Americanizing Thai cuisine: Pad Thai and other myths
Thai cuisine is arguably among the world’s hottest and most in-demand cuisines. An equivalent human version of Thai food would be Beyoncé at her Super Bowl performance—someone who can make everyone in the room scream with their sweat dripping and fists pumping in the air. But while you are experiencing euphoric pain from that super spicy drunken noodle, you should realize that most Thai food in America deviates from its origin. Here are three major differences between Thai cuisine in the US and what you’ll find in Thailand.
1. Thai food ≠ Chinese/Korean/Japanese
Many dining services, including Tufts Dining, tend to mix up Asian cuisines with one another. Although I believe that Tufts Dining is one of the best amongst US colleges, I could not help but feel itchy when I saw that shu mai was served at Carmichael’s recent Thai theme night. Yes, shu mai is popular in Thailand as it elsewhere in the world, but it is not Thai food. I do not recall chewing edamame, slicing up scallion pancake, or munching spring rolls at a Thai restaurant back at home. As a commenter on Chow.com elegantly summarizes, “Most Thai restaurants in the US are Chinese with peanuts and chilies.”
2. Avocado Curry, Fried Chicken Pad Thai? Huh?
In Thailand, we do not eat (super oily) Pad Thai with chicken, nor do we have avocado. America loves meat and fat, and practically takes every opportunity to add a hefty amount of meat and greasy love onto the dish. Pad Thai in Thailand is mostly served with fresh and dried shrimp, egg, and fried tofu bits. Moreover, a Thai chef in Thailand would add more vegetables and herbs to the dish. I am not a vegan activist, so I am not saying this is a sin, but it is simply uncommon in Thailand to have Basil Pork without having the plate flooded with fresh basil. But restaurant business is business, and as Pascal from Big Night says, “A guy works all day, he don’t want to look at his plate and ask, ‘What the fuck is this?’ He wants to look at his plate, see a steak and say, ‘I like steak!'” A traditional dish of Basil Pork would likely be greeted with a “WTF” from the typical American.
3. Herbs, herbs, herbs, and other smelly things
Appreciating Thai food is not about putting your masochism to the test by seeing how spicy you can eat. It is about knowing how to enjoy the balance of flavors and scent. I am consistently underwhelmed by the weak olfactory spirit of the Thai food I have had in the States. Traditional Thai herbs are perhaps expensive and hard to find, but herbs like lemongrass, basil, and ingredients like pla laa (Thai pickled fish that would put anchovies to shame) and ka pi (shrimp paste) would perhaps also cause many foreigners to shudder. The rule of thumb is that your breath should smell a little iffy, if not terrible, after you eat Thai food.
Keeping these three points in mind, Americanized Thai food can be delicious just like its beloved Chinese counterpart. Still, being a Thai native, I inevitably feel slightly offended when I see Thai dishes being adapted into a different culture. As a proud foodie from Thailand, I hope that people who are fans of Thai cuisine do not settle with Thai food from an American perspective, but are also willing to discover Thai food and its roots.