The point of Thai Food

20 10 2009

Over on the For Forks’ Sake blog, the author poses a bit of a conundrum, what’s the point of Thai food, and he compares it to a popular weekend prime-time goggle-box viewing Strictly Come Dancing.

In many respects I see where 4FS is coming from. Thai food is more often defined in terms of what it’s not, than what it is. Thai food isn’t Indian, though it can be spicy and the Thais and Indians share a passion for herbs, spices and fresh flavours that give exotic undertones to their food. Thai food isn’t Japanese, though both cuisines use much more fish than many others. Thai isn’t as niche as Vietnamese or Malay whose restaurants have yet to penetrate much further than odd pockets outside the metropolis. And finally it’s not Chinese, though they both make use of the same styles of cooking such as steaming, deep frying and stir frying which make them closer than we might imagine.

It’s easy to see then, how 4FS feels ill at ease with Thai food. Given the ubiquity of food from the part of the globe east of Europe, and how ingrained it is into our collective psyche, it’s clear we’re more comfortable with things that have a definite provenance. In their own ways India, China and to some extent Japan have been a part of British culture for approaching a couple of hundred years. In the Fusion Food post yesterday, I discussed some cuisines that had adapted themselves to the Western palate. The Balti and the Tikka Massala being examples of Anglo-Indian (subcontinent) food: similarly chow mein (although invented in the USA rather than Europe) is an example if Westernisation of techniques and ingredients from the Far East.

And this is perhaps the point. Who cannot enter a Chinese or Indian restaurant and choose the evening’s feast with much more than a cursory glance at the dishes. Words such as aloo, dhal, saag, Kung Po, wonton and the like are utterly familiar. The average Briton probably knows upwards of fifty words from the Indian subcontinent without realising (aside of course from borrowings such as khaki) through avid study of restaurant menus. On the other hand Thai can seem completely removed from one’s experience, who can argue that for most people, taeng kva, thua ngork, or tod mun are as familiar as a rogan josh or sweet and sour dish.

To return (finally!) to 4FS’s analogy, Thai food is indeed somewhat like Strictly Come Dancing, in other ways not. Latterly we have seen the muscular and overpowering contender voted off, and unlike Calzaghe, Thai food should be delicate and considered. The archetypal safe and ultimately mundane oxo-mum has similarly left the building. Unlike what Bellingham represents Thai food should be exciting, intriguing, and offer a window into the sort of exotica with which we are unfamiliar. With the departure of Grande Dame Arlene, Thai cuisine is a departure from the old and comfy.

OK, so I’ve laboured and stretched a point probably beyond recognition; I agree with 4FS that sometimes it’s hard to see the point. Luckily around these parts we are spoiled by several good Thai restaurants, and each time I go to one it evokes the same frisson that I felt the first time I went to a “foreign” eatery. Each time I discover another unlikely confluence of consonants that translates into an exciting taste experience.

For me, that’s the point.

Thanks to the For Forks’ Sake for giving me the idea, and you gentle reader for putting up with my drivel!

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