THAI FOOD 101 — Last week, Thailand’s government announced an audacious new initiative to combat a persistent – and dangerous – problem affecting people the world over. That problem is bad Thai food. Thai food that, according to Thomas Fuller in the New York Times, was sampled by former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra in Thai restaurants abroad and found to be “bland.” And while Ms. Yingluck’s government may be history, this initiative allows her legacy to live on.
The plan is simple: standardize Thai food everywhere. To help do this, the government has built a machine (dubbed the “e-delicious machine”) that scientifically determines whether a particular dish is up to snuff by scanning its chemical signature and then comparing it to the “ideal” version, determined by a database detailing the most popular preference for each dish. This initiative is a brainchild of the government’s “Thai Delicious Committee,” a collection of Thai scholars, academics and food experts armed with a budget of THB30 million and sworn to rectify the inauthenticity of Thai food abroad through a battery of measures, such as a recipe app. The food-tasting robot, however, forms the centerpiece in the government’s crusade against bad Thai food, which is assumed to exist mainly abroad.
This solution to a nagging global problem seems typically Thai in many ways. First, it involves a consensus: the standard against which each dish is measured was found through a popular vote. Second, that popular vote was obtained from a sample of educated subjects in places like Chulalongkorn University, one of Bangkok’s most well-known institutions of higher learning. Third, the government will provide “logos” similar to the badges affixed to hygienic street food vendors for restaurants that cooperate by cooking with standardized recipes. Next, it involves high-tech knowledge, gleaned from years of study, appropriated for the development of a particularly high-tech piece of machinery – with a THB3.2 million price tag and judicious addition of “e-“ before “delicious machine.” Finally, it gives the opportunity to look like something is being accomplished while not really doing anything at all, a skill that any visitor to the Immigration Office has already witnessed.
Other food experts who are not a part of the government’s drive to save Thai food were doubtful of the plan’s success. “How could you set a standard for Thai food for all restaurants abroad, or even in Thailand for that matter, when most people who cook Thai food do not understand Thai food or care to do research or have pride in their culinary heritage?” asked Thai TV celebrity Chef McDang. “It is about making money rather than being creative or wanting to set a standard.”
Cooks of Thai food abroad face challenges that chefs of more well-known cuisines such as Italian are more likely to avoid, say food experts. There may be different expectations of what Thai food should taste like, or what dishes should be on a Thai food menu, and ingredients as commonplace as garlic and shallots look and taste different from their counterparts in the homeland.
“Thai food in Europe is often limiting itself to classic, widely popular dishes, and it’s extremely unusual to come across the likes of kanom jeen or Chiang Mai sausage on European menus,” said Anne Faber, a London-based food journalist and TV presenter. “There’s no way to get proper pla rah to make an authentic som tam in Europe, nam prik is unheard of, and when even Thai basil is hard to source, you can imagine how hard it will be to find the likes of betel leaves or banana flowers in Europe.”
Holding up a particular recipe of a green curry or shrimp paste chili dip as the idealized standard could not only create headaches for restaurant owners abroad, but incite full-on, knockout warfare among Thais back home who have been told all their lives that theirs are the only families with the perfect recipe for a khao na gai (rice smothered in chicken gravy) or a mee kathi (vermicelli noodles in coconut milk).
“To me, every cuisine is an art,” said Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, owner of Supanniga Eating Room in Bangkok and Somtum Der in Bangkok and New York. “Every family cooks their own recipes, which makes it difficult to say how slightly different they are from the standard of authenticity or the benchmark. This is due to their differences in taste.”
With locals this skeptical, trouble may lie ahead for the food-tasting robot. Lovers of genuine, authentic cuisine like yours truly, however, see a galaxy of possibilities with inventions like the “e-delicious machine.” These tasting machines – which are currently being marketed to Thai embassies in countries with a large number of Thai restaurants for about THB584,000 apiece – could analyze the chemical signatures of a host of foods that are routinely abused, and yes defamed in Thailand, such as Caesar salad, spaghetti carbonara, butter chicken, sushi, and that pinnacle of culinary mastery, the Buffalo hot wing. These dishes, and the unwitting fools who ingest them, have endured decades of misery for too long. I, for one, welcome our new e-delicious robot overlords and would gladly contribute to their database for this particular challenge.
Thai Delicious Committee, please feel free to Skype me.
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