of the freshwater fishes of Thailand.How many were eaten, how many are still commonly available, how prices have changed and where have the rest gone? Thanks.

    Thank you.

  7. Anney

    Whoo hoo dear Chow …. the very same sentiments that have lead me to consider becoming the Australian Thai food evangelist … no I exclaim – Thais do not eat ‘entrees’ (Australian menu speak for starters) … it’s really ‘food outside the meal’ i.e snack food …. fish cakes, spring rolls … it drives us nuts too … and menu after menu is offering a range of proteins with red curry, green curry, massaman … even a penang if you are lucky. And while there are the occasional larbs the wonderfulness of a Thai salad is hardly ever experienced outside the kingdom.

    When we come to Thailand we love to wallow in the amazingness of Thai food – not in any way weird/strange/something to be mollycoddled through …. alas the rest of the world has no great idea of the wonderfulness of Thai cuisine. BTW – we had dinner the other night with a renowned local food blogger who is married to a lovely Thai lady … and he knows of you! He worked his way through your visiting the places in your first book…. I told him that there is/will be a second! Lotsa best for you and yours … I had not appreciated the ‘reverse discrimination’ aspect for Thai diners in non Thai Thai restaurants … alas … hopefully sometimes it results in a better outcome for you foodwise – but I can’t see what will ever change in the short/medium term for the rest of us!

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