I’ve been away from home for a while, and so have been busy the last few days gorging myself on all the stuff I didn’t expect to miss in Thailand but did: grilled chicken smothered in a mountain of fried garlic, searingly hot shredded bamboo shoot salad, steamed seafood custard, perfectly stir-fried pumpkin shoots, even proper sticky rice. But now, of course, I find myself thinking more about what I left behind over there, like gorgeously juicy oysters, breezy beachside walks and appropriately-priced booze. Them’s the breaks I guess.
I learn more about New Zealand every time I visit. Stuff I didn’t notice before, like how meat pies are to Kiwis what hamburgers are to Americans. They are the staple food, ruefully described as junk but irresistible all the same.
I knew about the penchant for bare feet everywhere you go, but not the obsession with fries on a menu, even at Chinese takeaway and American barbecue spots. We all knew about the sheep, but not the inexplicably overwhelming popularity of Jason Derulo. And then there is the — what I see as new — interest in local produce, presented in novel, thought-provoking ways using ingredients like surf clam, seaweed, manuka honey and mutton bird. Of course, I’m talking about Pasture.
Imagine a place where — yes — they make their own bread and butter and the menu changes regularly (standard Brooklyn hipster moves), but also features pairings of “juices” like fermented white asparagus alongside wine and declares its fondness for acidity over sweetness on the menu like a mission statement, or a warning. That is not to say that everything works, because, like in any place that tries something new, there are hits and misses. But it comes across as sincere, instead of as a cynical exercise in justifying an inflated price tag by providing an “experience” that makes the flavor of the food a secondary concern.
The Asian food scene is still something I am unpacking. Malaysian restaurants are abundant, packed, and good, and a whole range of Chinese food from Sichuan to Shanghainese to Cantonese is available. Thai food is different, somehow, and can either be characterized as a casualty of its own global successes (pad thai, sweet green curry) or as an entity that has moved beyond “thing” into the realm of “concept” — big enough to be subject to interpretation like the Mona Lisa, or what George really meant by “Song of Ice and Fire” (I don’t think it’s Jon marries Daenerys and they live happily ever after OK?).
Like any true and patriotic Thai, I was annoyed by terrible Thai food that curdled the spirit of the culture and turned the generosity of cooking into flat-out scams (see: my trip to a NY Thai restaurant). I understood the impulse to create a neutral arbiter, a superhero who could prosecute every culinary crime, like an official food robot. But what the Chinese, and Japanese, and Italians (and everyone else who has achieved worldwide food stardom) understands is that making things the way you think they should be is a pipe dream. Actually, that is probably a hard lesson to learn for everybody, not just food people.
When I worked at a news agency that I will hereby refer to as “Root Canal”, management frequently talked about how “fresh eyes” were needed to see things in our culture that we had grown used to, people like Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan (we can discuss how often “fresh eyes” ended up being white guys later). Through them, we could see new things about ourselves, even if they didn’t know as much as we did about the local nuances.
So why does that go out the window when it comes to food? This is the question I’m still asking after visiting Kiss Kiss , a Northern Thai-leaning restaurant that only just recently opened in Auckland.
The first thing you notice is that it’s super cute. There’s no BS about trying to make this place look “authentic”, or that Thai people have ever really set food inside. The colors are bright-bright, like a Wachowski movie. The cocktail menu is viewed via Viewmaster. The soundtrack veers between cool Western obscure stuff and cool Thai obscure stuff.
The next thing you’ll notice is that it’s packed. New Zealanders love this place. It is full of the sort of young New Zealander you would expect to find in magazines like i-D and Paper. When you talk about it with other people, they will invariably say it is delicious.
I only point these things out because it wasn’t to my taste. I found it sweet and bland, and some dishes were full-on bad ideas, like the “naem” rice salad topped with shredded sai oua and fried sticky rice balls that looked like a way to utilize pesky leftovers. I admit I did not have the guts to order som tum. It wasn’t Thai food that Thai people would eat.
But is that the point? Is it bad if it’s an homage, done by people who loved something enough to be inspired by it, who then tweaked it to their own tastes? Like David McCallum’s “The Edge” versus Dre and Snoop’s “The Next Episode”? And what if people like the new thing better? What about it if I like the remade “Evil Dead” versus the Sam Raimi original, where Bruce Campbell makes too many stupid faces and is useless? (I realize this is horror fan heresy). There is a world different from us, a world where people might actually prefer a cappella versions of songs to the clearly superior originals. Shall we blame them? Or just accept that people have different tastes? And see their “remakes” as tributes to the original? (I realize this is Thai food lover heresy).