Testing Thainess

Sarah Burke/Staff

When I decided to study abroad in Bangkok for six months, elephants and island-hopping were part of the plan, but eating was the main objective. I had been eating at Thai restaurants since I was a little girl, and I was ready to make the journey over to the homeland for the real, authentic stuff. I arrived with little knowledge of Thailand’s cultural conventions beyond its cuisine, but I felt OK with that. I quickly realized, however, that everything I thought I knew about Thai cooking was merely a Western fallacy.

Pad thai. Green curry. Cashew chicken. Everyone, at least here on the West Coast, seems to have a favorite Thai dish. When people order Thai food, they usually do so confidently, without having to sheepishly mumble the name, point to the menu or ask for recommendations from the server.

This isn’t always the case with ethnic cuisine. Flash back to me at an Ethiopian restaurant trying to tell the difference between “wot,” “kitfo” and “tibs.” This is partially because I am just more familiar with Thai food than with Ethiopian food because I have eaten it more times and there are more Thai restaurants than Ethiopian ones. But why is that? Most people would probably say that it’s because Thai food is so delicious. That undeniably has something to do with it, but as you might have guessed, there are more variables to the equation.

In the Thai cuisine class I took at my university in Bangkok, I learned that studies on the Western experience of ethnic dining have shown that diners seek authenticity but are most likely to return if they feel familiar and comfortable. They hate it when they can’t pronounce menu items or don’t know what to order. In other words, they want their experience to feel authentic … as long as it doesn’t make them feel culturally ignorant.

So, we learned, Thai food is popular partially because it doesn’t seem as daunting as other ethnic cuisine. But why was that the case for me in America when it definitely wasn’t in Thailand? Fast forward to me sitting at a plastic table on a sidewalk in Bangkok with a blank stare on my face worse than the one induced by the Ethiopian menu. If I was the queen of Thai cuisine back home, why did none of the dishes my Thai friend had ordered look familiar? Plastic plates of grilled pork neck, spicy minced meat salad and fermented sausage were among the dishes presented.

Although I could easily get the curries I was used to, the spectrum of Thailand’s cuisine was so much larger than I was aware. Confronted with all of this incredible variance, I began to wonder why all of the Thai restaurants back home offer the same dishes. I learned that the Thai government has been making an effort to globalize Thai cuisine for decades, looking at it in part as a way to draw in tourists. (They got me.) Part of that process involves menu standardization based on what sells.

This revelation helped explain why there are so many Thai restaurants in America and why they almost all serve central Thai cuisine rather than the northeastern Thai I was eating on the street. It also helped explain why people feel comfortable eating Thai food in America: because it’s easy to familiarize yourself with a limited repertoire of recurring dishes. That way, diners get the feeling of authenticity they want without having to feel foolish.

At that point, I came to realize that my expectations of “authentic” Thai cuisine had been elaborately misinformed all along. The menus at the trusted places I ate at back home weren’t traditional home cooking; they were tailored to my Western mindset and palette. So, although there are endless Yelp debates about which ethnic joint is the most “authentic,” we often don’t even know what “authentic” means. Westerners fetishize the idea of authenticity, but with no actual reference point, our perception is a mere construction — a construction that is, in this case, backed by expensive government campaigns.

But if standardized recipes and menus are what’s going to help Thai emigrants succeed, who am I to complain? Some will argue that being committed to eating “authentic” ethnic cuisine is about respectfully distinguishing genuine cultural identity from cultural appropriation. It’s about proudly doing things the way grandma did them. It’s about never eating at Chipotle. But why does ethnic cuisine always have to be the pure product of its cultural lineage? Why can’t it just be food?

Consider Nahm, Australian chef David Thompson’s fine-dining restaurant in London and the first Thai eatery ever to receive a Michelin star. He has another location in Bangkok, and many consider it the best Thai restaurant in Thailand. Meanwhile, others find that claim outrageous because the chef isn’t even Thai, and how could the food be good if it isn’t “authentic”? However, Thompson studied Thai cooking for years, so does it matter whether he learned it from books and teachers rather than from his grandmother? I say no.

Bringing Thompson’s ethnicity into the debate makes it about more than the execution of the cooking. It makes it an argument about capturing “Thainess” through food. But what is “Thainess?” Cultural identity is not fixed, and it’s not something that can be bought and devoured at a restaurant. It’s not that I want to challenge the Thai claim on their own cultural identity. I just think we should try eating ethnic cuisine without expecting it to capture the essence of the culture it comes from.

So, I was tricked into maintaining an inaccurate conception of Thai cuisine. That’s my own fault for assuming a Thai menu in America would be comprehensively representative of cuisine from halfway around the world. From now on, I’ll just take Thai food for what it is: tasty.

Contact Sarah Burke at [email protected]