Things You're Doing Wrong When Eating Thai Food
Everyone knows that guy who thinks he's a Thai-food expert. He orders all his food "THAI SPICY" and bitches when the noodles don't make him sweat like a red-faced beast. He knowingly asks for chopsticks because, you know, the servers are just hiding them from the white people. Well, turns out that that guy's all wrong -- and so are many of us on Thai food.
To set ourselves straight, we chatted to three real-deal experts: acclaimed Bangkok-born chef Ian Chalermkittichai, who operates nine restaurants, including Issaya Siamese Club; Penny Lee, who helps run her family's revered Las Vegas restaurant Lotus of Siam; and chef Chat Suansilphong, who moved from Bangkok to open Fish Cheeks with brother Ohm in New York City. Here's what they have to say about all the misconceptions about Thai food in America.
You eat it with chopsticks
Listen people, the reason why chopsticks are in so many Thai restaurants is because Americans always ask for them. "In Bangkok, if you go to a Thai restaurant, there are no chopsticks," says Chalermkittichai. Noodle dishes, which are Chinese in origin, call for chopsticks, but for most dishes you should use a good ol' fork and spoon. Before those utensils -- which were introduced by the King Rama IV in the 19th century to "modernize" the country -- Thai people mostly ate with their hands. Even though they adopted the Western utensils, they put their own spin on using them: You hold the spoon in your right hand and the fork in the left hand, and then use the two to scoop food into the spoon to eat. It's way easier than struggling to pick up grains of rice with two sticks.
Expecting everything to be blow-your-head-off spicy
Alright, cowboy, we get that you're a tough guy for requesting your food "Thai spicy." But many traditional Thai dishes don't have any heat, like kuai-tiao nam (a clear pork-based broth), kao mun gai (chicken and rice), and, yes, pad Thai (you can add your own chili flakes, but it shouldn't knock you on your ass).
"Thai food is all about balance of flavors -- spicy, sweet, salty, sour, and umami," says Suansilphong. Spice fluctuates regionally, as well. You may have heard that the food of Isaan (Northeast Thailand) is extra spicy, but it's Southern Thailand that has truly ferocious Scoville levels. "To be honest, I think the south can out-eat the north and central on spice levels!" says Lee. So basically, find out if a dish is supposed to be spicy before wilin' out on the chili. And if you do want that spicy dish really spicy, the phrase for extra spicy is "phet mak."
Thinking all Thai food is street food
While Thailand's roadside wok warriors may be famous, there's an entire part of Thai cooking that traces its history back to a more refined setting: the imperial court. "In the United States, people tend to think that Thai food is a cheap takeaway food, but Thai food isn't just stir-fried dishes, tom yum goong, and coconut soup," says Chalermkittichai. "Beyond that, we have royal Thai cuisine, which once only the people who worked for the king's kitchen knew how to prepare." Formerly top-secret recipes include nham phrik long rua (shrimp paste and salted egg yolk relish), ma hor (caramelized minced chicken and peanut on sliced pineapple), and massaman curry. The dishes were served in lavish settings -- tables overflowed with intricately carved fruits and vegetables -- but today you can find them all over Thailand, and in some US restaurants too.
Ordering the same dishes everywhere
Pad Thai, green curry, and papaya salad. You know the drill... at least with your standard American Thai restaurant. However, the standard menu we see here is not what you'll see all over Thailand. Just like each region of the United States has its own culinary specialties, so do the various parts of Thailand, explains Chalermkittichai, who breaks down the country into four distinct areas: north, northeast, central, and south. In the landlocked north and northeast, you’ll find more fermented and pickled foods; Central Thailand is home to the stir-fries (pad Thai, pad see ew) we know and love; and the coastal south often highlights seafood as a main ingredient. Instead of ordering the same thing at every Thai restaurant, ask the servers if they cook specialties off menu -- you might just get a regional dish that's way better than the obligatory pad Thai.
Saying "authentic" Thai food is not fusion food
Like nearly every other cuisine on planet Earth, Thai cuisine is heavily influenced by those of its neighbors and visitors. Northern cooking has hints of Burma, Central Thailand's popular stir-fries came by way of China, and the food of the south reflect the cultures of India and Malaysia. Chilies, which now seem inextricable from Thai cooking, were a New World ingredient most likely brought over by European traders. "My mother is from Lamphun, which is part of Chiang Mai, and we have a few dishes that are Burmese-influenced, like khao kaan jin, which is the rice mixed with minced pork and pork blood," says Lee. "Thai food is the melting pot of Asian cultures."
Expecting pad Thai at every Thai restaurant
Despite its presence in nearly every Thai restaurant menu in the States, the stir-fried noodle dish isn't as ubiquitous in Thailand. In Bangkok, it's often whipped up at specialized street stalls that only make pad Thai, and many restaurants don't serve it. Lee points out that the restaurants in her mom's home of Northern Thailand are more likely to make khao soi, a coconut- and curry-based noodle soup, than pad Thai, which hails from Central Thailand. At Fish Cheeks, the tagline is "No Pad Thai Zone" because the brothers Suansilphong wanted to cook the food they grew up eating, not the exact menu we've all come to expect.
Thinking Thai food is really effin' hard to cook at home
Thai dishes boast complex flavors, but that doesn't necessarily make them labor-intensive. "Wok-fried dishes are like making sandwiches in Thailand," says Chalermkittichai. In other words, they're really easy and only require a few basic ingredients. Kao pad (fried rice) is just leftover rice tossed in a hot pan with garlic, onions, fish sauce, and a few slices of meat, and then topped with cilantro, cucumber slices, and a squeeze of lime juice.
Ordering for one person
Unlike many Western restaurants, where you just order for yourself, eating Thai-style is a group thing. You order a bunch of dishes for the table to share. "We do a single dish, like chicken or pork over rice, when we go out for a quick lunch," says Suansilphong. "But at the dinner table when we eat as a family, we share everything." Communal dining isn't just about bonding with the fam, it also means that you get a balanced meal. "Eating only a curry might be too fatty or too spicy, so you need something else to balance out the spiciness level" -- a common spread will also include sauteéd vegetables, a meat or fish, and a clear soup.
Composing a meal of an appetizer, main course, and dessert
The concept of eating your meal in three courses -- appetizer, main course, and dessert -- is more of a Western thing. In Thailand, like other parts of Asia, dishes, for the most part, are served as they are cooked, and eaten together (see above on getting balance with a bunch of dishes). And khanom (Thai desserts) are more of a snack and only occasionally a meal closer. Lee, who went to school in Thailand, recalls carts teeming with khanom rolling around in the middle of the day. "Most of these would be eaten during break. After a heavy meal, traditionally, they're more likely to give you fruits than sweets."
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