Glutton Abroad: Dude, where’s my curry

I believe in karma on a very personal level. When I say that, I mean that the rules of karma don’t apply to everyone — look at Donald Trump, or the expats who populate the Thai Visa forum — but they definitely apply to me. I am always met with an instance in which I criticize someone for something that I end up doing later on. That is hypocrisy, yes, but it is also karma: a lesson for oneself that they are not immune.

I like to think that I am fairly open-minded when it comes to Thai food; I say “fairly” because, in the immortal non-words of Prince, let’s not go crazy, I’m not going to order a green curry pizza anytime soon. But I believe in different expressions in the same vein, that authenticity is an illusion kept alive by gatekeepers, that time and surroundings must be allowed to shape the ways that food evolves. To illustrate this in another way: I have practiced yoga enough to have philosophies and opinions on it, and I firmly believe that there is no such thing as the “right” way to do an pose, since people’s bodies are all different. In other words, Iyengar yoga is the same thing as the Thai traditionalists railing against the passage of time — a joke.

This is why I have frequently and forcefully made fun of a past Thai government initiative to build a Thai food robot that would determine the “authenticity” of Thai dishes made abroad, in a vain attempt to bring people the gospel of “real” Thai food. Economics, different tastes, reality — all of those things are anathema to this aspiration, the culinary equivalent of Don Quixote tilting at windmills. After much derision from the international media, the food robot scheme fell silent, but I still bring it up often, because it is funny, and also, in a way, very Thai.

So imagine the internal struggle when I am seated at a very high-end and critically acclaimed Thai restaurant in the States and order gaeng som (sour curry), one of my favorite Thai dishes ever. And I get this:

This is gaeng som

I hope this video comes out, but if it doesn’t, it’s a type of thick sauce that appears to have been blitzed in a blender with cashew nuts and something that smells suspiciously like tomato paste. It is not gaeng som, or if it is, it is the type of gaeng som that makes me understand why the Thai government wanted a food robot.

In other words, it’s culinary karma.

I am appalled in both the gaeng and the visceral reaction that I myself am feeling, the fear that the people around me think that this is actually Thai food. I cannot believe that a Thai person is in the kitchen. And I realize that I have not heard a mortar and pestle at any time during the preparation of our meal.

Now, I know I’m not considered the greatest expert on Thai food. I have been around long enough to hear food journalists at other tables in overrated bars say that I’m not very good. I have made mistakes — even recently, like a couple of months ago when I went to Kate’s Place and didn’t understand that her mee krob was a specific version of mee krob sot (fresh “mee krob”, where the seasonings are layered on top of the noodles), which I later found on the menu of a restaurant in Kanchanaburi. So tell me if you think this is gaeng som.

But even if it’s a tweaked version, shouldn’t it taste good? I’ve happily eaten jasmine rice ice cream in Chef Ton’s reimagined version of khao chae, and reveled in Chef Saki’s interpretations of traditional Thai desserts. But maybe this is where my limits stretch. To gaeng som.

So here are some dishes I did enjoy, because I hate ending posts on negativity (except for you, gossiping food journalist, you suck).

A not-very-good photo of a vegetarian thali at Chaat House in Seattle
A fresh beef pho in a bowl the size of my head at Turtle Tower in San Francisco
A tricked-out spicy yuzu ramen at Afuri Ramen in Portland

In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to having some Thai food in Thailand next week.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Glutton Abroad: Dude, where’s my curry

  1. Thai Visa forum and green curry pizza in the same piece? The horror, the horror!

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