THAI FOOD 101 — You know those people. They know a whole lot, but they can be a chore to dine with because … they know a whole lot. And they want you to know that they know what you don’t know. It’s all very trying. You know?
So, do you know your grachai (wild ginger) from your kha (galangal)? Or are you a lin jalakay? In case you don’t know (gosh!) that means “crocodile tongue,” which is the worst thing any Thai foodie could ever be called.
Here are some simple questions to find out:
1. Do you refuse to eat in shopping malls?
A very basic but surefire way to weed out the picky from the truly snobbish. This is because the most successful shopping malls – recognizing astutely that all Thais, without exception, care more about food than almost anything else – have excellent food floors and/or sections and/or individual restaurants able to draw discerning diners from all points of the city. All the same, food snobs avoid eating at shopping malls because a.) they are not fancy enough to show off in and b.) they are not downmarket enough to be classified as “difficult” and “hard to find.” Shopping malls are far too convenient and comfortable to gain the food snob any street cred.
2. Do you see reviews as obituaries?
Food snobs can be a lot like hipsters. They operate on basically the same premise: their tastes are more rarefied than yours. So, when a restaurant or street food stall starts getting attention from the press, it’s a surefire signal to the food snob to move onto newer, less-nibbled pastures. After all, these places will have gotten a lot more “crowded,” with more “harried” service, and more difficult-to-secure reservations. Why fight with everyone else for a table? It’s the culinary equivalent of people who stop listening to a certain band because they’ve caught on with a lot of people, which must mean they’ve gone mainstream. Example: liking My Bloody Valentine in 1991 = good; liking My Bloody Valentine now=lame. The best way to lure a Thai food snob (and me) somewhere? Promise us it’s never been written up before, anywhere. Take me there, and I will ruin it.
3. Do you complain about foreign interference?
This is kind of a tricky one, because it’s also something you have must do to be considered properly Thai, period. In this respect, then, it seems that almost every Thai (and honorary Thai) may be a food snob. Frequently, it’s couched as a vague complaint about how Thai food is getting sweeter, or how certain dishes are disappearing from restaurant menus. These things are almost always (silently) blamed on foreigners, or on the passage of time, or both (globalization!).
I think these complaints have more to do with memory than anything else. Obviously, everything you had as a child trumps everything else you’ve had since as a grown-up, because adulthood sucks. You have to pay taxes and take care of people and pretend to let your significant other win arguments. It’s exhausting. So that kind of nostalgia can be kind of intoxicating. For example, I have entered the age when my peers are beginning to decry contemporary tastes, like the state of modern cinema, and holding up the movies of their own childhoods as masterpieces. The sad part is, we grew up in the 1980s, not the 1970s, so when we are describing our childhood movies as works of art, we are talking about “The Karate Kid” and “Gremlins.” This is possibly how Thais of the future will see our complaints about the Thai food of today.
4. Do you know anything about beer?
If so, you may not be a Thai food snob. Food snobs here don’t really drink that much beer, even though beer is widely accepted as one of the few alcoholic beverages (alongside watered-down Saeng Som) that truly goes with Thai food. I don’t know that much about beer, or beer slushies, which for the longest time (until last week) I mistakenly thought was beer with gelatin stirred in. The only thing that sort of saves me from being a food snob (in this respect, at least) is that I don’t know anything about wine, either, even though I drink it every day (it’s heart healthy, okay?).
5. Do you like anything that you eat in Bangkok, ever?
I ask this, because the true Thai food snob finds no real joy in anything he or she consumes. The harder it is to please them, the more they win at food. Instead, dining out involves cataloging a litany of faults, from start to finish. Even places the snob would regularly dine in are problematic, but, well, one has to eat to live, right? On the plus side: Thai food snobs know a whole, whole lot. You will learn a lot from being with them. You might even learn how to get your own Thai food grump on, just so people will start taking you seriously.
Thai Food 101: