Food History

A foreigner has had the audacity to open a Thai restaurant in Bangkok! Sacré bleu (or the Thai equivalent)!! Even worse, he’s claimed in a newspaper interview that Thai cuisine is “decaying” and that he wanted to “revive it”!!!

Who is this upstart? It’s Australian David Thompson, owner of the world’s first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant (Nahm) (there are only two) and author of what is possibly the best book on Thai food ever written.

Of course, he’s right. In the past, Thai cooks would spend hours pounding away with pestle and mortar to make exquisite, complex curry pastes. Many restaurant chefs nowadays wouldn’t know what to do with a pestle and mortar – they buy their curry pastes in tins and add food colouring to make the resulting dishes appetising. And rather than frying the pastes in cracked coconut cream, they use oil – a less demanding and faster technique.

And new dishes are taking over from the traditional. Som tam (green papaya salad) has evolved from the sour, chilli-laden dish of Isaan into a tamed down version for the sensitive Bangkok palate, with copious amounts of palm sugar and just a few chillis. But now it is being made with carrot and cucumber, in fact almost anything that can be cut into shreds. There are even places making it with strawberries, melon and pineapple.

Laap (a fiercely hot salad of barely cooked minced meat and ground toasted rice) is now rolled into balls and deep fried. Tom yam gung (hot/sour prawn soup) can now be ordered mixed with evaporated milk or “dry”. It’s also a popular flavour of crisp. Green curry can now be had as fried rice. Traditional noodles have been displaced by spaghetti and macaroni. And salmon is now available in every supermarket, ready to be made into salad, curry or soup.

So, what is authentic Thai cuisine? The short answer is that nobody knows. The written record is very short. Any records that may have existed at the end of the Ayutthaya period were destroyed or have become lost. The oldest recipes date back only to the end of the 19th century in the form of “funeral books” when the printing press arrived in Thailand. When someone prominent died it was common to collate their favourite recipes alongside a biography of the deceased and religious texts in the form of a book. This book was then distributed to the mourners at the funeral ceremony. These books a valuable resource for food historians. The fact, however, is that the history we have is brief and only relates the the food of high status individuals. We can only speculate as to when certain dishes arrived in Thailand or were created, and we have little idea what the ordinary people ate.

When I see frankfurters slowly turning on a grill in 7-eleven (convenience store), and the steamed buns which sit there for hours, and the plastic wrappers in the chiller cabinets containing equally plastic processed meats I despair. Does Thailand have a pride in its cuisine? Of course it does. But does it really do enough to support and maintain its culinary heritage? Perhaps a wake-up call from an Aussie upstart is just what’s needed.

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