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Roger McShane

The complexity of Thai food

53 posts in this topic

Having just returned from yet another eating trip to Thailand, I have been reflecting on the 'western' perceptions of many of the posts on this site and how the concepts of good food and comfortable dining often are confused.

I am sure that if a poll was held on this site about the best cuisine it would probably be a win for the French (or for the mutant New York variety). Most Asian cuisines would not rate. Nor would some of the complex Middle Eastern cuisines such as Iranian or Lebanese.

But Thai cuisine is special even among the special cuisines of Asia. It is incredibly complex, difficult to prepare and requires enormous skill to do properly.

I still have the taste of a highly complex Nham Phrik Pla Ra from the northern regions of Thailand (Isaan cuisine) in my foremost memory.

I can understand why people who haven't visited Thailand don't understand this as there are very few places outside Thailand that do any justice to the real flavours of this cuisine. Maybe Sailors Thai in Sydney and Nham in London but very few others.

I would be interested in other opinions on whether Thai cuisine is more complex than most and whether there anywhere in, say, the US where you can sample flavours that go close to approximating those of Thailand.

We tried Arun's in Chicago and that was very, very disappointing. It was dumbed down 'farang' food designed for westerners.


Roger McShane

Foodtourist.com

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Roger -- I can't provide meaningful input on Thai cuisine. However, would it be accurate to infer from your post that, in your assessment and to your knowledge, there are few appealing restaurants in NY, say, at which more authentic Thai cuisine could be sampled? Also, could you speak to the utilization of "hot" spicing in more authentic Thai cuisine, and whether the potential difficulty of that to the "European/American" palate might be one reason for the lack of understanding?

On Nahm, while I have only dined there once, I have to admit that I have never seen the appeal in Thompson's cuisine:

I'd have to agree with Simon and J. Meades on Nahm.   Based on my visit in late September, certain of the ancient Thai recipes pursued by David Thompson brought relatively new flavor combinations, but lacked subtlety and relied on excessive seasoning.  

For those interested, here are details.  Some of the dishes were not described in at least the first round of reviews, and may be useful for those considering a visit.  (Background: I'm receptive to spicy foods, but admit to a dire preference for French food :))

Ma Hor (minced prawns and chicken simmered in palm sugar with deep fried shallots, garlic and peanuts, served on pineapples and mandarins):  This dish sounded better than it tasted, although it had generally been well-received in most reviews.  For me, the blended ingredients were unduly paste-like in texture.

Dtam Yam Pla Grapong (hot and sour soup with sea bass):  How could I resist ordering sea bass soup?  In hindsight, I should have.  The hot flavors were unbridled; the sour aspects were not well-integrated.  More troublingly, there was a small green pepper in the soup that, when bitten into, literally left my eyes tearing (for the wrong reasons, of course!) and my mouth feeling blighted.  This and certain other dishes were too aggressive for me.

Yam Hoi Shenn (salad of scallops with green mango, samphire, mint and chillis): The thing scallop slices, though tender, were heavy-handedly riddled with lime juice and coriander.

Geng Pet Pla (red curry of turbot with kaftir lime leaves and coriander): The fish was quite nice, but the red curry resembled others I had had at many other Thai restaurants.

Geng Hong Nok Heun (red leg partridge braised with lily stalks): Again, the dish sounded good . . . . However, the taste of the partridge was difficult to discern amidst the very spicy, accompanying brown sauce.

Mangosteen fruit with sweet rice:  This dessert, with a fruit I tried for the first time, was a welcome relief from the rest of the meal . . . .

http://forums.egullet.org/ibf/index.php?s=...&t=4898&hl=nahm

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Do the Thais have different palates? We had a Thai friend to lunch recently, to allow her to sample traditional British cuisine. In the course of the meal the subject of spiciness came up and she said that she never found any food in London that was hot enough. Jokingly I offered her the hottest bottled sauce in my cupboard -- Whistle Blower Pickle from Bombay Bangers. It is not only very hot but also has a very strong flavor and I use it very sparingly because it can completely take over whatever you add it to. Our guest tasted a bit on the end of a spoon, expressed her strong approval and took a generous spoonful, which she added to her meal. It must have been about twenty times the quantity I ever use; generally I just dip a fork into it and then stir into my food what little adheres.

Now, this young lady was not a show-off. She was in fact exceedingly modest and a perfect guest. I watched her closely as she ate the rest of her meal and she didn't show the slightest symptom of discomfort. I'm not a wimp when it comes to hot Asian dishes, but if I had tried such a thing I would have been sweating profusely and in extreme agony.

Does anyone have an explanation?


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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John, I observed something similar in Mexico. My host added a generous dose of bottled green habenaro sauce to EVERYTHING he ate. He said that he found food without chile extremely bland, much the way many people find food without salt unpalatable. And a West Indian friend of mine (who eats a Jamaican brand of hot sauce on everything) found my souvenir habanero sauce too hot even for her spice-addicted palate. It makes my latest fad (sambel olek on everything that doesn't move) seem pretty tame.

My explanation:

In the West, lactating women are advised to avoid garlic, chiles and other strong tastes so they don't upset their babies' tummies. When babies are weaned, they're purposefully given bland foods.

In other cultures, lactating women eat spicy foods because it's considered completely normal to do so. When the babies are weaned, they are given foods that aren't that far off the ones they'll be eating with the rest of their familes as they get older.

Result: kiddies who are exposed to spicy foods since infancy will grow up thinking that a chile kick to the tastebuds is as normal a flavour enhancer as salt. For those of us who were raised on apple sauce and pablum, it's often a different story.

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Now, this young lady was not a show-off. She was in fact exceedingly modest and a perfect guest. I watched her closely as she ate the rest of her meal and she didn't show the slightest symptom of discomfort. I'm not a wimp when it comes to hot Asian dishes, but if I had tried such a thing I would have been sweating profusely and in extreme agony.

Does anyone have an explanation?

Practice, practice, practice. Seriously.

I spent a year and a half in Bangkok, 35 years ago. When my Mexican buddy and I went out to eat, he would empty the table's small dish of sliced peppers onto his food, usually kow paht (fried rice... 5 cents for a big plate... 7 1/2 cents with one egg... 10 cents with two). If the help noticed him doing this, they would gather on the side to watch his reaction. When he would request another dish of peppers, it blew their minds.

Since then, I have been practicing. I wish I had started when I was younger.


-- Jeff

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." -- Groucho Marx

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I vaguely remember an Iron Chef episode when the challenger (a woman) was touted for offering "royal" Thai cuisine which she had prepared for certain esteemed Thai personnel. I wonder what the difference between "royal" Thai cuisine and other Thai cuisine might be. :hmmm:

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......... Our guest tasted a bit on the end of a spoon, expressed her strong approval and took a generous spoonful, which she added to her meal. It must have been about twenty times the quantity I ever use; generally I just dip a fork into it and then stir into my food what little adheres.

Now, this young lady was not a show-off.............................................

Does anyone have an explanation?

Acclimatisation ? I have gone the opposite direction - I was atuned and used to

a moderate level of chilli-peppers in my youth (nothing like what is consumed in South India), now I can barely manage paani-puris when I'm in .IN

I have seen folks in NYC, who have infinite capacity to consume really hot peppers :smile:


anil

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Practice, practice, practice. Seriously.

I spent a year and a half in Bangkok, 35 years ago. When my Mexican buddy and I went out to eat, he would empty the table's small dish of sliced peppers onto his food, usually kow paht (fried rice... 5 cents for a big plate... 7 1/2 cents with one egg... 10 cents with two). If the help noticed him doing this, they would gather on the side to watch his reaction. When he would request another dish of peppers, it blew their minds.

Since then, I have been practicing. I wish I had started when I was younger.

I'm sure you were being a little facetious, but why do you wish you could eat hotter food? I love hot food, when done correctly. Properly made buffalo wings, for example, have an excellent hot pepper and almost buttery flavor -- nothing like the thoughtless tobasco sauces one usually finds. But on the other hand, real hot food often overshadows all other flavors. Is something gained by being able to handle such heat?

Commenting on the first post -- what types of restaurants do you eat at? I spent very little time in Bangkok, and ate at only a handful of upscale places. I recall that it was generally better than what we get in America, but I wouldn't put it in a different category. While travelling around the countryside, I usually ate basic curries and stir-fries that were all over the map -- some excellent, some terrible.

Did you find a better selection of dishes or were the dishes prepared differently? How much Sang Thip did you drink before eating (just kidding)?

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I'm sure you were being a little facetious, but why do you wish you could eat hotter food?....

Commenting on the first post -- what types of restaurants do you eat at?  I spent very little time in Bangkok, and ate at only a handful of upscale places. I recall that it was generally better than what we get in America, but I wouldn't put it in a different category.  While travelling around the countryside, I usually ate basic curries and stir-fries that were all over the map -- some excellent, some terrible.

Did you find a better selection of dishes or were the dishes prepared differently?  How much Sang Thip did you drink before eating (just kidding)?

Being able to eat hot peppers and the like has become sort of an undeclared contest in my family. I flinch when my brother says, "Here, try this." I guess it's a macho thing.

The only time that I ate in an upscale restaurant, was the only time I got "Bangkok belly." It was a chicken curry dish, if I remember correctly. Mostly, we ate in small, open-front stalls where the locals ate. I drank many a glass of Mekong and coke with a lump of ice and a little sawdust. And lots of 24 ounce Singhas. About the most adventurous stuff I ate were small birds, cleaned and deep fried, but not boned. Kinda crunchy. For quite a while, I snacked on intestines, skewered, spiced and grilled, from a local pushcart. I thought they were slices of beef. My favorite restaurant, Barbo's, was on the water in Pattaya. After 35 years, I doubt it's still there.


-- Jeff

"I don't care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members." -- Groucho Marx

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Going back to the first post, Blue Elephant currently has a special I-san menu until the end of August. Hopefully I am going next week.

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Chillies are addictive ( not joking here ) and the tolerance for the capsisin on them grows the more that you eat them. My hubby and I have a lot of hot and spicy foods on the menu at home, our kids love them too. We go to the local Thai and indian resturants and the food is never hot enough.

We do not like to torment our tastebuds, it is just that if you are used to eating spicy food and it is not spicy enough it is like getting mashed potatos with no salt in them. One of my daughters friends came over for dinner and we had a VERY mild chilli for dinner that night, she could barely cope with the spice, and yet we genuinely could not taste it at all.

So the secret to eating hot foods is practice .. the more you eat the hotter you will be able to tolerate it. So your friend was not showing off.. she was just used to eating hot stuff.

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I would be interested in other opinions on whether Thai cuisine is more complex than most and whether there anywhere in, say, the US where you can sample flavours that go close to approximating those of Thailand.

It seems generally agreed that Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas has the best, most authentic Thai in America. Renu Nakorn (which is in a location formerly occupied by Lotus of Siam, I believe) in Norwalk, California is said to have excellent Thai. Thus far, I've been content to hang in LA's Thai Town enjoying the likes of Kruang Tedd, Palms Thai, Ruen Pair and Sanamluang Cafe--all of which are located on Hollywood Blvd.


I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

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The adjustments which adapt people to capsicum are pretty well known, so I won't dwell on them. Also, we could argue what the "most authentic" Thai cuisine is till we are blue in the face and that wouldn't settle much, for several reasons.

1.) Thai cuisine is already a "fusion" cuisine and adapts new ingredients and techniques readily

2.) As our own "local" expert Mamster has pointed out--on numerous occasions--Thailand has numerous regional cuisines.

Roger's position that Thai food rates highly on any rating of international cuisines is bound to reawaken a lot of the ongoing eGullet arguments over what defines a great cuisine. Get ready for lots of argument over how many "name chefs" Thailand has, or how much they have affected other regions, or how many people flock there as a food destination, or... well, you get the idea. :biggrin:

But I happen to agree with him.

The issue of whether or not Thai food is "dumbed down" for westerners, and where, is a tough one too--especially if you haven't been to Thailand. I know that I've had what I consider great Thai food--and I've gotten to the point where I can convince the restaurant to add a level of heat which would floor a mastadon, but would it rate in Thailand? I don't know...


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Capsaicin, the chemical that induces the burn in chile peppers can engender a tolerance like many other substances such as alcohol or other drugs. The more of it you use, the greater the quantity that can be tolerated.

Also, the old supposition that you are "burning out" your taste buds is patently false. Capsaicin affects the heat receptors (not just in your mouth either, anyone who has prepared hot chiles and touched a sensitive part of the body knows this firesmile.gif), but does not affect the taste buds. It is true that for those not acclimated to very hot foods, the flavor of a dish can be lost in the blaze, but this is not to say there is no reason to want to eat hotter foods.

As one becomes tolerant of hotter foods, it is not as if you are developing a greater tolerance for pain, it is simply that greater amounts of capcaicin no longer elicit the same degree of heat. For those who are tolerant of VERY hot foods, they simply do not experience the heat. At this level, contrary to what many people suppose, the heat addicted person can discern many MORE flavors than those who can't handle the heat. Each of the chiles and spices have their own unique flavor, and once heat is no longer an issue these tastes that were previously hidden behind the burn are now very evident. This is why if one wants to really appreciate the foods of countries where hot and spicy is a way of life there really is no choice than to accustom oneself to the heat.


=Mark

Give a man a fish, he eats for a Day.

Teach a man to fish, he eats for Life.

Teach a man to sell fish, he eats Steak

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This is a good explanation of what is going on biologically. Fortunately, adjustment to hot chili is *not* like becoming accustomed to loud amplified music, which gradually destroys one's hearing, beginning with the high frequencies.


John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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I'm sure you were being a little facetious, but why do you wish you could eat hotter food?....

Commenting on the first post -- what types of restaurants do you eat at?  I spent very little time in Bangkok, and ate at only a handful of upscale places. I recall that it was generally better than what we get in America, but I wouldn't put it in a different category.  While travelling around the countryside, I usually ate basic curries and stir-fries that were all over the map -- some excellent, some terrible.

Did you find a better selection of dishes or were the dishes prepared differently?  How much Sang Thip did you drink before eating (just kidding)?

Being able to eat hot peppers and the like has become sort of an undeclared contest in my family. I flinch when my brother says, "Here, try this." I guess it's a macho thing.

I can respect that. In college we tried to see who could get through more suicide wings without water or wipe.

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I can respect that.  In college we tried to see who could get through more suicide wings without water or wipe.

well, yeah, it *is* a macho thing. is there something inherently wrong with that? :smile:

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Cabrales, royal Thai food is largely a matter of presentation--intricately carved vegetable garnishes and the like. And since democracy in Thailand, the royal recipes have seeped into the general food culture osmotically.

Thai food in Thailand is absolutely one of the greatest joys of my life: the hundreds of dishes, the depth of flavor, the surety of finding a good meal on the most unpromising street. I could see someone finding Thai food busy and overseasoned, but that is not the way my mouth works.

Three things stand out to me as different between Thai food in Thailand and the West. First, there is a considerably greater breadth of dishes in Thailand. I can think of half a dozen things offhand that I've never seen on a Thai menu in the U.S. Second, the balance of seasonings is done with much greater care over there. It's rare to get a dish that's overly sweet (this happens to me all the time in the U.S.); you do have to get use to the lavish use of fish sauce. Which leads to the third point: better ingredients. Thai food is built on fresh ingredients, and many of them don't travel well, or are grown outside of Thailand but not to the same effect.

I haven't been to Lotus of Siam, but if you're planning a special trip, consider going to Bangkok instead--I'm sure Lotus is good, but Bangkok is a blast.


Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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Hi everyone

Thanks for the range of replies.

It is fascinating to see that most of the responses have all skewed towards a discussions of violently chilli-hot dishes.

In my initial post I did not mention chillis once. While I agree that some dishes in Thailand are very hot by Western standards many use very little chilli.

So when I say that dishes are 'dumbed down' for Western palates, I am not necessarily talking about heat, I am talking about complexity. It may mean leaving out some fermented fish sauce or it may mean not including some highly caramelized pork.

In fact one of the best and most complex dishes I tried on the most recent trip was a deep fried, crispy, snakehead fish, which was a riot of textures and flavours - I am sure that Mamster has tried this.

And Fat Guy - yes i have tried Thai-style flavours at Vong and they get some of the way there, but you have to really experience the purity of the flavours in Thailand to realize that Vong and others are serving ersatz flavours.


Roger McShane

Foodtourist.com

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Hi everyone

Thanks for the range of replies.

It is fascinating to see that most of the responses have all skewed towards a discussions of violently chilli-hot dishes.

In my initial post I did not mention chillis once. While I agree that some dishes in Thailand are very hot by Western standards many use very little chilli.

Roger, I think we all responded that way in response to John Whiting's comments early on in the thread. It doesn't mean that this is what we all collectively define Thai cuisine by. Even in the hottest of Thai dishes--even here in the U.S. with less practiced Thai chefs--the key thing which makes Thai so special is that it is a mosaic of flavors. It isn't just Curry powder and Chili. The number of individually definable tastes and textures in most Thai dishes is what provokes the love.

So, yes... I agree that "dumbed down" probably refers to the level of complexity as well as the heat. If what we get here is complex, than what they get there is even more so.


Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Since visiting Thailand I have simply accepted that Thai food outside the country will not be like the food there. I enjoy eating "Americanized" Thai food (in Seattle, at Siam on Broadway and Thaiku) because I do not expect it to be like Thai food in Thailand. I don't order the same dishes here; many of them are not on the menu. In Thailand we ate lots of fish and salads, while here we usually order curry, fried rice, and noodle dishes. (For those in Seattle, I like the gai yaang [grilled chicken] at Thaiku very much, and it is similar to gai yaang in Thailand, served with sticky rice and papaya salad.)

The only two restaurants in the U.S. that I have heard described as "authentic" Thai are Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas and Sripraphai in New York. I haven't been to Lotus, but I was quite disappointed in Sripraphai. My disappointment was a result of high expectations, based on many rave reviews. The papaya salad was all right, spicy enough for me. Fluffy catfish salad was chewy and a bit bland, without the lightness and bright flavor I was looking for. A fish curry was one-dimensional. We tried a couple of other dishes. But the meal just wasn't memorable, no lively flavors such as I enjoyed in Thailand.

Cabrales, the Lonely Planet book World Food Thailand, by Joe Cummings, discusses royal Thai cuisine. It also includes an overview of Thailand's regional cuisines.

Roger, I would love to read more about the food you enjoyed on your recent trip.


Hungry Monkey May 2009

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The one time I was at Sripraphai, it was fabulous. Best in the US, and as good as the average one in Thailand. However, I was warned away from the seafood dishes.


beachfan

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Mamster/Laurie,

Have you tried Noodle Boat in Issaquah? I'm just curious because a couple Thai women I was in grad school with said it is the closest to food at home that they found in the Seattle area. I haven't gotten myself out there yet. They said that Bai Tong, which I have eaten at, is the next closest.


Most women don't seem to know how much flour to use so it gets so thick you have to chop it off the plate with a knife and it tastes like wallpaper paste....Just why cream sauce is bitched up so often is an all-time mytery to me, because it's so easy to make and can be used as the basis for such a variety of really delicious food.

- Victor Bergeron, Trader Vic's Book of Food & Drink, 1946

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The one time I was at Sripraphai, it was fabulous. Best in the US, and as good as the average one in Thailand.   However, I was warned away from the seafood dishes.

Well, the catfish salad was highly recommended. I was dining with two friends who don't eat meat/poultry, so we stuck with fish and seafood. I agree with this egullet review, from Mao (last post in the thread). I was there in April.

tighe, I haven't been to either of those restaurants. I see that Bai Tong is in SeaTac. It sounds good. We had some pretty good Thai food at Simply Thai in Southcenter, too. (These are all in the greater Seattle area.) I'd like to try your recommendations. I will try not to compare them to restaurants in Thailand, though.


Hungry Monkey May 2009

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