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How Thai food took over America (2019) (splendidtable.org)
58 points by mortenjorck 41 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 62 comments

One past related thread:

Why There Are So Many Thai Restaurants in America - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17770707 - Aug 2018 (151 comments)

Been sampling plenty of Thai food in California over the past couple of decades.

I have been told by a friend who has been back and forth between California and Thailand that the Thai food in California is better (his Thai wife agrees). Why? Fresher ingredients.

(Don't flame me, please, it's just what I had heard — it made sense to me though.)

You need to watch Netflix's Chef's Table, specifically the episode about Bo Songvisava and her restaurant Bo.lan. It's really interesting. She said that before she started Bo.lan, no Thai people who went out for dinner ate at Thai restaurants because there weren't really any high-quality Thai restaurants. Thai food was considered cheap street food or stuff you made at home. If you go out for dinner, you go to a nice classy western restaurant or something like that. So apparently, she was working at a western restaurant and wanted to learn how to make Thai food, but nobody could teach her because everyone had forgotten how to make it. All the pastes and whatnot were made in factories at the time. She actually had to travel all the way to the UK to learn how to make Thai food in a high-class Thai restaurant (David Thompson's Nahm). Then she eventually made her way back to Thailand and opened up Bo.lan, making everything the traditional way from scratch with natural fresh ingredients.

When you see the episode, it's really astonishing. I never would have considered the idea that a professional chef would not be able to find anyone knowledgable about one's own ethnic cuisine in one own's country and would have to travel around the world to learn about one's own ethnic cuisine. REALLY interesting.

That's because 98% of Thai restaurants in Thailand are not artisanal like Japanese or Italian. Most Thai restaurants there are family style, mass-produced ones. There is no even a formal recipe for a Thai dish. The most popular ones among people are more like taverns than classy restaurants, which are common elsewhere in the world.

The upper class citizens would find Western or Japanese food palatable so the market for really well made Thai food is limited. Because Nahm is owned by a westerner, who really dedicates himself perfecting the traditional Thai recipes (rumors say he went to study the old Thai recipes transcripted on leaf scrolls) is phenomenal. Only the elites of the society would be able to afford to eat there. It was possible for a guy of that profile, but would be really hard for a lay Thai person to have a business like that. To most Thai people, catering to students and the teenagers have proven far more profitable.

These are all good points. But it's still astonishing to me that she could not find someone INSIDE of Thailand who knew or studied the old Thai recipes. I would have figured there would be SOMEONE. Nobody could recommend anybody to her who would have been able to help her. Mind you, I have no idea how big her social and professional network was at the time, only that she went around asking Thai chefs and found nobody.

It's really nobody. That's the sad part. Also, like most Asian cultures, some recipes are kept secret and only passed down in the family, if ever at all. Knowledge like this is a competitive advantage, sometimes even in the same family.

I'm a big fan of David Thompson, but one difference between western food and Thai (and Southeast Asian) food is that western food is more technique based whereas Thai food is more skill based.

A traditional se asian kitchen is a wok and a rice cooker. Most thai dishes use a small number of techniques (curry pastes, deep frying, etc), but there is much skill in what ingredients the cook uses and what proportions. Change a few variables and you have yourself a whole new dish.

Western cooking delights in dishes that are technically unique, for example the dish ravioli refers not to any particular ingredient but to a technique. In this case, recipes are supremely important for preserving dishes.

For Thai food it is hard to reduce the skill and judgement of a cook down to a recipe.

I grew up in SEA and I have dishes that were only shown to me. Not that we still care about secrets or even have any. But that’s what was done so that’s how I learned it. My attempts at writing these down all failed. Never quite right.

I wonder if telling the story of the recipe, both it’s context, your account of learning it be it as it may, and a description of the experience of preparing the dish itself may be more efficient than writing the recipe down as a series of facts? What do you think?

Really fascinating point that I’ll admit I think is very valuable beyond just the realm of cooking.

I wouldn’t say so. I learned these by watching it get made and helping countless times. There’s nothing hard about them. They could be recipes if a more skilled cook was involved.

To be honest it doesn't really strike me as that surprising. It's a facet of cultural imperialism from prosperous nations protruding into the social strata of the less developed. We all want to try this fancy and exotic brick oven pizza because back home everyone's mom knows how to make Pho. "It's not world class, but why would you want that anyway?" is probably a common thought.

Your thought kind of ignores the common case when there may be two classes of food within one society. I once asked a friend to find out from his Japanese coworkers the best place in Tokyo to go to a fancy place for more high end versions of my favorites curry and gyudon. They were a bit baffled, the reason is that these are the "boring" baloney sandwiches everyone makes at home. It is not the focus of chefs who make fancy restaurants.

Speaking of baloney, I was raised on fried baloney sandwiches on Scwables and have never seen those....must be cultural imperialism? Naw. It's not the most compelling example mainly just because US home recipes are dead simple and Pho seems less so. But home food and restaurant suited food are still different.

If you're interested in some of the better Japanese curry and other such b-grade gourmet types, feel free to dm me. That particular type of food has been one of my favourites for some time. Not so much on the high end though.

Bo.lan closed a few months ago due to covid, real shame because it was phenomenal food, used to walk there a couple times a month.

I'm from the US and I'm living in Bangkok right now and I'd say... It depends how much you spend. If you compare "average" Thai food in California and "average" Thai food in Thailand you would be paying 10x more in California.

I can go get a Pad Thai at the shopping mall food court next to me for $1 and it tastes alright but the $12 Pad Thai in the US is likely going to taste better (but not guaranteed).

If I go to a fancy restaurant here and spend $12 on a Pad Thai it's going to be much better than what you get in the US (at that price here you'd likely get a few large prawns and a very generous portion of fresh noodles)

I regularly eat street food here for under $2 that I vastly prefer to any Thai food I had in America (and I had a lot)

There is also just a lot of food that is easy to get here that is hard to find in lots of places in the US. Like soft shell crab - I eat it regularly here and get a generous serving of crab but in the US it's hard to find and it expensive and in very small portions

The Thai food you get in Thailand is very different from what you get in most American Thai restaurants. Think much stronger fish smells and a lot of parts of animals Americans don't eat.

in my experience (going back to ~1998), the best thai food is in thailand, though you can get comparably good thai food in cali (sapp and jitlada in LA!). when i visited thailand, most thai food was sold on the street and out of 'garages', with seating that straddled inside and the sidewalk. sit-down restaurants were relatively rare and mostly catered to westerners and rich asians (the food generally wasn't any better, but it was pricier). ingredients in thailand were super-fresh (especially the veges and fruit), so i can't see how that's a real advantage of american thai food.

The owner and head chef of one of Sydney’s best Thai restaurants told me the same thing.

Same here in South Africa. Thai food tastes better here than in Thailand.

the one thing i've never been able to find in california is a roasted duck in red curry as good as the one i had in bangkok. not sure what the difference is, but the one in bangkok was seriously one of the best thai curries i've ever had and the local versions are just okay, even in restaurants that make other things really well.

Did you mean this https://youtu.be/WrJs0pZtKBU ?

It's a quite effortful dish to make. Ducks here are not easy to find and not fresh, usually frozen. After defrosting, they will have to properly roast it while in Thailand, you can source good roasted ducks from somewhere else. I also suspect that they use canned red curry instead of making it themselves.

If you have some expat Thai friends, they would sometimes make it. Befriend these people! Some good food would drop from time to time.

yes, that one! i even tried making it myself a couple of times (from bottled curry paste) but as you say it's quite an effort and i wasn't really satisfied with the results. i'll have to try making the curry paste from scratch at least once and see how it goes.

Padthai was newly developed in the past century as an internationalized quick dish and to unite people from different cultures: Chinese, Laotian, Indian, etc.

I did hear that the government in early 2000s did try to promote Thai cultures, but I highly doubt it's still being continued as it was ousted in 2006 while many people from the cabinet were branded as evils/enemies.

About the ingredients, that's so true. One notably example is most if not all Thai basil dishes aren't actually cooked with Thai basil leaves; they're cooked with holy basil leaves (in Thai, Thai basil leaves aren't even called basil). Holy basil leaves are in fact considered a rare item to be found in the states as most Asian markets don't carry them. Some Thai restaurants would sell them at a really high price like $8 for what you would buy $1 Thai basil leaves at an Asian market.

As for restaurants, it's kind of a trend, sometimes a social status, for a person to have graduated in a developed country. While studying, they usually work at these Thai restaurants to earn pocket money and also socialize with the local Thai community. I would attribute the growth of Thai restaurants in the US to the fact that these students find it easier to earn much more money than having to work in the field they have studied for their whole life, or to a Thai housewife who finds a business opportunity - the same food they cook in Thailand can be sold for 6+ times more in the US (a papaya salad is sold at around $1 and the companion sticky rice is around 30 cents). Most dishes sold here are also considered easy dishes, meaning can be cooked quickly or without much effort. A larb dish is a quicky, but compare that to layered pandan desert... that takes hours while sold for 50 cents on the street in Bangkok.

A tip from me, if you want cheap authentic Thai food, go to your local Thai temple on the weekend. The cooks usually bring their fresh cooked Thai food as offerings to the monks at lunch time. It's kinda Thai thing. Once the monks take parts of the offerings, the remaining food will be shared. You're expected to donate or participate during the prayer, but after that, we're talking about good Thai buffet here lol. $10 or $15 is already considered a lot for donation. If you're new, just tell you're interested in the rituals. Most of them are friendly and will try to guide you all the way through. You'll likely be fed as they want you to try their home dish.

> in Thai, Thai basil leaves aren't even called basil

In Thai there are completely separate words for different types of basil. There's no word that just means basil, so holy basil and other varieties aren't called basil either.

Yup, Thai basil (โหระพา, ho-ra-pa) is the kind of leaf you add to soups and Isaan salads. Holy basil (กะเพรา, ga-prao) is the kind you get in most stir fries. Lemon basil (แมงลัก, maeng-lak) the seeds are in deserts and and leaves used in some curries and soups but uncommon. Most words that were related in the sense would share the same noun before the adjective, but they look and sound like entire separate herbs.

That being said, from a taxonomic standpoint, Thai basil, lemon basil, and western Sweet Basil are both varieties of Ocimum basilicum, while Holy Basil or tulsi is a separate species Ocimum tenuiflorum

Indeed, I remember reading about the Thai government's cuisine export plan; here's a paper: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237606213_Origin_an...

I remember first encountering Thai food around 1990ish and it seeming pretty exotic then. In the Chicago suburb where I live there are four within the boundaries of the suburb plus another nine in the adjacent suburbs.

When I lived in the near north side of Chicago there were easily a dozen Thai restaurants in the area bounded by the river, North Avenue and Wells Street, all of which had really nice decor, locations that couldn't possibly be cheap and menus at ridiculously low prices. I'm still not convinced that they weren't part of some sort of money laundering operation.

The big thing that I think Thai offers is that it feels light and satisfying and healthy and delicious all at once in a way that other ethnic cuisines generally don't. The Bohemian cuisine that I grew up with was satisfying and delicious but definitely neither light nor healthy.

> Thai offers is that it feels light and satisfying and healthy and delicious

Can agree but after spending some time learning thai dishes, there are a lot that are really not that healthy. There's a lot of sugar in dishes to offset the bitterness of fish sauce and other ingredients. Coconut creams, milk and oil add tons of calories.

One thing I find interesting about the foreign perspective on Thai food is considered quite vegan/vegetarian-friendly in the West, but unless it's the recently-finished Chinese Vegetarian festival (เทศกาลกินเจ), it's a bit difficult to get food for those with that sort of diet. Meat, particularly pork, is the default for everything and asking for a meatless main does not get you extra vegetables or a lower price, just less food. The fish and oyster sauces are easy to forget and are in everything. Heck, you don't get table salt to adjust your dish but fish sauce + birdseye chilies (พริกน้ำปลา).

>Can agree but after spending some time learning thai dishes, there are a lot that are really not that healthy. There's a lot of sugar in dishes to offset the bitterness of fish sauce and other ingredients.

As a Thai, I can confirm this. Not really to offset, but make the dish more flavorful. They sometimes use a lot of palm sugar, but... maybe that's a tad healthier than cane.

A someone who enjoy the cuisine but isn’t deeply steeped in the methods, I would say it aims for balance in individual dishes in a way the some cuisines do not.

There are certainly other culinary traditions that look for balance but they may approach it across a multi course meal, and think of it in different terms. The balance of salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and fattiness in some Thai dishes is quite remarkable though.

> The big thing that I think Thai offers is that it feels light and satisfying and healthy and delicious all at once in a way that other ethnic cuisines generally don't.

To me Thai food has a tendency to be heavy, spicy and sugary. The way you describe Thai food doesn't resonate with me at all. If I didn't know you were referring to Thai food I would have assumed that you were referring to Vietnamese food because that's probably how I would describe that.

Disclaimer: My wife is Thai and sampled plenty of Thai food over the past decade.

> it feels light and satisfying and healthy and delicious all at once in a way that other ethnic cuisines generally don't.

I feel the exact same way for Viet cuisine.

I just spent 5 months in Thailand and I don't know that I have any concept whatsoever what real Thai food is. I was staying close to Nana station and frequently eating at restaurants that I thought were what Thai people eat, not fancy places, and they were super economical.

My Thai teachers were asking me about how sweet it was, and I reported back "not very". They said - ah-ha - as if I confirmed something they were already sure of. They said that entire section of Bangkok is fake Thai food adopted to foreigners. Really Thai food would be much, much sweeter and it is common for foreigners to complain about it. In fact, the way my teachers describe it, it sounds like the goal is almost always to maximize every flavor attribute simultaneously, as bizarre as that sounds. So it would be delicious to a Thai if it were super spicy, sweet, and salty.

> "...sounds like the goal is almost always to maximize every flavor attribute simultaneously, as bizarre as that sounds. So it would be delicious to a Thai if it were super spicy, sweet, and salty."

from what i heard, the goal is to balance these flavors (plus sour, iirc), not maximize them. that's why there's often the 4 spice jar set at each table, to adjust to taste.

About a decade ago I began noticing that Thai restaurants just seemed to be better than other restaurants, especially Indian restaurants.

I grew up in India so I would often try an Indian restaurant -- invariably it would be a white-tablecloth experience, not particularly pricey, have garish color schemes or artwork, be well-reviewed online, and mostly empty. Sometimes there would be a TV on playing a Bollywood dance scene at low or no volume.

Thai restaurants, on the other hand, had a far more pleasing aesthetic (lots of warm wood) with interesting art, did not often have white tablecloths, were similarly priced, didn't have TVs, and were absolutely packed.

I have never in my life had to wait to be seated at an Indian restaurant, and I have often been the only person in the restaurant. It was such a noticeable trend for me that I began wondering how Indian restaurants stay in business. I think they break even through takeout and deliveries.

Also, I think that while people claim to like Indian food, the spice-profile of Indian food is just not as palatable to global tastes as the spice-profile of Thai food.

Also, no one gives a *^&% about whether some food is "authentic" but everyone sure pretends to care. And another thing -- there is no such thing as "the best pizza" or "the best burger" in any city.

The sad part is that many Thai and Chinese restaurants serve a highly Americanized version of their cuisines. Sometimes so Americanized that it has little to do with the original other than the name. For example a Chinese restaurant I went to recently put sugar in all dishes. I asked them about it that and they suggested Kung Pao Chicken if I don’t want sugar. They put sugar in everything else.

When people bring this up it always reminds me of this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fo59LlkTDe4

All the older first gen immigrants are like, it's not all authentic but it's pretty similar and tasty would eat it again. While the later gen kids are acting like its dog food.

It's also hilarious to act like there is one authorative version of a Chinese dish.

China is 1 billion people over a large geographic area that has culturally exchanged for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years; at this point, the same dish can have many regional variations in preparation. The mapo tofu or kung pao chicken you find in its homeland of Chongqing is going to be very different from the versions of the dish served to locals in Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. In that sense, American preparations of the same dish are adjusted to local taste and ingredient availability.

What exactly is hilarious about the concept of authenticity? I don't see the argument

>"Thirty years ago, there was no sushi in the U.K. or the U.S. Then someone introduced it: It was strange, it was wild—oh my God, it's raw fish with vinegary rice and horseradish—give me a break, why would I want to eat that? But people persevered and now there is sushi in every major city in the world. And it's popular too. What if I said sushi was a fraud, that it was never a traditional cuisine in Japan, and this guy called Mr. Sushi invented it? So instead of it being an authentic regional cuisine, no we lied to you, it is an invention. Would that make a difference or not? If it is really delicious, does it matter and should I care if it comes from Japan or California or even if it has no regional origin?"

I think Nathan Myhrvold’s takes on the “authenticity” of food are nice.

I've read that Salmon sushi is a recent thing for the Japanese after Norway marketed their salmon to them.


Yes, it doesn't matter for taste, and I am not saying the authentic version of a dish is inherently "better". But of course it makes a difference, it affects how we perceive Japanese culture.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying non-authentic foods or being inspired to make variations/fusion dishes, but ignoring their origins is very insensitive IMO. I don't see what is so painful about acknowledging authenticity.

Edit: really it boils down to food being a huge part of culture. For example, when you say Pizza Hut is authentic Italian cuisine, you are saying something about Italian culture, and wanting to correct that is a perfectly normal thing to feel. We should not conflate authenticity with quality, but authenticity still matters.

authenticity is a product of time and place. most traditional recipes, if they have ever been standardized, have only done so in the past 100 or so years. what we consider authentic Italian food now would not have been considered as such 2 or 300 years ago, but now we want to gatekeep based on arbitrary lines in the sand.

as an example, a historic cooking show I watch got a fair amount of heat for making his Scottish-descended grandmother's Scottish shortbread recipe, which used rice flour. According to the authenticity experts, this was sacrilege because no true Scottish shortbread is made with rice flour, you use corn flour. And that may very well be true in 2021, but the show managed to pull a 1929 Scottish cookbook that used rice flour in their recipe; it turns out that corn flour is now common because corn flour became extremely cheap due to American corn production, but that is a fairly recent change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnYltDdE8Cw

Sure, so authenticity is a moving target defined by the current members of a culture. I don't think that is enough justification to ignore it entirely. Regardless of how murky the definition is, surely I can say that a margherita pizza is more authentic Italian than a Domino's pie. It's a spectrum, and I am arguing more for the idea of distinguishing between large differences on the scale rather than quibbling about minor ones. I can agree that example is taking things too far without much productive purpose.

I agree to that quote, and, I think Dishes feel "inauthentic" when they taste not good, or considerably worse, like the BBC rice[1]. California rolls, Katsu curry without katsu - can't have issues with great food.

1: https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/uncle-roger-rice-food...

ps: The conversation here brought up a question inside me regarding English tea and tea preparation; never had a cup of English tea better than the shot of best Chinese tea I have had in my life. Shouldn't it be considered inauthentic then?

There is no single ‘authentic’ version of a given dish, just infinite variety and shades of authenticity depending on what you mean by that and your particular experiences.

I agree with most of that (I don't think personal experiences play much of a part; it's more about culture IMO), but I read the comment as suggesting authenticity is meaningless, which is a sentiment I have heard before and very much reject

The fetishization of the authentic is overwrought and is basically just exoticism.

Most traditional recipes, if they were even standardized (and the aforementioned mapo tofu, as an example, is not at all) have only been like that in the last 100-150 years. In fact, I have seen people claim food that actually does come from China/Hong Kong as inauthentic. As an example, honey walnut shrimp is actually a dish from Hong Kong style western cuisine, which lost popularity in its homeland but is still made by the diaspora.

To fetishize the authenticity of food is to reject progress and innovation. Korean or Indian food is no less authentic with the addition of chilis, even though those are not native plants to those regions and were introduced from the New World.

What a coincidence, I was actually thinking of honey walnut shrimp!

If you conflate quality with authenticity I could see how "fetishizing" authenticity is tantamount to rejecting innovation. But I think they are distinct concepts, so I have to disagree. I also wouldn't characterize my stance as fetishization, more that authenticity is also something to appreciate, below more important factors like taste.

Plenty of people conflate “authenticity” with “real”, and the implied antonym is “fake” which has plenty of negative meaning and has certainly been used to that effect. E.g. “real food does not contain MSG.”

Old Chinese people have experienced starvation. Young people have not.

Young people have something to prove, or differentiate themselves. See: hipsters.

White kids would also talk about how bad say, Chiles or Applebee's is, for the same reason.

I think in this case, "something to prove" is the desire to defend their culture

There is a difference between saying 'this is nothing like food in China', vs 'ugh its so bland/greasy/lifeless.'

In the video in question, the young people's complaints were very much the latter.

The old people seemed to more correlate it vs food in their country, but rated the food on its merits.

I used to think this, but then I visited China and the food isn't that different from Chinese food in the US if you are comparing food from the corresponding region of China.

Yes Kung Pao Chicken is very different from Cantonese dishes, but that's because Kung Pao Chicken is from a different part of China.

Why is that “sad”? If people enjoy the food, that’s a good thing right?

I suppose it's "sad" that you can't find the original or traditional dishes if you want. Immigrant Chinese cuisine has a long history of incorporating local ingredients and adjusting flavors preferred by locals. The new creations make me happy to eat. Bangkok has 1-3 American Chinese take-out restaurants with the New York menu for the large expat communities.

nothing sad about this. People grow up being used to different taste tone / palettes depending on local region, so businesses choose to cater to benefit of both customers and the business.

> sad part

Feel free to serve authentic Thai and Chinese cuisine in the west. Surely it will be a successful venture.

Thankfully we don't have that Thai Restaurant mania in East Germany as elsewhere because we do have much better Vietnamese food. There is a large portion of Vietnamese immigrants. Some cities even have proper Cambodian street food, which is even better than Vietnamese.

Most of the Thai restaurants in West Germany are run by Turks, whilst our Dutch restaurants are run by Bulgarians. They were reacting fastest to the trends. Our Vietnamese are running Sushi side businesses for the clueless, but you can always order the original food.

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