When most people find out I now live permanently in Thailand, most knowingly wink and poke me in the ribs with an elbow and say “I bet I know why,” they say, conspiratorially, “…the food.”
And yes, I suppose it’s true. There are many countries in South-East Asia with friendly people, warm weather and stunning scenery. But none of them can match Thailand for the anticipation that a hunger pang can produce. But what my friends back home don’t know is that they don’t know that half of it. What they think of as “Thai food” is just a tiny smidgen of what this vast culinary empire can whip up, seemingly out of thin (or in Bangkok, thick) air.
I’m not just talking about the really weird stuff that strikes fear in the heart of the average meat-and-potatoes Western tourist. Upon visiting a local market, most visitors soon find out that beyond pad thai and tom yum goong, some Thais also fancy snacking on deep fried insects, blood tofu and pig’s ear. In fairness, these selfsame finger-pointers see nothing wrong in eating varieties of spoiled dairy products. As the French say, chacun a son gout, which is appropriate, given that they eat snails.
Yet what I find even more fascinatingly bizarre (and, to my palate, more tasty) are the inventive concoctions that Thai cooks can come up with when trying to interpret certain staples of Western cuisine. Of course there are many authentic Italian and American restaurants here; I’m talking about the ones that are wilfully inauthentic.
I will list my favourites here, dishes I wish I could get back at any of the zillion Thai restaurants in the West that serve exactly the same narrow sliver of dishes available in this extraordinary country.
Thai Style Fried Macaroni : At first blush, one can see something vaguely Italian about this dish, but appearances can be deceiving. First of all, that rich looking tomato sauce is actually sweet and sour sauce made with ketchup and soy sauce. Containing chicken, bell peppers, onion, scrambled egg and shallots, one might see some allusions to the Israeli dish “shakshuka” but Jewish influence on Thai culture, admittedly, has been minimal. Nevertheless, it is an unexpectedly delicious concoction, unless the chef takes the homage one step too far and covers it with slices of processed cheese, effectively destroying the dish.
|Thai-style Fried Macaroni - so good, it's blurry!|
|American fried rice. The orange faecal matter is a Thai hot dog, cut into 'flowers'|
The sticky rice burger : Normally only found at the ubiquitous 7-11 convenience stores (originally a Texan company that was bought by a Japanese company which has had its greatest success in Thailand – Viva Internationalism!). Grilled pork and sticky rice is a popular dish from rural North-eastern Thailand, but who has the time for a sit-down meal? Even Isaanese farmers are finding their schedules increasingly accelerated these days. And so, the engineers at 7-11 created a pork patty sandwiched between two “buns” made of shaped sticky rice for the agrarian-on-the-go. You can even add ketchup (In case you haven’t noticed, ketchup is arguably more popular here than in the United States.)
Special mention: Woe to the backpacking tourist who leaves the bosom of the beach to find that their favourite snack, the oddly-monikered “No Name” is nowhere to be found. But there is hope! These deep fried vegetable and starch balls served with sweet chili sauce are actually a Thai version of the Indian pakora. So you see, it’s not just Western favourites that Thailand has skillfully adapted into uniquely curious menu items. Japanese sushi, Taiwanese bubble tea, Korean barbecue and Chinese bao have all been given a Thai makeover here, sometimes with inspiring results (and of course, let’s be fair, sometimes not).
In closing, let me say that if there’s one thing that separates Thai culture from most other world cultures, it’s that it is so resolutely un-separate. They have long been unafraid to incorporate elements of the outside world and make it uniquely their own. One may not always appreciate the results, but one has to admire their ingenuity, courage, and (perhaps) sense of humour.
Okay, I think I’ve earned a scoop of Thai iced tea ice cream. Yes, you’re correct, it is as insanely delicious as it sounds.