Can You Find Traditional Thai Food in America?
Americans are eating more Thai food than ever before. Thai restaurants are popping up in cities large and small, and Thai ingredients can be found in suburban supermarkets.
But can Thai food that’s cooked in America, by or for Americans, be the same – or even as good – as Thai food cooked by Thais in Thailand?
For many reasons, the answer is no. And in some cases, it has nothing at all to do with the food or the ingredients.
Eating Thai is a Community Experience
Let’s start with the social aspects of eating. Whether at home or in a restaurant, Americans generally eat their meals in a more or less solitary setting. In restaurants, they eat at tables that are either feet away from their closest dining companions or in booths that put up literal barriers between them and those at the booths on either side. In Thailand, diners tend to eat at long tables, sitting elbow-to-elbow with people who may have been strangers at the start of the meal but are conversation buddies by the time it’s finished.
Even if they’re eating at home, Thais tend to share mealtimes, if not homes, with multiple generations of extended family. Children often sit on an aunt or grandmother’s lap rather than in their own seats. American families often eat in shifts, with children eating an earlier (and often different meal) than their parents.
Healthy Thai Food
OK, so this has a little to do with ingredients, but not necessarily how they affect the flavor or texture of a dish.
Diners who are familiar with Thai food made in Thailand often do not recognize Thai food served in America. Among other things, they cannot find any of the health benefits of truly authentic Thai food.
American portion sizes, especially of meat and poultry, are huge compared to what you would be served in Thailand. Servings of rice in the U.S. are typically much smaller. Thais believe, and most scientific research would probably bear this out, that a larger serving of rice and smaller serving of meat is a much better choice, health-wise.
The absence of traditional Thai herbs and seasonings is another issue, but not necessarily because of the effect on the flavor of the food (though this is an issue we’ll get into later). Pungent, tasty herbs such as Thai sweet basil, hot peppers and more, extend healing properties to the dish that are not found in the “wimpy” flavorings that most American taste buds are familiar with.
American Thai Food: Can You Taste It Now?
Those who are accustomed to eating Thai food in Thailand say the main difference in American-created Thai food is the lack of the complex melding of flavors around which Thai cuisine is built.
Thai food is meant to be a combination of sweet, salty, hot, creamy and sour flavors. But American palates prefer foods that are highly sweet or salty, so chefs and owners of American Thai restaurants cater to their clientele by de-emphasizing or eliminating the other three flavors.
For example, those who have eaten Thai food in Thailand say the “spicy” option in America is often milder than the “mild” option in Thailand. That’s because American diners are not familiar with spiced foods. The same with sour flavors, they say.
A good example of this is the way dishes featuring Thai sweet basil are prepared. In Thailand, dishes that use this herb are packed with it. But in the U.S., the dish is predominantly meat or chicken, with vegetables and either noodles or rice, with a sprinkling of herbs that may or may not be actual Thai sweet basil.
Thai sweet basil is different from the green basil normally seen at the grocer’s or farm stand. And it has nothing at all in common with the dried and crushed leaves that come in jars.
Thai sweet basil is a purple-stemmed plant whose leaves are much sturdier than the green Italian basil normally purchased in the U.S. Its flavor is stronger, with hints not only of licorice but also of cinnamon and mint.
Other flavor differences are chalked up to the unavailability or unwillingness to use the freshest ingredients. In Thailand, chefs visit farmers markets daily. They are plentiful, inexpensive and open from early morning through late evening. Very busy cooks, such as those who run open-air food carts, might visit the farmers market twice in a day as they run out of certain ingredients.
In the U.S. farmers markets occur once a week and are limited to larger cities. Usually the products available there are more expensive than in grocery stores or through restaurant supply houses that deliver food on a weekly basis. Many main ingredients, both meats and vegetables, are frozen rather than fresh to comply with government regulations on freshness and safety. The result is a different quality to the ingredients and of course with the lesser quality, comes the lesser taste.