This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Why Thai?, first released on March 2, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CLIP THE KING AND I
ANNA: Getting to know you, Getting to feel free and easy, When I am with you, Getting to know what to say.
CYNTHIA GRABER: I can say that after many years working together, Nicky and I do actually know each other—that is not the reason we chose to start the show with this particular song.
NICOLA TWILLEY: It’s not often I let Cynthia indulge her love of musicals, but this particular showtune is relevant. Because this episode, we’re going to Thailand!
GRABER: And in case you’re not familiar with The King and I, the story takes place in Thailand! Or, as the country was called for hundreds of years, Siam. And the plot of the musical is actually relevant to the story we’re going to tell today—we of course are Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And because we’re Gastropod, we’re not actually telling the story of Thailand or even analyzing its portrayal in works of musical theater. We’re talking about its delicious delicious food, which is a staple part of my diet. I don’t even remember when I first tried Thai food, honestly.
GRABER: I don’t either, I feel like I’ve been eating it forever. Thai food is popular all across the US, but how did it get that way? How is that there are so many Thai restaurants in America despite the relatively small number of Thai immigrants here?
TWILLEY: More importantly for me, given where I live, how did Los Angeles become the capital of Thai food in America? Believe me, living here I have expanded my horizons well beyond pad thai.
GRABER: This episode, we’ve got the story of the invention of pad thai—
TWILLEY: As well as how our love for it fueled the creation of special Thai-American free trade zones in Mexico.
GRABER: What does a street kid from Bangkok have to do with the rise of the Mexican jackfruit industry?
TWILLEY: All will be revealed this episode—we might not be traveling in person right now, but we promise, this will be a vacation for your tastebuds!
TWILLEY: So, we are going to dive straight in with the tough questions first. Why is Thai food so delicious?
SABRINA CHUTIMA: THAI
SAIPIN CHUTIMA: THAI
SABRINA CHUTIMA: So my mom says the main reason why is simply because we have a lot of herbs.
GRABER: Nicky and I set up a cooking class with a couple of Thai chefs in Las Vegas, through the personal connections of Gastropod fellow Sonja Swanson who lives in Las Vegas.
SAIPIN CHUTIMA: Sawadee ka. THAI
SABRINA CHUTIMA: So my mom says hello. Her name is Saipin Chutima. She is the chef and owner of Lotus of Siam here in Las Vegas. And I’m Sabrina Chutima, her youngest daughter. I am pretty much her sous chef in the kitchen.
GRABER: Sabrina and Saipin didn’t brag when they introduced themselves, so we’ll do it for them. Saipin has a James Beard award, and the former L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold called them the best Thai food in North America.
TWILLEY: Saipin eventually admitted that there is a little more to Thai cuisine than just great herbs, as great as great herbs can be! There’s a kind of alchemy to it.
SABRINA CHUTIMA: Also because in Thai food, as she said is, we’re taught to know that when we’re at a table, you don’t want all your foods to taste the same. You want there to be a variety. So you want a salty, a spicy, a sour, maybe a little bit on the sweeter side, a savory. You know, all these different flavor profiles, they’re all on these different dishes, not on one dish. And what we’ll do is we’ll eat them together because each item has a different flavor. And when you mix and match them with other foods, you just get this party of flavors in your mouth.
GRABER: A party of flavors in my mouth sounds like a pretty great time. Mark Padoongpatt is a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and the author of the book Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America. And he says this party can be encapsulated in the Thai word “yam.”
MARK PADOONGPATT: Which is, I think, the essence of Thai cuisine. And that’s the balance of hot, spicy, sour, salty and sweet. And so for me, the core of what makes Thai cuisine Thai cuisine is striking that balance. And even though there are regional differences, right, there’s Northeastern Thai food, Southern Thai cuisine, I think what brings it all together or maybe the common ground with all of those regional differences is that essence of yam.
TWILLEY: Yam sounds well, yum. But Mark says that’s just a coincidence.
PADOONGPATT: LAUGHS Right, right, right, it’s a Thai word. The word itself, yam, it’s like “mashing together”, “combining ingredients.” So, yeah. It’s not yum as in yummy. It’s a Thai word.
GRABER: Thai food is also a bit of a mash-up, the cuisine there has absorbed influences from neighboring China and India, and the Portuguese sailors who brought the super important chile peppers from the New World. And they blended all those influences with their own ingredients and styles.
TWILLEY: But the country itself remained totally independent.
PADOONGPATT: And that is something that Thailand, the Thai state, Thai people take great pride in. And in terms of the region itself, right, you have a number of neighboring countries, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, all colonized by European powers.
TWILLEY: Thailand, meanwhile, was never colonized.
PADOONGPATT: However, I think it’s a little bit more complicated because the strategy taken up by previous Thai kings in order to prevent formal colonization was to in some ways colonize themselves. Right, so it was to say: We are going to civilize. And the whole idea was, we’re going to show the rest of the world that we are modern, civilized people. We’re going to change how we dress, going to change how we speak, we’re going to develop a national identity. So that way the European powers can look at us and say, Oh, wait, wait, these aren’t savage people that need to be civilized.
GRABER: And this brings us back to, yes, The King and I! Thank you Nicky for letting me talk about musicals today. The plot of the musical—which by the way was based on a true story—is that an Anglo woman was hired to be governess to the wives and children of the King of Siam, to teach them all about English language and customs. And this event, this story, it was part of the actual historical drive of the king at the time to modernize his country.
CLIP THE KING AND I
CHORUS: And English words, Are all we speak, At the Royal Bangkok Academy. If we pay attention to our teacher, And obey her every rule…
TWILLEY: This is absolutely the last musical number we are playing this episode, Cynthia. I have only so much patience.
GRABER: Okay, this episode. But this musical actually was important in its time. Nowadays, many people do have a lot of problems with how the Thai people are portrayed in it—but at the time, when the musical came out in 1951, it was hugely popular and Mark says it shaped people’s perception of Thailand. Suddenly people were more aware of this smallish country in southeast Asia.
TWILLEY: Anyway, all this song and dance is to say that Thailand was seen as a pretty accessible, unthreatening, intriguing place for Americans already. And then came the Cold War.
PADOONGPATT: Really after World War Two, the United States becomes the new global leader. They are leading the free world, the new global power. And one of its main concerns, of course, is Southeast Asia and the fear that the region is going to fall to communism, especially with the rise of communist China. And the U.S. State Department and the U.S. government sees Thailand as a really strategic location to prevent the spread of communism in the region. And so they send hundreds and thousands of U.S. political officials and state officials, diplomats, ambassadors but also U.S. military, right. Establishing air bases, army bases. And then with that influx comes American tourists, family members, particularly wives and partners of American GI’s.
GRABER: Thailand seemed like a great base for Americans for all the reasons we’d mentioned—the country had deliberately tried to make itself more amenable to Western nations, it hadn’t been colonized by other Western powers, and it didn’t have the same leftist anti-colonial movements that its neighbors did.
PADOONGPATT: And so you just get this large influx of Americans. And in fact, this is the moment from the mid 50s to the 1970s where Thailand, it becomes known as Thailand’s American era because of the heavy American presence.
GRABER: The military men, and in some cases their wives, they weren’t the only Americans showing up in Thailand. The newly formed Peace Corps sent their first group to the country in 1962.
PADOONGPATT: And this opens up opportunities for U.S. citizens to quote unquote discover Thai food for the first time. There was that one Peace Corps activist, Marianne Apple May, who was, you know, volunteering in Thailand in the late 1960s and wrote letters back to her parents saying, you know, The food here is incredibly different. You know, there’s crab eggs and all kinds of exotic things. It’s really spicy but good. Surprisingly, really, really good. You know, she said that she’s going to go home and plant some Thai chilis in their backyard when she returns.
TWILLEY: Mark says it was mostly these white women who first introduced Thai cuisine to Americans.
PADOONGPATT: And one really quick example that I love to talk about is a woman named Marie Wilson, who was a suburban housewife from West Los Angeles. Her husband was teaching English in Thailand during this period on a Fulbright fellowship.
GRABER: After ten years traveling around Thailand, Marie came back to Los Angeles. And she published the very first Thai cookbook in the U.S. called Siamese Cookery. She told her readers not to worry, that even though, quote, There is nothing plain about Thai cooking, the dishes are not difficult to prepare.
TWILLEY: So how, quote, authentic were Marie’s Thai recipes? Were they at least similar to what she would have eaten in Thailand?
PADOONGPATT: Yeah, not not similar at all. LAUGHS Not very similar at all. So I’m thinking of Marie Wilson’s recipe for shrimp curry. And in the cookbook, this called for, you know, 1965, right—so this called for anchovy paste, which was supposed to substitute for fish sauce. Sour cream, which was supposed to substitute for coconut cream.
GRABER: Did that shrimp curry at least taste good? How much success did Marie have at at least giving a hint of what dishes might have tasted like in Thailand?
PADOONGPATT: I can’t say with what level of success. And you know, Marie Wilson said that she shared it with her fellow housewives and that they enjoyed it. You know, and I think in part because they didn’t really have a comparison. And it’s also, I think, a kind of funny note as well, that in the cookbook, Marie Wilson says, you know, I shared this curry, this sour cream curry with my Thai friends and they loved it. And me, you know, being a Thai American and growing up in a Thai immigrant community, just knowing Thai people—yeah, Thai people think everything is great. LAUGHS They’re gonna applaud you for everything. It’s just kind of a hallmark of Thai people. LAUGHS Even if you speak Thai poorly, they will tell you your Thai is fantastic.
TWILLEY: We are not so polite. So I guess we’ll just have to make Marie’s curry and find out.
GRABER: Or not.
TWILLEY: But meanwhile, the first Thai immigrants are making their way Stateside.
PADOONGPATT: Thai immigrants come to the United States in three main waves. And the first wave is right after World War Two, to about the mid 1960s. And that first wave was made up of mostly elite Thais: urban, middle class, well-educated, who were taking advantage of the relationship that the United States government had established with Thailand. So they were coming, you know, on exchange programs or coming as students.
GRABER: The students gravitated to places that had great colleges, so there were small pockets of Thai immigrants in Illinois and Michigan and Massachusetts and New York. But really, the very largest group of them ended up in Los Angeles.
TWILLEY: And a lot of them stayed, after their student visas had expired. And then because L.A. was a place with a Thai community, more Thai people came here.
PADOONGPATT: And then after 1965, after the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which kind of opened up the doors a little bit for Asian immigrants to come to the United States, then you have more Thai women coming. You have more Thai people from rural areas, more quote unquote unskilled or poor Thai people coming.
GRABER: And so by the 1970s, Los Angeles had the largest Thai community outside of Thailand. And they were kind of hungry.
PADOONGPATT: We do know from some of the early cookbooks that were authored by Thai women that there was a longing for Thai food. Which suggests that they weren’t too fond of American cuisine. Steak, hamburger, you know, kind of typical American fare at the time, it was fine. They didn’t dislike it. But they just, they really missed these flavors that they were used to from Thailand. They were missing yam, right. They were missing this balance of sweet, sour, spicy, salty that, you know, American food was one, maybe two notes. But this kind of balance bringing it all together, I think they really missed that.
TWILLEY: So they tried to make Thai dishes at home—simple stuff like garlic and white pepper pork, chili paste and eggs over rice.
GRABER: But as we said, they couldn’t find everything they needed here.
PADOONGPATT: The first thing they did is they just smuggled some stuff in when they traveled to the United States in their suitcases. So they would bring things like chili paste, you know, canned goods that they could put a little bit of chili paste with a boiled egg, eat it with rice.
GRABER: A little smuggling worked at first, but then the U.S. customs department got worried about drugs coming in from the so-called Golden Triangle: Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. And since smuggling was cut off, these desperate home cooks had to try something else.
PADOONGPATT: The other way was, of course, through substitution, not unlike what Marie Wilson did. And at the time they arrived, I think soy sauce was readily available. And then with Vietnamese refugees, fish sauce became a little bit more available. And so there were some ingredients and foodstuffs that they could rely on.
TWILLEY: But there were a lot of ingredients that just weren’t available and were completely irreplaceable.
PADOONGPATT: I think the most interesting example is: There was a group of Thai women who had learned about or discovered a bai makrut or what is more commonly known as kaffir lime.
GRABER: The fruit of the makrut lime tree is small, bright green and wrinkled, and it looks basically like a mini green alien brain. But the super fragrant leaves are a critical ingredient in Thai cuisine. I even saw and smelled one of these trees when we visited the citrus collection at UC Riverside a few years ago.
TWILLEY: UC Riverside is about a two hour drive from downtown LA, and somehow, Mark has no idea how, these homesick Thai expats discovered its citrus collection!
PADOONGPATT: And they would make these pilgrimages every weekend to go to Riverside, pick these leaves off of probably the property of the University of California, Riverside’s citrus program. And so they would pick these leaves off the tree, you know, take them back home, put them in the freezer, and then use the leaves to make a curry paste, which would then be used for tom yum soup or other curries. Whether or not it was legal is, I think, besides the point. LAUGHS
GRABER: One problem solved, courtesy of UC Riverside. And then there were some other tasty tidbits at Cal Poly Pomona. Mark interviewed a guy who had studied there decades ago.
PADOONGPATT: Was taking an agriculture class. The professor was growing all kinds of ingredients in this greenhouse, so was growing Thai chilies, all this stuff. And then, the professor was like, It’s not growing. Like, the Thai chilies just aren’t growing well. What’s going on? And the Thai person I interviewed was like, it was growing, but we were picking them off the tree and taking them home at night. And so the professor kept coming in and saying, like, Why aren’t these growing? They should be growing. And then finally they told the professor, like, They are growing, we’ve just been taking them back LAUGHS back home and making, you know, the fish sauce with chili in it. And so the professor, kindly right, is like, OK. Just let it grow first so we can study it and then you can have as much as you want.
TWILLEY: Thank heavens for California’s state school system. But one professor’s chile peppers and a lime tree in Riverside were not going to sustain LA’s growing Thai population forever. For that, you needed a street kid from Bangkok.
JET TILA: So my family’s grocery store existed for about 50 years. It was a place called Bangkok market in East Hollywood. And it was opened in 1972. I wasn’t even born yet.
GRABER: This is Jet Tila, he’s a chef and a food entrepreneur.
TWILLEY: Mark says Jet’s dad played an absolutely central role in the story of Thai food in the U.S.
PADOONGPATT: So Bangkok Market was the first Thai grocery store in the United States. And it was opened by Thai immigrant named Pramorte Tilakamonkul.
TWILLEY: Jet has since shortened his last name to the more Anglo friendly Tila.
GRABER: Jet told us that he grew up in his dad’s market.
TILA: It was only about 600 square feet in a strip mall. And it was a trading pos. It was a very kind of a village-y scene where, you know, we knew Cynthia was coming over from Thailand, you bring a case of coconut milk, okay? And Nicky would come over and we knew, please bring some fish sauce. So it really was a tiny little trading post, the center of the community. And he would just cobble together ingredients, some picked from the Vietnamese community in terms of herbs, others from the Chinese community for rice and noodle staples, and then whatever you can get from Thailand. And you had about six or seven aisles, a full produce section, full butcher area. And it was a very typical Asian market, you know, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who spoke English very well.
TWILLEY: Jet’s dad had grown up in Bangkok.
TILA: I don’t know if he finished high school or not. Seven boys, they had a, what called, what’s called a “shophouse.”
GRABER: Jet’s grandparents ran that shophouse, it was a little noodle shop in Thailand that served Chinese food, because that’s ethnically where Jet’s family was originally from.
TILA: These boys would run their Hainanese cafe with their parents. And that was it. And so my dad was the troublemaker, he was the second-born, he was in their equivalent of a street gang. And, you know, something really tragic happened in his early twenties. And it kind of forced him to come here. And his parents basically said, If you don’t leave Thailand, you’re gonna die. I mean, you know, it had something to do with a street gang fight. And unfortunately, you know, someone didn’t make it. And he was going down a very specific path.
TWILLEY: Jet’s dad realized his parents were right. He had to get out. And he knew some rich Thai kids who were going to L.A. for college.
TILA: And he made a deal with a guy. So he says, If you buy my ticket, I will work it off, little by little. And that’s how he got here. That’s the story of how my father arrived.
GRABER: He got to Los Angeles, and he got right to finding a job.
TILA: He said his first job was parking cars at the Mann Chinese Theater. And then his second job was a busboy at a French restaurant. But, you know, coming from a culinary background with a little noodle shop, you know, kitchens were comfortable for my entire family. And then subsequently, you know, worked odd jobs and met my mom. So they met pretty quickly after they both landed here separately, and she was more middle class. He had some crazy idea to start this little market. My mom’s family financed it.
TWILLEY: And that is how, at the age of 26, Jet’s dad, who had by then shortened his name to Pat—Pat opened Bangkok Market on the northwest corner of Melrose Avenue and North Harvard Boulevard in East Hollywood.
GRABER: As Jet told us, Pat first relied on friends bringing supplies back from Thailand. Then he got organized and started importing Thai ingredients himself.
TWILLEY: But that wasn’t easy. For reasons to do with my other favorite topic. No, not refrigeration—quarantine! Both makrut lime and lemongrass can carry plant diseases that could have harmed U.S. crops, and so Pat couldn’t bring them in commercially.
GRABER: Pat tried to grow some of these all-important Thai crops in southern California, it didn’t work too well, then he tried out the Central Valley and he had more success, but Mark says the problem was, those California crops were only available seasonally.
PADOONGPATT: Pramorte really wants a year-round supply of these ingredients. And so he ends up starting a free trade zone in Mexico in the late 70s, early 80s, in order to grow Southeast Asian produce: long beans, jackfruit. And then to import those ingredients to the United States from Mexico.
TWILLEY: Pat literally applied for federal permission to create his own Free Trade Zone in Sinaloa, Mexico. And so now this tiny little supermarket in East Hollywood was operating its own agricultural enclave in Mexico that was officially treated as part of the U.S. by Customs and Border Protection.
TILA: My father would either find seeds, bring seeds in from Thailand and would ask these farmers to you know, go in with him, and plant. I mean he started, he basically created the jackfruit business. So yeah, this one man basically created the Thai produce business, single handedly.
GRABER: And it was a huge success. Bangkok Market—again, this little grocery store in Los Angeles—they were growing 90 percent of the southeast Asian produce that came into the U.S. in the fall and winter in those free trade zones in Mexico.
PADOONGPATT: And the context for this is that the Mexican government was trying to establish a stronger trade relationship with the United States—as they prepared for NAFTA, the free trade agreement. And so this was part of that moment.
TWILLEY: NAFTA, or the North American Free Trade Agreement—didn’t take effect until the 90s, but Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. were already hard at work negotiating all the terms and conditions in the 80s, each of them trying to figure out how to make this big trade deal work for them.
PADOONGPATT: And so Mexican companies were just saying, you know, like, How can we tap into the American marketplace? And so they decided, why don’t we just grow a bunch of Asian stuff? There’s not going to be that much competition. We would be the first to do it. And so they had that incentive of saying, you know, there’s this new market, there’s this growing market of Asian food. So maybe we can tap into that.
GRABER: They did, the Mexican growers got into the U.S. market through these Asian ingredients, Jet’s dad had a year-round supply of Thai ingredients for his growing clientele, and NAFTA eventually passed in the 1990s—that’s a whole bigger story that lots of economists and politicians argue about and we are not going to touch today.
TWILLEY: Meanwhile, Mark says that Bangkok Market was not just shaping international agricultural deals. It was also a vibrant local community center.
PADOONGPATT: Its location becomes a magnet for Thai immigrants to settle in that area. And so the East Hollywood area becomes a hub of the Thai community in Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s. And so the development of Thai Town takes root in that neighborhood.
TILA: It was wild. I remember being a baby. And, you know, he would try to… So Thai people who were living here that would pass away, they didn’t have enough money for funerals. So they would break pallets to make coffins, I mean, it was crazy. It was really not a grocery store, per se, but it was really a community center.
GRABER: As the community grew around the market, Pat helped out. He helped fund the launch of Thai-language newspapers and community organizations, he was a founding member of the first and largest Thai Buddhist temple in the U.S. And—he opened a restaurant.
TILA: My dad was pretty forward thinking. He went west. And it was Pico and Overland. It was right down the street from the 20th Century Fox lot. And he opened the Royal Thai in ’78 I think or something like that. And then and, and you know, nobody knew what Thai food was at that time. So he was like, I’m going to get everyone. So he basically gave away food for the first week.
TWILLEY: Not everyone is from LA, but I am here to explain: it is a city of two halves. The rich, green, palm tree covered Westside that you see in the movies, and the poorer, browner, denser Eastside, that you usually don’t. Bangkok Market and the growing Thai community, they were on the eastside.
GRABER: But Pat launched his restaurant on the Westside right next to what is now the Sony studios, and it took off, and a lot of other Thai decided to copy him and launch restaurants there, too.
PADOONGPATT: This is your aerobics generation, the wealthy and white part of Los Angeles.
CLIP JANE FONDA AEROBICS
JANE FONDA: Five, six, seven, eight!
TWILLEY: Those were the days! Jane Fonda and headbands for the win.
PADOONGPATT: By the 1970s, there’s like 50 Thai restaurants in West L.A. trying to tap into this market of people who had the money and the income to try this new cuisine. Also, I think the restaurants become popular in this moment because there’s a kind of cultural cachet to it. Celebrities start eating Thai food. There’s a number of Thai chefs who wrote in their cookbooks that, you know, they had celebrity customers.
TILA: I remember being in the restaurant because my regimen was: I get out of school. And then I’d basically have to hang out at the restaurant until closing time. So I do side work and homework and stuff like that. But then I remember my parents going, Oh my god, that’s Lee Majors.
GRABER: Jet and I both grew up in the U.S. in the 70s and 80s, and that means we share some cultural touchstones. Like Lee Majors. Who was the star of the very popular TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man.”
CLIP SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN
DOCTOR: What if he could be more than the man he was? We have the technology to rebuild him. I want it done, no matter what the cost.
VOCALIST: Six Million Dollar Man! He’s the man! (Six million dollar man) He’s the man! (Six million dollar man)
TWILLEY: I missed out on this in rainy England but this theme song—I’m thinking I need to organize a “Six Million Dollar Man” marathon! ASAP.
GRABER: I am so in. But first, back to Thai restaurants in the 70s and 80s in Los Angeles.
PADOONGPATT: That’s when you start to see, I think, the rise of large numbers of Thai restaurants that are serving and selling to non-Thais.
TWILLEY: When immigrant populations start serving their food to Anglos, oftentimes dishes change a little. Or a lot. We talked about this in our episode the United States of Chinese Food—in the end, a lot of the Chinese food that gets cooked for Americans is so far away from Chinese Chinese food that it has become its own thing: Chinese-American food.
GRABER: Mark says that didn’t really happen with Thai food. Most of the dishes served at Thai restaurants in America would be totally recognizable to someone stepping off the plane from Thailand.
TWILLEY: There were of course a few adaptations.
PADOONGPATT: So at least in West Los Angeles—you know, celebrities and stuff—some Thai restaurants started substituting or allowing eaters to substitute white rice for brown rice. Or instead of chicken, they could add tofu. And these aren’t major proteins. And of course, brown rice isn’t really a thing in Thailand or in Thai cuisine. And, you know, tofu is usually not the main protein of a dish in Thai cuisine. And so a lot of the food was actually, I guess you could call it kind of Americanized Thai food. And all that means is it was just a little bit sweeter and less spicy, just to kind of cater to the American palate.
TWILLEY: Thai restaurants were a huge hit in L.A. in the 80s. Ruth Reichl was the food critic for the L.A. Times back then and in her column, she said that the 80s were when L.A. became a foodie capital, and Thai food was at the center of that transformation. She said Thai food was quote colorful and exotic, sweet and spicy with a tropical tinge, and one of the great revelations of the decade.
GRABER: And from LA, with all that success, Thai restaurants spread around the U.S. I certainly don’t even remember my first encounter with Thai food, so by the late 80s, early 90s, I must have been eating pad thai in the DC area, too.
PADOONGPATT: Thai food becomes popular nationwide in the 1990s, catches the attention of not only American eaters but also the Thai government, who is like, Hmm, this is something that is economically viable that could actually help us as a country.
TWILLEY: And so starting in the early 2000s, the Thai government launched a whole series of government programs promoting Thailand through its food.
CLIP THAI KITCHEN TO THE WORLD
VOICEOVER: Thai kitchen to the world. Abundant in resources. Famous for the variety of signature dishes. With its flavorful tastes and deliciousness that satisfy people around the world. No matter where you are, or at any corner of the world, Thai food is always there to serve you.
PADOONGPATT: This sort of gastrodiplomacy, right, is I think it’s a term that they understand themselves, of using food as a way to promote tourism, promote economic development, and then by extension, promote national development in Thailand.
GRABER: The government trained chefs, and they sent them around to cook Thai food overseas, and they focused on the export of Thai ingredients. It’s unclear how successful this gastro-diplomacy was, but we know of one chef who definitely caught the eye of the Thai government.
CLIP IRON CHEF
VOICEOVER: The Chairman welcomes… Chef Jet Tila!
CHAIRMAN: Chef Tila, welcome!
TILA: So the next course is from Thailand, you’re always going to get a fried fish, and a mango salad. But you’re gonna get seaweed and a little bit of apple for the acid. And on top, we did a little bit of fried kombu chips and a fried sea beet.
JUDGE: Clearly, you’re like a genius Thai chef, it’s a genius Thai dish.
TWILLEY: Jet sadly narrowly lost to the Iron Chef himself, but he went on to become a Food Network star. And then he became an official Thai culinary ambassador.
TILA: About a decade ago, the Thai Consul General here in Los Angeles, we were working on a few projects together, mainly outreach and export promotions. And they’re like, Hey, would you like to kind of try this out and be the culinary ambassador to Thailand? And they offered me the position, there’s no salary or diplomatic immunity, or free first class flights anytime, anything like that. But, you know, but it’s a title that I take seriously, and I’m really honored to have that position.
TWILLEY: Culinary ambassador sounds mighty fine. But what does it actually involve?
TILA: When we have a VIP come from another country, show ‘em around. When we have issues with messaging with certain ingredients. When we want to promote certain ingredients, what are your ideas? How do we speak Thai food in America, or how do we get non-Thais to incorporate more Thai ingredients like jasmine rice and fish sauce, which are really easy! So all those—I have to wear all those hats, it really just boils down to being free labor, to help my people.
GRABER: Jet himself as a chef, he cooks a lot of different kinds of food, not just Thai food, but he certainly enjoys cooking with ingredients and techniques from Thailand and representing Thailand. He has his own series on the Food Network website called “Ready Jet Cook,” and he will teach you to cook Thailand’s national dish, pad thai.
CLIP READY JET COOK
TILA: My family popularized pad thai in America over 40 years ago when we opened the first Thai restaurant. So it’s super cool to be sharing our recipe all while shopping here, at my family’s Thai market in Hollywood. Let’s get started.
TWILLEY: Pad thai is the most popular dish in Thai restaurants across America. I mean, are you even a Thai restaurant if you don’t have pad thai?
GRABER: No, is the answer.
PADOONGPATT: LAUGHS So pad thai is not this ancient traditional dish that has been part of Thai cuisine for, you know, time immemorial, right. It was created in the 1930s by prime minister Phibunsongkhram who invented the dish because he wanted something that was uniquely Thai. And in order to understand the invention of pad thai, you have to understand what’s happening in Thailand in the 1930s.
GRABER: We talked about this a bit with The King and I, but in the 1800s, Thailand, or Siam at the time, was trying to make itself into a bit more of a Western country. It wanted to, quote, modernize.
TWILLEY: By the 30s, there had been a military coup, and the new national government had renamed Siam “Thailand” as part of a whole nation-building program.
PADOONGPATT: And part of that process means uniting the entire country, all of its people, under this idea of being Thai. And so Phibunsongkhram issues all kinds of cultural mandates: How to dress like a Thai, how to speak like a Thai, how to eat like a Thai. And pad thai is just part of this process, or this strategy of developing a Thai national identity.
GRABER: Pad thai, at least its full name in Thai, it literally means Thai-style fried noodles. And strangely it’s actually a twist on a Chinese noodle dish, but with ingredients that make it uniquely Thai.
TWILLEY: And even though it was sort of invented alongside a new Thai national anthem in the 1930s and a new name for the country, it really, truly caught on. Pad thai became one of the most popular Bangkok street foods.
GRABER: And then from there it conquered America. But these days, you don’t have to stop at pad thai.
TILA: If you’re pad thai, go to drunken noodles. If you’re a curry, go to khao soi. And we can continue the journey from there.
TWILLEY: Things have come a long way since Marie Wilson’s shrimp curry or Lee Majors sitting down for pad thai in West LA. Nowadays, there are Thai restaurants in American cities that specialize in Bangkok street food or that serve only Southern Thai fish and coconut dishes.
PADOONGPATT: And I think one shift that I’ve seen recently is just the popularity of Northern Thai cuisine. So you have places like here in Las Vegas, Lotus of Siam, Weera Thai. These restaurants focus on and specialize in Northern, Northeastern Thai cuisine: Papaya salad, khao soi, larb.
GRABER: And in fact the women at the helm of Lotus of Siam, who are specializing in Northeastern Thai cuisine, they’re the ones who taught our personal Zoom cooking class! They decided we would make some soup.
SABRINA CHUTIMA: The Northern tom kha, which is similar to tom yum but not all entirely. We don’t use the coconut milk. We don’t use the chili paste on that.
TWILLEY: It’s a Northern Thai twist on a classic.
GRABER: Over Zoom, we followed them into their kitchen, and of course, because they’re pros, Sabrina and her mom had everything all prepped and laid out.
SABRINA: So right here we have the Thai chilies that we have from my house, actually. And then we have a little bit of sugar, some salt, some fresh limes, cherry tomatoes, the kaffir lime leaf. CHOPPING And then we do have some lemongrass, some peeled garlic. We also have some green onions that we’ve already sliced. We also have cilantro. And then the white and red onion that my mom just cut up.
GRABER: We of course weren’t quite so ready to go.
TWILLEY: Ok, so I should cut up my onion, I haven’t cut up my onion yet.
GRABER: Yeah, I haven’t cut my mine either.
TWILLEY: Wait, how are we supposed to cut up the onion? What size do we want?
SABRINA CHUTIMA: Half an inch, maybe? Maybe less.
GRABER: A whole white onion and a whole red onion?
SABRINA CHUTIMA: You can do half of them or you can do the whole as well.
GRABER: Okay. And how do we cut the lemongrass?
SABRINA CHUTIMA: Roughly smaller slices, just starting from the tip right here. CHOPPING SOUNDS
GRABER: Oh my gosh, the lemongrass smells amazing.
SABRINA CHUTIMA: So for the garlic, you actually don’t need to slice them. You can just pound it up a little bit just so that it’s a little bruised. POUNDING And for this one, the kaffir lime leaf, what she’s doing is she’s taking out the spine of it. So she’s just taking it and then just ripping it right off. RIPPING
TWILLEY: Ripping the lime leaves was probably my favorite part, because first of all, ripping, and then also it smelled incredible.
TWILLEY: They smell amazing.
GRABER: Oh my gosh, Nicky, my hands smell so good from pulling the lime leaves. Mmmm.
GRABER: Sabrina and her family actually grow their own makrut lime plant, outside their home, and apparently the thorns are nearly the length of sewing needles, they’re a full inch and a half long.
SABRINA CHUTIMA: So it’s the best burglar alarm that you have. We like to leave them right around the walls, just in case if someone jumps over the wall, the next thing you know is you hear a very loud “Ow.” LAUGHS
TWILLEY: We chopped everything, lots of everything, and then we added it in the right order to boiling water.
SABRINA CHUTIMA: My mom was asking, does the house smell good yet?
TWILLEY: Oh, my God. It smells amazing. I keep sticking my nose into it.
GRABER: When I threw in the makrut lime leaves at the end, my partner Tim called to me from his office desk in the living room to say he could smell it from the other room and it smelled incredible.
TWILLEY: Look, I want to show you mine because I’m really proud.
SAIPIN CHUTIMA: Oh, yes!
SABRINA CHUTIMA: Yeah!
TWILLEY: I haven’t tasted it yet.
SABRINA CHUTIMA: Make sure to, my mom said to try to taste it, and see how the flavor profile works for you.
TWILLEY: Ok, let me get a spoon.
SABRINA CHUTIMA: LAUGHS It’s OK. It’s good to be excited.
TWILLEY: OH! It’s good!
GRABER: Mine tasted amazing, too, and I was kind of shocked at how easy it was to make. Tim was, too, at dinner—which we did supplement with Thai take-out, because the soup wasn’t quite enough—he kept asking me what I did to make it taste so good. And I said, kind of nothing. I chopped a lot of galangal and ginger and I ripped a lot of stems out of lime leaves, and I also chopped a bunch of onion and scallions and lemongrass and garlic.
TILA: Our food is so ingredient dependent, right? It’s not difficult. It’s really not difficult. I mean, it’s really about understanding the ingredients, and then the nuances of how to bring them together. And that’s it man. That’s the beauty of like a lot of Asian cooking. You know, it really is.
TWILLEY: It is also really easy to fall in love with Thai food. And that’s what Americans have done. And more recently, it’s what the Thai government has deliberately tried to engineer.
GRABER: Mark obviously loves Thai food too—to him it’s just food!—but he told us he used to hate that when white people, when they first met him, they’d immediately tell him how much they loved Thai food. That really bugged him.
TWILLEY: Having food stand in for an entire culture—even if people have very positive feelings about that food—to Mark, it felt kind of reductive.
GRABER: He says the Thai community in America is dealing with real issues, like affordable housing, and labor exploitation, and immigrant rights. And Mark kind of worries that our love for their food will overshadow all those other aspects of Thai-American community life.
PADOONGPATT: You know, it’s really complicated. And what I, what I want to avoid is simply saying that food is a distraction from real issues, right. I think, I don’t know if it’s a distraction as much as it’s just, you know… it presents its opportunities and it has its limitations. So is there a way that you can take the popularity and visibility of Thai cuisine and then use that to garner or cultivate more political activism and political visibility?
TWILLEY: And eat some delicious noodles and curries while you’re doing it? I’m in—and I’m lucky enough to be in LA. So where should I go?
PADOONGPATT: Oh, this is such a good question. I’m going to send you to all kinds of places. So I think you have to go to…
GRABER: We don’t want to tease everyone since most of us can’t travel to Los Angeles right now, so we’re going to save Mark’s list for our special supporters newsletter! Nicky, watch out, once we can, we’ll all be descending on LA.
TWILLEY: It will be my pleasure to have you here on the best coast! Huge thanks this episode to Mark Padoongpatt, whose book is called Flavors of Empire, and to Saipin and Sabrina Chutima whose restaurants in Las Vegas are called Lotus of Siam, and to Jet Tila, whose online Food Network show is called “Ready Jet Cook.” Links on our website, of course.
GRABER: Thanks so much of course to Gastropod fellow Sonja Swanson for all her help this episode.
TWILLEY: We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with a story about a virus. No, not that virus—this is a virus that can’t hurt us, but could really help make our food safer.