If You Are Farang, Don't Meddle With Thai Politics - Or Their Food!

Originally published at Siam Voices on September 28, 2010 Normally here on this blog, we don't write about topics most tourists would associate with Thailand, one of which is food*. While this is one of the few things Thailand is renowned for worldwide and can still be proud for it, the New York Times features an Aussie chef, who humbly declares that he is "on a mission to revive Thai cuisine"!

That is a tall order. Coming from the mouth of a farang (a Western foreigner) and admittedly from a very pompous one, this would not bode well with the Thai people. It didn't took long until the first national heralds would step up and protest:

Suthon Sukphisit, a food writer for Thai newspapers and an authority on Thai cuisine, reacts to Mr. Thompson’s stated mission as if he had just bitten into an exceptionally hot chili pepper. “He is slapping the faces of Thai people!” Mr. Suthon said in an interview. “If you start telling Thais how to cook real Thai food, that’s unacceptable.” Mr. Suthon has not eaten at Nahm — “I’m not going to,” he said.

"Politics Are One Thing, Thais Say, but Hands Off the Food", by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, September 23, 2010


The article is full of memorable lines that not only displays the uphill battle for acknowledgement in the culinary world, but also has some eerily parallels to the Thai perceptions of foreigners regarding other issues. For example:

Mr. Thompson’s quest for authenticity is perceived by some Thais as a provocation, a pair of blue eyes striding a little too proudly into the temple of Thai cuisine. Foreigners cannot possibly master the art of cooking Thai food, many Thais say, because they did not grow up wandering through vast, wet markets filled with the cornucopia of Thai produce, or pulling at the apron strings of grandmothers and maids who imparted the complex and subtle balance of ingredients required for the perfect curry or chili paste. Foreigners, Thais believe, cannot stomach the spices that fire the best Thai dishes. (...)

Politics, of course, have been exceptionally tempestuous, too. (...) Many Thais feel that their country and its political problems have been oversimplified, misrepresented and misreported by the outside world.

"Politics Are One Thing, Thais Say, but Hands Off the Food", by Thomas Fuller, New York Times, September 23, 2010

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? And if that wasn't enough, The Nation had M.L. (the Honorable) Saksiri Kridakorn chime in on that matter, too. While Khun Saksiri is right that you rarely get the real deal if you dine at a Thai restaurant abroad and that they "make it on ambience, service and tastes that suit western tasted buds," but the conclusion again bears a certain tone:

We welcome any chefs, Thai, farang or whomever, who can make a real culinary contribution. We are happy that there are Western cooks who want to learn and promote Thai cuisine to the world. But don't think that the Michelin stars that they received gives them the right to come to Thailand, the Motherland of Thai cuisine, to teach Thai chefs with a lifetime of cooking experience how to make Thai dishes. Or to tell Thais what they have been eating is not authentic. Thai cuisine, like any other complex cuisines around the world, is continually evolving with new ingredients and new cooking methods that real Thais know and are happy to enjoy and support with their pockets. (...)

"Farang chef? Give us a real Thai meal, please", by M.L. Saksiri Kridakorn, The Nation, September 26, 2010

Hm, everybody from everywhere is welcome to contribute to Thailand but they should not (even try to) suggest modifications or different perspectives on things that have been that way for a long period of time?

May I remind you where the ingredients and techniques, that make the Thai flavor so unique, originally came from? Here are some just from the top of my head: Curry - India of course! Stir-frying is borrowed from the Chinese, deep-frying as well. And the chili? Thank the farangs for that, specifically Portuguese missionaries in the late 1600s!

Also, what was that again about authenticity?

As a Thai who has lived half my life in Western countries, travelled extensively and often tasted Thai food outside Thailand, I have never found an "offshore" Thai restaurant that I would rate better than what we commonly and easily find here on almost every corner. In fact, if I do not ask the cook there to make it as authentic as he can, I wind up not enjoying it and usually end up going to a KFC. At least, I know it is authentic.

"Farang chef? Give us a real Thai meal, please", by M.L. Saksiri Kridakorn, The Nation, September 26, 2010

Sure, as authentic as American soul food you can get at KFC...!

Saksith Saiyasombut, whose father is a retired chef for Thai cuisine with over 25 years of experience, is a Thai blogger and journalist based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith.

*Thai food blogs worth following: www.enjoythaifood.com by Richard Barrow and Lonely Planet's Austin Bush's Foodblog