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May 1, 2019 1:59 AM   Subscribe

A history of pad Thai: how the stir-fried noodle dish was invented by the Thai government.
posted by smoke (57 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thai nationalism is a weird beast because it's been so consciously developed. Keep in mind Thailand is an amalgamation of the Muslim South that shares more in common Malaysian culture and has a strong secessionist movement, the northern Lanna provinces which also have a secessionist streak that flares up from time to time, and the North Eastern Isaan provinces that culturally share a lot with Laos.

So all sorts of things have been codified from the top down. The thai greeting Sawatdee Kah/Khrup (สวัสดี) was also imposed on the people to create more of a sense of unity. Before that there were regional greetings, many of which would have been similar to Laotian, Khmer, Burmese, Malay or Lanna language derivatives.

As the article mentions, Pad Thai is largely seen as a tourist dish in many areas. It's what people expect to eat. What we think of as "Thai" food is often referred to a royal thai cuisine, again a sort of centrally codified set of dishes that came out of the Bangkok area during unification efforts. Also, the Thai government subsidizes thousands of international restaurants that promote the top down definition of what Thai food is supposed to be.

Keep in mind that Thailand has been averaging a coup like every 4 years since the turn of the 19th-20th century. I think Thailand has experienced more coups than pretty much any existing country. There's always a huge effort to keep a unified face. Also, Thailand, unlike the rest of SE Asia never, had their big populist revolution. This is largely due to the US efforts during the post war years. Thailand was a linchpin of stability in the US strategy. Keep in mind that the previous king (Bhumipol/Rama IX) was born in America and possibly installed by American interests. There was a huge effort to create a cult of personality around him. This royal worship is at odds with the rest of SE Asia where if they kept the royalty at all, relegated them to figurehead status.

So the concept of Thainess is one of the most important parts of a Thai education. It's bashed into kids at all ages. The number of national parades and patriotic holidays is mind numbing. It's hard to get anything done in BKK because there are always loyalist parades being held in all the universities and schools. This tends to fade away as you get further away from BKK and the people stop pretending to care. For example, when the last king died, the country was supposed to be in mourning for 1 year. Everyone was supposed to wear black and be somber. The night of the king's death, I saw people wearing party shirts and drinking thai whisky in Chiang Mai. Nobody really cared as much as they were supposed to. In BKK they kept up the act as it's the center of power. (They also get all infrastructure and mass transportation and fancy malls etc.)

Regarding Pad Thai, as mentioned in the article, it's a form of kway teow which indicates it's a noodle dish probably derived from chinese cuisine. It's reall not that different from other regional variations found in other SE Asian countries. Just look at char kway teow. It's pretty darn similar.

I found that most people tended to eat som tum (ส้มตำ, papaya salad) which is probably Laotian and pad kaprow (Thai basil stirfries) for lunch. Pad Thai was usually relegated to tourist markets. That's not to say that Thais never ate it, but it definitely wasn't an every day food like hainanese chicken rice was.
posted by Telf at 2:35 AM on May 1 [120 favorites]


Didn't get this link in before the editing window closed, but continuing with the concept of authentic Thainess, there are always weird articles in Thai newspapers about schemes to validate the authenticity of Thai food. My favorite was the development of a food tasting robot that purported to declare if a dish was authentic or not. (This one made it to BBC, but the concept of authentic Thainess is something that takes a lot of mental space for the average Bangkok Thai. Less so in the outskirts.)
posted by Telf at 2:44 AM on May 1 [11 favorites]


Previously
posted by prismatic7 at 3:03 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


This article made me feel a little bit bad about how deeply I love pad Thai. Maybe I should develop a more historically authentically Thai obsession instead. But I can't go past ordering pad Thai whenever I see it on the menu, so the solution is to go to restaurants with larger groups of friends so we can order pad Thai and also something else to try and develop a love of instead. (I mean, I do usually order other things too, but the pad Thai is always the best.)
posted by lollusc at 3:27 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


I'm with lollusc.

And I also get it "Thai hot... No, really, a five. Yes, yes I've been here before, I know Thai hot is hotter than American hot." I don't know that it makes it any better or worse morally but my god do I get a literal buzz after a good hot Pad Thai.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:16 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


And yes, yes I [think I] know that the more legit way to season the dish is to diy if/when provided with the varying flakes and sauces but here in my neck of the woods that's not always offered.
posted by RolandOfEld at 4:20 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Also, the Thai government subsidizes thousands of international restaurants that promote the top down definition of what Thai food is supposed to be.

An interesting footnote on the export and commodification of Thai cuisine to boost Thai idenity: in Louisville, the Thai restaurants aren't even owned and staffed by ethnic Thais or Thai nationals: they're run mostly by Karen, a southeast Burmese ethnic minority who, like the Rohingya, have suffered persecution and fled in huge numbers to refugee camps, mostly in Thailand (the Rohingya, on the southwest, mostly flee to Bangladesh).

I'm not sure what that says about the nationalistic exercise of building an identity for Thai food abroad, but I was surprised to learn it.
posted by jackbishop at 5:39 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


It was funny that an article on how the Thai government created pad thai starts with a white dude in a Hong Kong restaurant.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:52 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


And I also get it "Thai hot... No, really, a five. Yes, yes I've been here before, I know Thai hot is hotter than American hot."

I'm not sure if I've told this story on here before. A group of friends went to a Thai restaurant on Capitol Hill in Seattle about 15 years ago. One of the friends loves extremely spicy food. When the waiter asked how many stars he wanted. My friend asked the waiter how many stars is the hottest. I'm not a spice aficionado and have always thought of the star system as a spectrum, usually from one to five. The waiter's response took us all aback when he said that the hottest they had every made a dish was twenty-three stars. We all looked back and forth to each other in confusion and then my friend asked for twenty-one stars. His face red, he said through tears that it was pretty spicy.

None of us have ever figured out what the discrete measurement of a star is, but our best guess over the years is that it was the number of individual peppers put into the dish.
posted by msbrauer at 5:57 AM on May 1 [15 favorites]


lollusc Eh, it's tasty so really it doesn't much matter if its "authentic" (whatever that might mean) or not.

Personally I like the various pad krapow dishes better, but depending on how it's made at that particular restaurant pad Thai is great too.

In fact I find the very lack of authenticity refreshing becuase it encourages everyone to make their own pad Thai. I've been to dozens of Thai restaurants and while the core of the dish is basically the same, all had a different approach to it, some I liked better than others, but the variety is cool.
posted by sotonohito at 6:06 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


The pad Thai at the nearest Thai restaurant to where I live is disappointingly sweet. I ordered it once and since then have stuck to other parts of the menu. When it isn't so sweet, it can be one of my favorite dishes.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:10 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Agreed. Wouldn't lose any sleep over concepts of authenticity. Varies so much from region to region, house to house, grandmother to grandmother. Also, where do you draw the line temporally? Do we just decide that whatever was defined as the platonic ideal of pad thai in 2019 is now the template for all pad thais? What about before chili peppers were introduced from Mesoamerica?

There's a dish called khao pad American (ข้าวผัดอเมริกัน, Stir fried rice, American style.) Apparently it was developed for western palates back during the Vietnam War. It's got raisins and slice hot dogs in it. Is that authentic?

People think they want authentic Thai food until they're eating unrefrigerated squirrel gristle salad made with partially rotted paddy crabs and fermented fish sauce. All of a sudden the gentrified stuff seems pretty appetizing. Eat what you enjoy!
posted by Telf at 6:14 AM on May 1 [24 favorites]


Identity and nationalism are complicated things, and many traditions have shallower roots than we might expect. My go-to example of this: the modern form of the kilt was likely invented by an English Quaker industrialist in the 18th century, and popularised by King George IV and the Highland Society of London, during a long-running fashion for all things Scottish caused by Walter Scott’s romantic epics.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:18 AM on May 1 [12 favorites]


Telf: Thai nationalism is a weird beast because it's been so consciously developed.

I'll add one thing to your very interesting and informative comment: Most nationalisms were consciously developed. Germany wasn't a nation until 1870, so they had to cobble something together from Prussian militarism, Bavarian beer, and Ruhr valley industrialism. In France, French itself was a minority language for most of its history. There is no such place as Britain. Russia was an empire ruled by French-speaking Germans who had to scramble to reinvent themselves as Russian when it became clear that the next big war would require armies full of fired-up nationalists. Think about the conscious effort that has gone into reconstructing Texas as American and Tibet as Chinese.

The classic work on this is Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (which has a lot more examples from the developing world than I do). Nations are born from novels or newspapers that imagine a language group as a nation, or a tight group of students who went to university together. All nations have been consciously constructed. In that way, Thailand is normal.

The Discovery of France, which I linked above, talks about how "French" cuisine was also a conscious construction, a cobbling together of ingredients from various regional cuisines into something which wasn't an authentic reflection of any of them.

But hey - if you're going to construct an identity, doing it with delicious food is probably the best possible way to do it.
posted by clawsoon at 6:36 AM on May 1 [69 favorites]


But in terms of pad Thai, it was kind of promoted for political purposes. And that’s very unusual. It’s the only example that I know of in history

Maybe there's a nuance that I'm not getting but the article makes this claim but it seems a little thin. There are a dozen examples from the top of my head, for better or worse many countries use school lunches to teach the national cuisine and define culture, France's adoption of the potato, the Got Milk? campaign was a product of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the Nazis had their Eintopf, protected geographic designations like France's AOC or Italy's DOC, even freedom fries.

Or what clawsoon said.
posted by peeedro at 6:46 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


We had an absolutely amazing Thai restaurant in the area called Poor Siamese. The owner would operate in one location, retire back to Thailand for a year or two, and then pop up again in another town nearby, rinse and repeat. We followed her around like Homer did the RibWich, until one day she went back to Thailand for good. And in the years since, every time we go out for Thai (red curry for him, and it better not be sweet; Phad Thai or Phad Kee Mao for me) we are always a little disappointed. Maybe it's because Su's cooking at Poor Siamese has set the bar impossibly high, or maybe we have constructed this imagined ideal that we refuse to allow any other restaurant to match. The curry is too sweet, or the noodles are too bland (not insufficiently spicy, just lacking in the medley of flavors that should be there). I dunno, I just really, really miss excellent Phad Thai.
posted by xedrik at 7:04 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


Paging Benedict Anderson.
posted by aspersioncast at 7:07 AM on May 1


I'm just imagining a world where nationalism plays out purely on the plate, restricted to the development of fine recipes and restaurants. Do we really need anything more?

(Seriously, so much nationalist sentiment is built around emotional or economic needs. There's no reason to go beyond the realm of food; it encompasses all of that.)
posted by trig at 7:08 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


ร้อนมากมาก

My go to dish is Kaeng Pa (Jungle Curry), if I can find it on the menu. I've also been pleasantly surprised by the number of restaurants that will make, and the many amusing conversations if you order it in thai including the above "phet mak mak".

On subject there's a wealth of information here I did not know, thank you kindly. I had no idea how much of this stuff was declared for the purposes of unity. Having visited Thailand several times as an atypical tourist I've found the perception of Thai culture markedly different to the actual culture I encountered and this has always intrigued me.
posted by diziet at 7:10 AM on May 1


what's so funny for me, as a malaysian with east coast peninsula ties, which is closest to southern thailand, is that for years, i just literally, genuinely cannot describe a pad thai despite the many references i see in western pop cultural writings. like, i'd ask friends, i get a description, and then i just completely forget. people would tell me it's a mainstay dish in the menus of many restaurants and i'd be super puzzled. anyway, i realised it's because i grew up with malay-thai places, and only in the last year i'm slowly getting the hang of remembering what on earth is pad thai. but this article and discussion are helping!
posted by cendawanita at 7:37 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


Authenticity, in food, is conjured up by what the tastebuds remember. So that's pretty much 5-generations old: what today's grandparents remember their grandparents cooking for them. And by definition, it'll keep evolving with time.

I really enjoyed the Chef's Table episode showcasing Bo Songvisava, the chef behind Michelin-star Bangkok restaurant Bo.Lan. Even she had her start in Thai cuisine learning from David Thompson in London, but since then she's been diving deep into reviving what she considers authentic Thai ingredients, flavours and dishes. She had some caustic things to say about Thai street food, being convenience food made with the lowest-cost ingredients by (mostly) unskilled people who didn't know better. Real Thai food was made in the kitchens at home, but a fast-vanishing practice taken over by jarred curry pastes and instant foods.
posted by hellopanda at 7:37 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Also, the Thai government subsidizes thousands of international restaurants that promote the top down definition of what Thai food is supposed to be.

Previously!
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 7:37 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


and in bangkok i'll end up going to muslim places, which, because it'll be mostly thai muslims from the south, often leaves me in the amusing situation of speaking more kelantanese than i ever do back in KL
posted by cendawanita at 7:39 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I love a good pad thai! Increasingly disappointed with what I find in American restaurants though. I never thought of it as some paragon of national authentic cooking. I mean, it's just fried noodles, every place in Asia has some variant. But the Thai version can be so delicious with lime and fish sauce flavors. The American ones I order lately mostly seem bland, or sweet, or mushy. I had no idea that the specific assortment of ingredients you find on menus was actually standardized and promoted. It's been degraded.

I'm reminded for some reason of Mohinga, the national dish of Burma / Myanmar. Much like pad thai it's basically "all the flavours of the local cuisine cooked together into a rustic dish". But soup, not stir fry, and very fish-forward. It's awfully good. I wonder if it has a similar origin story.

If you're in the States and want to learn more about Thai food you can do worse than the Pok Pok cookbook. It goes much deeper into the culture and the specifics of local cooking than most Americanized cookbooks. There's been a bit of a backlash to Ricker, that he has no claim to authenticity and is just another white guy colonializing. Whatever, the food his restaurant turns out is great. My complaint is the cookbook is just hard to work from; a lot of ingredients that are hard to find in the US with no advice on sourcing or substitution. And lots and lots of hand chopping and labor. Which is all very true to the source cuisine, I'm sure, but I guess I wouldn't mind it simplified a little bit.
posted by Nelson at 7:42 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I used to be a fan of pad Thai back in the day, but the past few times I’ve tried it (at multiple restaurants in different regions of the US), it’s been so sickeningly sweet as to be inedible. I’m not sure if I’ve just had poor luck, or if everyone is making it like this now? The last time I dared order it, it came slathered in what was essentially a bright orange syrup.
posted by Enemy of Joy at 7:43 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


My understanding was that anything you get in a restaurant is constructed just for the tastes of the customers and has nothing to do with what anyone "really " eats. Such that I actually have no idea what people really eat and the world is a mysterious and confusing place to me.
posted by bleep at 7:56 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


^ this maybe sounds kind of sarcastic but it's sincere
posted by bleep at 8:09 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I also am in camp pad Thai, and I also have noticed it's been getting too sweet almost everywhere I go. Maybe some the Thai restaurant association people will read this thread and see that even our American palates are displeased and they'll send out a memo to knock it off? (That sounds weird but I'm vaguely earnestly hopeful?)

But I do manage to order other things. I'm just a huge fan of the pad thai with tofu, extra spicy hot.

I think I had my first Americanized Thai food when I was a kid. There was a tiny little hole in the wall lunch counter in the industrial park neighborhood where my dad had his small business, and it wasn't like most "Royal/American" Thai places I see today. It was much more like a "donuts and cheap American-Chinese food" kind zero-frills blue collar kind of place. It didn't even have any of the ubiquitous Thai style decorations going on you see effectively everywhere.

Most importantly they were crazy cheap and practically healthy compared to the lunch trucks that came through slinging cheeseburgers, sodas and junk food for lunch, or the sub sandwich place, or the cookie cutter SoCal "Charburger" style casual sitdown joint with it's endlessly replicated menu of burgers, fries, gyros, pancakes and omelettes.

They were also super friendly and had a boy roughly my age and my brother's age, so we started hanging out and getting into kid trouble around the industrial park, like dumpster diving for cool shit or riding bikes all over the landscaping and climbing the trees.

They did a pineapple fried rice that was just to die for, and the only noodle dishes I remember getting were more like American Chinese lo mein or chow mein than anything else. I also had my first fresh rolls there and they're significantly responsible for me eating any vegetables at all when hanging out with my dad instead of just cheeseburgers and Zingers.

What we mainly couldn't figure out, back then, was how they offered such gigantic portions for such tiny prices, even when accounting for the affordable cost of rice or noodles. A standard two item to go combo was served in one of those giant, old school styrofoam clamshell containers, and they would just pack that thing full to the brim so that when they closed the lid, it was this solid trapezoidal lozenge of food surrounded by a thin shell of styrofoam. They were so heavy with rice, veggies and meat you could scarcely pick the things up without the styrofoam buckling. You had to leave them in the bag until you'd ate enough weight out of them.

It was like twice the food at half the price of the lunch coaches or local burger joints.

In hindsight, I'm also remembering that there was definitely this feeling like the restaurant was more of a family hobby instead of an urgent mission or business, the way I could feel most businesses were utterly desperate for customers and keeping costs down. Like it was just too friendly and unpolished and may as well have been someone's home kitchen instead of a business.

And knowing what I know now about this diplomacy through food program, it would have been right at the beginning of the era of this program. It raises the honest question if they were subsidized with startup costs or ingredients. Perhaps they simply had too many ingredients through a subsidy? Human nature and subsidized businesses being what they often are, perhaps they needed some gentle chaotic neutral way to bump up their numbers and fudge some math, so they just served huge portions and effectively gave away some food?

So, by extension, perhaps I can blame Thailand for me getting fat and liking really spicy foods? (Kidding, now.)

It's still a mystery and I don't really care beyond curiosity and acknowledging that this diplomacy through food program is actually kind of super genius, and for better and/or worse it's worked. I kind of think every country in the world should dump like half or all of their military budgets into food diplomacy programs and we all go fight it out in Iron Chef's Kitchen Stadium.
posted by loquacious at 8:17 AM on May 1 [7 favorites]


My favorite thing to order at thai restaurants is Drunken Noodles.
posted by I-Write-Essays at 8:23 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Such that I actually have no idea what people really eat and the world is a mysterious and confusing place to me.

I extrapolate. What do you eat at home? Let's say you made a little cold cut sandwich with some lettuce and tomato? What does it look like compared to a deli sandwich? Way more basic and plain, yes?

Home cooking is generally like that the world over. It's more... homely. It's usually just more simple and basic.

My Korean friends growing up ate plain rice out of the rice cooker with pickles and kimchi as a snack or meal - but go to a Korean BBQ place and it's way, way fancier and upscale but the same thing.

Japanese cuisine is similar like this, too. People generally don't make, say, sushi at home, but almost everyone has a rice cooker and will eat things like rice with an egg on it or some basic miso, or soba noodles or something, or may grill something small and basic, like rice balls or small fish.

We do the same thing in the US with our polyglot of adopted foods, whether it's spaghetti and pizza or hotdish or Americanized hardshell tacos or even our cherished BBQ and cheeseburgers.

There are, of course, counter-examples to this. I've found that Mexican food is almost always more complicated and elaborate in a home than in an American restaurant, especially if they're putting on a spread. You find yourself invited to a multigenerational Mexican family home for dinner, you say yes. They're going to feed you till it hurts.
posted by loquacious at 8:36 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


the Nazis had their Eintopf
Once I visited a place near the French border. It was a winery, owned by the same family for generations. The thing was, my ex had a habit of introducing me to every senior German ever as "my wife, the granddaughter of Danish resistance heroes", which was factually correct, but mainly meant to provoke shame and anger. It almost never failed in getting old people to make excuses about WW2. Here, the reaction was slightly different.
I never got the whole story, because in my attempt to deflate the drama, I asked the hostess about the delicious food. She explained that this was regional cuisine, and that the Nazis had tried to ban it, because it was evidence of the fluidity of the French-German border. She said that during the Nazi regime, they were scared of cooking and serving the family recipes because there was a real risk of getting reported by a visitor or servant, and the head of the family or his wife or both could go to prison. Instead, the Nazis handed out cookbooks which in her opinion were identical to today's Dr. Oetker cookbooks (the German version) with their bland, meat and potatoes style cooking which still overwhelmingly seems to be the basic principle of German cooking. She indicated that Dr. Oetker (the company) had been involved of this creation of the Nazi German cuisine, but I've never found any evidence. I guess the bottom line was that this family were not Nazis because food and drink were their livelihood.
I did bond with my father-in-law, who was absolutely guilty of being a very young and ignorant man recruited by the Wehrmacht, over cooking: his mother had been cook at a big estate in the East, and again, her cooking was more like mine than like what "traditional" German cooking was in the 1980's.

Also, when export of bacon and butter to the UK began in Denmark in the late 19th century, the government began a program that ran for generations, trying to get Danes to eat less bacon and butter. So the general population got the cheap leftovers of the hog + margarine. It's interesting that the last time we had a Social Democratic government, they pronounced fried pork belly to be the national food. After a stupid "democratic" proces in which only hard right racists participated. Why do some liberals insist on shooting themselves in both their feet?

In Portugal, in the age of the great explorers, land-living Portuguese were encouraged to let the seafarers have all the meat and fish that could be preserved, and were stuck with entrails and sardines (this was before canning).

Food and nationalism are closely intertwined.
posted by mumimor at 8:38 AM on May 1 [16 favorites]


I just realized that my new-ish job is around the corner from a Thai restaurant that I previously never got over to enough. I know what lunch is going to be today!
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 8:42 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Thai restaurants didn't come to my parts of Canada until, I think, at least the mid-nineties so my first experience with Thai food was when I travelled to Thailand. Years after that I encountered my first Thai places in Toronto where I was kind of surprised how different the food was to what I had had in Thailand. I was particularly surprised by the amount of ketchup in the Pad Thai for instance. But as I got more familiar with these places, I recognised that they were actually more "Viet-Thai", that is Thai places run by Vietnamese (and Laotians and Cambodians), presenting their related cuisines mixed in with the Thai mainstays. And also the Indo-Chinese places which would mix in their versions of Thai food with their Hakka classics. My favourite Thai food crossover experience I related last time we talked about Thai food - it was the funny food stall at a Pow Wow I attended which had a First Nations guy making bannock, Navajo tacos & fries and a Thai woman making a variation of Pad Thai (which was more chow mein then Pad Thai).
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:50 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


But the Thai version can be so delicious with lime and fish sauce flavors.

Yes! This is what I love so much about southeast Asian cuisine, it's that specific combination. It's perfect and I love it. The more saucy versions of pad Thai lose the acidity of the lime and the umami of the fish sauce.

I've noticed a lot of places offer something they call "Thai basil" fried rice or noodles that is less heavy on the sweet sauce that coats a lot of pad Thai but otherwise seems to have most of the same components.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:09 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I too think there's nothing wrong with liking pad Thai just because it's not "authentic" or whatever. My problem with it is just that it's hard to find a place where it's not super-sweet or so greasy as to be horribly gloppy. But as an introduction to a whole different flavor profile (lime + umami on noodles?!?!?) for a Western palate such as a girl who grew up in the Midwest primarily on meatloaf, spaghetti-with-Ragu, and shredded-government-cheese-nuked-in-a-tortilla might have, it works pretty well.
posted by praemunire at 9:34 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]


(Also, some of the Pok Pok recipes can be a bit intimidating; Nancie McDermott's Real Thai may be more accessible, and holds up surprisingly well for a book written a couple decades ago.
posted by praemunire at 9:38 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


The way-too-sweet pad Thai and som tam is even a thing in Thailand, especially in the more touristy places. I don't know if they think that's how farang like it or the taste is optimized for 20 year old backpackers, but you don't go to Khaosan Road for authentic Thai food. "Mai wan" or "wan nid noi" (less sweet) is common in the Thai for Tourist phrasebooks.

For the fish sauce lovers, ask your Thai restaurant if they have pla ra. it's much funkier than the nam pla used in western restaurant Thai cooking. Or just ask if they can do Isaan style which will have more heat, less sugar, and funkier fish sauce.

I recognised that they were actually more "Viet-Thai", that is Thai places run by Vietnamese

I used to work a few doors down from a Greek restaurant run by a Turkish family. It was Turkish food with Greek names and kitschy Greek decor, they told me it was a "Greek" restaurant because who in America knows what Turkish cuisine is? I imagined they died a little inside when they made that decision.
posted by peeedro at 9:51 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


pad thai with tofu, extra spicy hot.

Anything else is not pad thai. Seriously, tofu is at it's best in good pad thai.
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:58 AM on May 1 [4 favorites]


From TFA: “It’s not really what people are eating, but it’s what gets written down and codified, so that people symbolically think of fish and chips as being an English dish."

Teehee.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:13 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


they told me it was a "Greek" restaurant because who in America knows what Turkish cuisine is?

Eastern Mediterranean food is spread across a lot of countries. Bulgarian food is like Turkish food is like Greek food is like Lebanese food is like Israeli food is like Egyptian food to a remarkable degree.
posted by Bee'sWing at 1:23 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


In part because of the Ottoman Empire
posted by XMLicious at 1:34 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


Hmm I wonder if there any English-language cookbooks on Thai cuisine that are considered authoritative. In my limited cooking experience, language barrier is a big issue, for example with Chinese or Japanese cuisine there's lots of high-quality foreign-language books, such as all those pro-level sushi textbooks with gorgeous photography, but I can barely read them, so I can't really use them for research purposes as it would be too painstaking to translate (although Google translate is somewhat of a game changer). The other issue being an Asian American is the ingredient sourcing, it's can be hard to get the same selection of local ingredients called for in the recipes anyways.
posted by polymodus at 2:15 PM on May 1


Fighting over the "ownership" of imperial Ottoman cuisine is pretty funny, but the thing I find funniest is the fight over the national origins of hoummus, a dish that is literally millennia old. Maybe the version with tahina is more recent, but guys: you think nobody was mixing their dips together back in the day?
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:23 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I found that most people tended to eat som tum (ส้มตำ, papaya salad) which is probably Laotian and pad kaprow (Thai basil stirfries) for lunch.

In Khon Kaen (in the heart of Issan), where I lived for a summer, it was som tom (Issan-style, super hot and funky with fermented fish), sticky rice, and barbecued meat or jerky. Or a Thai omelette over rice. Or Chinese-style noodle soups with fish balls. This was in a university area, so that may have been the cheap student food.

I was very fortunate that summer to get to visit lots of villages and the meals we ate there were a lot of soups and things like that which I could probably never again identify, served with sticky rice, and maybe a whole fish or chicken and/or an omelette, depending on where we were. There was almost always a soup with congealed blood cubes. The food was universally delicious (except for the blood cubes, sorry), painfully spicy, and completely impossible for us Americans to ever hope to replicate.

I went back to the US and was content to go back to American-style Thai food, because at the time there weren't any restaurants serving Issan-style food. Now Issan restaurants have become more popular, but they don't tend to have the wild variety or unique flavors I found in Issan itself.

I'm glad to find other people have found Pad Thai quality declining lately. It's really hard to find good Pad Thai here in Seattle, despite our wealth of Thai restaurants. It's all very ketchup-y.

in Louisville, the Thai restaurants aren't even owned and staffed by ethnic Thais or Thai nationals: they're run mostly by Karen, a southeast Burmese ethnic minority

In MN, most of the Thai restaurants are run by Hmong families.
posted by lunasol at 2:37 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


The food was universally delicious .. painfully spicy, and completely impossible for us Americans to ever hope to replicate.
"I came close to madness trying to find it here in the States but they just can't get the spices right."
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:59 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure if I've told this story on here before. A group of friends went to a Thai restaurant on Capitol Hill in Seattle about 15 years ago. One of the friends loves extremely spicy food. When the waiter asked how many stars he wanted. My friend asked the waiter how many stars is the hottest. I'm not a spice aficionado and have always thought of the star system as a spectrum, usually from one to five. The waiter's response took us all aback when he said that the hottest they had every made a dish was twenty-three stars. We all looked back and forth to each other in confusion and then my friend asked for twenty-one stars. His face red, he said through tears that it was pretty spicy.

Me and some friends used to order from a place that would (we discovered) accept an arbitrary number of "extra"'s qualifying how spicy you wanted something. So we would get extra spicy, extra extra spicy, like that, which would burn going down but be basically pleasant.

Once, though, I went way overboard and ordered pad thai with, I don't remember the number, at least four "extra"'s before the "spicy" and maybe more like eight or a dozen. And, again, it hurt going down, I had to overcome a certain amount of physical aversion eating it, but I did, and it was pretty good.

But, walking home later that night, maybe 1:30, suddenly I was just overcome by sharp pain in my abdomen. I was doubled over, I felt weak, it was difficult to stand up. I didn't feel nauseous, and the food was too far down the pipes to throw it up, but I felt very strongly that I would be better off if I could.

The feeling passed after a few seconds I think but it was pretty scary.
posted by grobstein at 3:41 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


I regularly order two to three stars above an advertised maximum. I definitely like it reeeeally spicy but I am not sure I'm down with 20 star hot at a place that goes 0-5 or so. They already look at me like I'm crazy when I ask for a 6 or 7 out of 4, and it's already spicy enough it's basically pepper-spraying the whole kitchen when it hits the wok.

And after a certain level of spice I have unfortunately discovered that apparently my butthole can taste capsaicin and it is not even slightly ok. So I try not to do that.
posted by loquacious at 4:56 PM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Interesting. I was a bit disappointed when the article said how simple it is to make good pad Thai and ... no recipe. Did I miss it somehow? I’d love to be able to make reliable pad Thai at home.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:21 PM on May 1




My favorite pad Thai-making instructions are on Leela Punyaratabandhu's blog She Simmers. She splits it up into five parts: pan, noodles, notable ingredients and garnishes, sauce, and finally, the recipe itself.

Punyaratabandhu's blog and her two books are my favorite source of Thai recipes -- she's thorough, opinionated, and very funny.
posted by neroli at 1:40 PM on May 2 [4 favorites]


I wonder if there any English-language cookbooks on Thai cuisine that are considered authoritative.

David Thompson's Thai Food is as good a place to start as any. It can be a bit intimidating if you feel that you have to follow all of his rules (making your own coconut milk for example), but he put so much research into the book (which is just part of his long term devotion to Thai cuisine) that it's hard to beat as a scholarly source if nothing else.

He also wrote a book on Thai Street Food which was made into a TV series. In Episode Five I think it was he interviews a local expert who gives her account of the history of Pad Thai.

His Pad Thai recipe is here.
posted by GeckoDundee at 2:20 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


People think they want authentic Thai food until they're eating unrefrigerated squirrel gristle salad made with partially rotted paddy crabs and fermented fish sauce. All of a sudden the gentrified stuff seems pretty appetizing. Eat what you enjoy!

This statement is pretty racist. What's wrong with fermented fish sauce? What's wrong with partially rotted things (it's called fermentation)? What's wrong with gristle?

It plays into stereotypes about asian food being somehow disgusting or alien. Any food can be described this way:

"People think they want authentic American food until they're eating bloody half-cooked ground-up cow gristle with solidified fermented cow milk and unrefrigerated egg sauce." (A beef burger with cheese and mayo, btw)
posted by suedehead at 3:02 PM on May 7 [7 favorites]


unrefrigerated egg sauce... mayo

To be fair, that's exactly how I think about the disgusting substance that is mayonnaise.
posted by clawsoon at 11:53 AM on May 8


also relevant: I Took On the American Cheeseburger, and It Defeated Me

For the uninitiated, a cheeseburger is a full meal arranged in a stack. To eat one, you must cup it with both hands because there’s nothing holding its many parts together. Between two round slices of bread, there are raw vegetables (which I quickly picked out — who eats uncooked veggies?), a thin patty of cooked, ground cow, and a thick, pungent orange sauce that smells like a dumpster on a hot summer day.

Cheese is an American delicacy made from milk that has gone bad. Long ago, when the cows made too much milk and it stored improperly, the frugal American people found a way to make a solid using the spoiled milk, so they could eat it instead of waste it. Despite the fact that cheese is literally rotten food, it is a surprisingly popular snack and condiment. Poor people even add shaved pieces to their noodles for flavor, but to be quite honest, the best thing you can do with cheese is to chuck it in the bin where it belongs.
posted by suedehead at 9:49 PM on May 8 [5 favorites]


also relevant: I Took On the American Cheeseburger, and It Defeated Me

This was literally how my first experience of a cheeseburger was, no joke. Though I was well acquainted with cheese and knew that the orange stuff wasn't it. I liked the fries, though.
posted by mumimor at 11:31 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]


The quoted bit in that article that really leaned on how 'disgusting' soft-boiled eggs and black southeast asian are did also predictably went around Singaporean/Malaysian internet to great outrage.
posted by cendawanita at 1:32 AM on May 9


I don't know about authoritative, but Pailin Chongchitnant's youtube channel Pai's Kitchen/Hot Thai Kitchen and her cookbook are really good, with a focus on how the flavors are built. She's based out of Canada so she provides guidance on finding the supplies (or substitutes) that might be harder to access in North America.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:56 AM on May 9


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