What Is “Authentic” Thai Cuisine?


Before I begin, please allow me to make it absolutely clear that this is a separate issue from whether or not a restaurant can add bamboo shoots, potatoes, and carrots to Tom Kha Gai, whether Nam Prik Pao should be fried, or whether dairy is allowed in Tom Yam, etc. That is the issue of what can/should or cannot/should not be done to a dish and to what extent before the dish ceases to be recognizably what it’s generally perceived to be1, and I’ll write a post on it someday.

This post is about what represents “authentic Thai cuisine.”

And just so you don’t waste your time, let me state my position unequivocally at this point: I don’t know where I stand; I don’t even have an answer that satisfies me on a personal level. If you think that’s bad (or too post-modern), it gets worse: not only do I not have an answer, the more I think about it, the more questions I have.

So this could be a case of mental incontinence on my part. But since you’re still reading, I’m just going to let loose.

Based on my observation, some notions have been perpetuated. I cannot find ways to support any of them.

1. The so-called royal Thai cuisine is the true representation of authentic Thai cuisine.

This also includes recipes generated by aristocratic households. The subtle implication is that in preserving these old recipes, one is preserving the true essence, the top representation of Thai cuisine. Also implied is the notion that if you really want to create Thai food at its best, you need to recreate these recipes. This is because, Thai cuisine as we know it today has been corrupted and we need to remedy the situation by bringing back these obscure dishes.

Though you can’t really label this notion and its implications false, this view is, in my opinion, grossly narrow. The royal cuisine — if there’s truly such a separate class (M.L. Sirichalerm Svasti, better known as Chef McDang, does not believe so) — is only a minuscule part of Thai cuisine as a whole. It represents the experience of those in the palaces and aristocratic households which is not shared by the vast majority of the population. Those who espouse the notion of the royal Thai cuisine being truer, more refined, more worthy of exalting and preserving, and more definitive of what Thai cuisine is all about need to explain to us why Thai food as made and consumed by people outside that society is considered less authentic or, in fact, less anything.

In other words, I personally may find an exquisite fish salad served on pink lotus petals as served in an aristocratic household on the Rattanakosin Isle more palatable than a grilled river fish served with chili paste and rice cooked in a clay pot as served in rural Ratchaburi Province, but I cannot justify calling the former more Thai or authentic than the latter.

Each royal/aristocratic family also has its own tradition and unique recipes (which often employ novel ingredients). Which of these traditions is the true representation of the royal cuisine, let alone Thai cuisine as a whole? And could the reason we’re scrambling to revive, preserve, and promote these ancient, about-to-become-extinct dishes so that “kids these days” won’t be so clueless be precisely due to the fact that these exquisite, lofty, novel dishes never really entered the mainstream or were embraced by the general population to begin with?

2. Only recipes and dishes attested in searchable written records count as true representations of Thai cuisine; the rest is hearsay and to be dismissed.

While I’m somewhat neutral about the previous notion, I find this one annoying.

Anyone who deals with ancient documents can tell you: just because a document was written in antiquity does not mean it contains facts, all facts, and nothing but facts. Even something supposedly factual and straightforward as a king list from ancient Egypt could be commissioned/edited by those in power to make themselves look pious and their enemies either nonexistent or evil. Usurpers did that all the time, and those who rose to power after the usurpers also repeated the cycle. And it wasn’t that hard to manipulate facts, because in ancient times, what percentage of the general population could actually read? Even the stone masons who did the inscribing didn’t even know what words they were chiseling into a stone (if they had scribal skills, they wouldn’t have become stone masons).

Historians — good ones, anyway — know better than to reconstruct history based on the naïve notion that all written records represent what actually happened or that no facts can emerge outside of these written records. Access to historical records alone without the knowledge and insight on how to handle their contents is useless.

In the case of Thai culinary historical records, I have no reasons to believe there’s any falsehood involved. However, one needs to keep in mind that it was mostly the rich, powerful, and educated who could produce and popularize written records. And those records almost always reflect the lives they lived. Nothing wrong with that; we just have to recognize that as fact and remember that for every story that is written down, there are several untold stories that are just as legitimate and crucial in reconstructing the past.

In my previous post on salmon-coconut milk relish (Lon Pla Salmon หลนปลาแซลมอน), I alluded to a century-old recipe by one of Thailand’s first cookbook authors, Lady Plian Pasakornwong (ท่านผู้หญิงเปลี่ยน ภาสกรวงศ์), the wife of one of the top officials during the reign of King Rama V. This recipe, requiring imported canned salmon, was written by someone who belonged to the royal/aristocratic household, originally published in a newsletter that was clearly produced for the top echelon of the Thai society (you think the rural rice farmers back in those days who most likely didn’t have access to electricity would subscribe to a newsletter teaching you how to make apple charlotte2 or how to build a horse stable — including how to manage servants overseeing the horses — and a car garage3?)

There’s nothing wrong with Lady Plian’s recipes, her choice of ingredients, or the contents of her newsletters/books. I’m just using her work as an example of a piece of culinary literature that reflects the lifestyle of the elite. While Lady Plian’s recipes were recorded and circulated, there were millions of Thai households throughout the country that cooked and ate dishes that were never written down, let alone published. These dishes, recipes, and culinary traditions were passed down from generation to generation orally. And when one of these families makes a claim that such and such dish is an ancient family recipe, do we automatically dismiss that as hearsay just because there’s no body of literature to support that claim?

It’s one thing to prudently take every claim with a grain of salt. But it borders on arrogance to dismiss anecdotal evidence as illegitimate simply because people did not have the intellectual or financial means to transmit their stories in written/printed form. In fact, throughout history, those who had less power, knowledge, and resources always outnumbered those who had more. Sure, dig hard enough and you might find a handful of old books on the subject written by regular Joes and Janes, but they are few and far between and almost have never been elevated to a level anywhere near the ones written by those from a higher socio-economic stratum.

And lastly …

3. Fusion is bad. Fusion is really, really bad. I hate fusion. Fusion is the antithesis of authentic Thai cuisine.

You hear it all the time. Somebody hates fusion. Go to a party and you’ll meet someone who hates fusion. Throw a coin randomly into a crowd of Thai culinary experts and it will land on someone who hates fusion. (Writer/restaurateur Jarrett Wrisley has written a piece on fusion, if you’re interested.)

See, I think we all want to be one of those cool, authoritative gatekeeping purists who hate fusion too; we’re just not clear on what fusion really means.

Does fusion mean applying a non-Thai technique to local ingredients? Does fusion mean using non-Thai ingredients in a Thai dish? If so, name one Thai dish that wasn’t “fusion” at one point in history. Keep in mind that until the Europeans brought over chili, tomato, and papaya, we never cooked with them. Red or green curry, if they had been invented that early on (they weren’t), would have been — gasp — fusion.

Food is not a static thing. It evolves much like language and everything else. Years ago, we didn’t cook with carrots, because we didn’t have carrots. Now that we have and want to use carrots in some dishes, we’re committing the crime of fusion?

Which period of history represents Thai cuisine at its peak and most authentic, then? At which point did Thai cuisine start to allegedly decline? And exactly what do we have right now? Thai cuisine at its worst? Thai cuisine that has lost its former glory? In which period in history was this glory found: early Sukhothai, mid-Ayutthaya, the brief respite that was Thonburi, early Rattanakosin, pre-WWII?

Is it possible that 50 years from now, this period, which allegedly represents the corruption of Thai cuisine, will be looked upon with nostalgia as the good old days? 

I’ll sigh sign off here.

What are the implications of all this? Honestly, I don’t really know, and I haven’t thought it through. I’m just in the process of eliminating the notions which I can’t support in hopes of some clarity.

What about you? Your thoughts?

__________________________

1 Originally, the sentence read, “… before the dish ceases to be recognizably what it’s supposed to be … .” But that implies that there is a rigid, frozen, canonized form of what it is “supposed to be.” And that’s an idea I cannot substantiate.

2 Pratithinnabat Lae Chot-mai Het (ประติทินบัตรแลจดหมายเหตุ), Bangkok Prasitthikan Company Limited, December 1, 1889 (Rattanakosin Era 108/Buddhist Era 2432), Vol. 1, No. 3, p. 93.

3 Ibid., February 1, 1889 (Rattanakosin Era 108/Buddhist Era 2432), Vol. 1, No. 5, pp. 150-1.

48 Responses to What Is “Authentic” Thai Cuisine?

  1. Laura September 18, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Interesting post. I’m a total layman and non-Thai to boot :), but I agree with all of it–the first 2 seem to obviously be snobbery and the third is well yes another kind of snobbery. I have never understood why people get all up in arms about “fusion”. And, speaking as an American trying to cook Thai food, if using locally available, seasonal, fresh ingredients is wrong I don’t want to be right! :)

  2. Jason Bailey September 18, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    I don’t think its just a matter of referencing or reviving old recipes. Royal Thai Cooking in the modern day like it was in the past, also encompasses an attitude and superior attention to detail. And of course superior produce.

    The very essence of Royal Thai Cuisine lies in the painstaking completion of all the many small but laborious tasks that lead to a more harmonious result in my opinion. These techniques and a required presence of mind are transferred orally or should I say the attitude is transferred. Diligently learning Royal Thai over time off the right teacher and using certain historical records as a generalized guide becomes a sensory experience where a large lexicon of techniques, colors, smells etc are formed.

    The peak of many cuisines has usually been reached in the hands of the elite classes whereby vast resources are able to be supplied for it’s development. A large amount of people view Thai Cuisine as a ‘cheap eat’ just a step off fast food. If people where willing to throw the same amount of money as they pay for french food at Thai Chefs (Native or whatever) than I’m sure you would see a rise in the quality of Thai Food.

    In commercial food settings labor is the largest cost. And whilst many Thai ingredients are cheaper than there western counterparts, Thai food requires vast amounts of labor hours. Adhering to historical techniques and cooking attitudes requires an insane level of labor hours.

    Why does a certain piece of music or a particular car become a classic. I don’t have the level of intelligence to answer that. But alot of times there have been large amounts of cash thrown at it and if not, vast amounts of time refining it. But always there was someone or a group of people who dedicated themselves fully to their creation.

    Royal Thai food is certainly a classic. Is it better than today’s food? How can anyone ever answer that, its to rare for enough people to make that decision.

    In regards to periods when Thai food peaked? I think it would be before Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. Which in turn decentralized the power of the country’s nobility.

  3. Beerdedguy September 18, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    Thai cuisine evolving in the context of Thai society isn’t really the issue with fusion; fusion in the pejorative sense happens outside of the culture it’s ostensibly representing. It’s when the ingredients and techniques of Thai cuisine are applied haphazardly and without this context, often by western chefs without any direct experience of local Thai foods and with results that may be more properly called thai-influenced or ‘asian-influenced’ that give the fusion moniker it’s stigma.

  4. Mikey September 18, 2012 at 11:11 am #

    I appreciate your opinion and arguments for the evolution of Thai cuisine. I agree to the continual, gradual change that takes place in any cultures cuisine, but the key word here is gradual.

    I am very disappointed when I will order a simple Thai dish and then see spagetti noodles used in a pad thai noodle dish or potatoes and yams in a green curry or the chef takes liberties and adds clams to a fish dish. The dishes can be very good but they are not what you perceived to of ordered.

    I am looking to eat similar dishes from a multitude of restaurants – its important to taste somewhat the same – afterall everyone uses a certain dish to measure up the restaruant they are in, whether its thier burgers, or chile relleno, or breads they are comparing.

    In the days of fusion, you will get a kitchen of many ingredients, usually not simply a few items and a nice sauce. I like the term “classic dishes”, they bring me to a certain feel for the dish, if the chef wishes to expand on the dish – when does he create a new name for it !!!

  5. George Gale September 18, 2012 at 11:34 am #

    Foodies generally celebrate the discovery of a new (frequently hole-in-the-wall, preferably mom-‘n-pop) resto that serves The Real Food of the People. Obviously the antithesis of the “Only Royal Thai is Real” position. If I had to choose between these two antithetical positions (which I don’t, Gottseidank!), I go with the foodies. Real People’s Food = Real Food.

    But I’ll enjoy anything made out of well-prepared good ingredients. :)

  6. Kenneth Gallaher September 18, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    Well from a practical point of view I don’t care about “royal cuisine” because I am sure that there is no restaurant within hundreds of miles of me that even pretends to do such food. Likewise I have low tolerance for doing fussy food myself. I much prefer the provincial food of France – not the Parisian/Julia Child’s stuff.

    As far as old recipes they tend to be vague, and nearly impossible to follow. Give me a modernish cook book any day.

    How about just calling Thai food the food you get in Thailand away from the tourist sites?

  7. Otto Rueger September 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    In the quest to define any particular cuisine one can easily loose sight of the fact that what’s important is how satisfying the food is to the partaker. I’d find it mpossible to define regional cuisines of any single country with a singular label. What you are decribing is the wonderful diversity found in Thai cooking that is to be explored and enjoyed.

  8. Phal September 18, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Some of the dishes on your blog are very similar if not down right the same as Khmer cuisine. I would never be so bold to doubt your authenticity, but I wonder if some of those dishes originated in Cambodia. Unfortunately, Cambodia has gone through a devastating genocidal war. Barely any literature or records left of their cuisine. My mother regrets not paying enough attention to her mothers cooking, but she has on numerous occasions talked about and tried to recreate dishes that are very similar to many of your dishes. Now in her early 60’s, she frequents Cambodia’s notable restaurants and claims tht the food is just not up to par to that prior the war.

    • Kenneth Gallaher September 19, 2012 at 7:45 am #

      I agree. The idea that any of the SE Asian cuisines are unique of monolithic is a myth. A book that covers this quite well – for a Westerner like me anyway is the book “Hot Sour Salty Sweet’ .Which talks a lot about the diversity and the relationships. it is a good cookbook – but has long articles on background as well.

      • Leela September 19, 2012 at 7:48 am #

        But are there cuisines, outside of Southeast Asia, that are truly monolithic, though?

  9. Tesei September 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm #

    I’m not at all an expert, but I do know I love the tastes and ingredients in Thai cuisine. I personally find it interesting and tasty.

    I’m Mexican and Thai cuisine reminds me a lot to our own. The procudures and the way you blend your “raw materials”, are different but the ingredients themselves are sometimes the same, or very similar. So although the end result is all together different, the essence of it (which for me is its variety and daring flavour mixes), is very similar. I love your recipes, tips and all the info you post about your food, I am a true lover of Thai food!

  10. Tesei September 18, 2012 at 1:57 pm #

    PS- I was going to make your coconut salmon (from last post) with shrimp, but my idea was sabottaged by my husband’s urge to have a BBQ that evening and my shrimp ended skewerd on top of a grill…. When I get round to trying it, promise to let you know!

  11. Rick September 18, 2012 at 2:17 pm #

    Leela, on item 2. You must by now know if something is in writing it must be true ; )

  12. David Ockey September 18, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    An interesting article I read several months ago about brain functions (a weird hobby I have) was about how people’s brains act to “authenticity.” It’s funny, because we seem to actually be wired to accept things that we perceive to be authentic as opposed to “fakes.” I can’t remember exactly what the article said about how the brain acted differently, but the point was that people will actually feel more accepting of authentic things. This might explain the romantic idea of authentic exotic cuisine from ancient cultures, and people’s irritation with the feeling of being duped. Doesn’t a recipe taken from the walls of an ancient temple, written by some monarch from the mysterious past sound more interesting than a recipe thought up off the top of the head of the Food Network’s most recent chef of the day?

    I live in Japan, and when I first came here, the thing that surprised me most was that I had no idea what Japanese food actually was. What passes for Japanese food back home doesn’t even begin to come close to what I eat here. Oh sure, I had had sushi in America before, but it was nothing like what they actually eat here. Actually, I have had one kind that was the same. The Japanese people call them California rolls…

  13. Roland September 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm #

    I believe that the “fusion” hatred is actually the conflation of two issues, one creative and inventive, the other lazy and deplorable.

    When a chef uses high-quality, correct ingredients and his/her talents to blend two or more cuisines together in a sincere, creative and inventive way fusion can be very exciting and tasty. This rarely translates into a high-volume operation.

    Unfortunately the fusion moniker is often used by restaurants who want to appeal to the widest base of customers and are willing to dumb down the cultures and cuisines and end up creating “lowest common denominator” food. These establishments have no interest in creating anything new, rather they simply want to be an easy choice for any couple, or group whose members all want divergent cuisines and couldn’t otherwise decide on a single-cuisine restaurant.

    Man: What do you feel like for dinner tonight?
    Woman: I’d like sushi, how about you?
    Man: I’d rather have Chinese.
    Woman: Hey, why don’t we go to that Pan-Asian Fusion restaurant down the block.

    Result: Neither person gets a good representation of their original cuisine, and the fusion food is nothing more than an exercise in mediocrity.

    And that’s the type of fusion that, yes, I hate.

  14. John September 18, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    I don’t know whether your parting “I’ll sigh off here” was deliberate or not, but if not, then it was a felicitous typo.

    • Leela September 19, 2012 at 12:26 am #

      Haha. It wasn’t. It’s fixed now. Kind of.

  15. Pisal September 19, 2012 at 12:47 am #

    How refreshing to see this thoughtful piece written by someone who comes from an aristocratic lineage.

  16. isaan life September 19, 2012 at 1:07 am #

    the taste and quality of the ingredients changes with pollution and other variables as well

  17. Beth M. September 19, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    “Access to historical records alone without the knowledge and insight on how to handle their contents is useless”

    LOL Very true. Those with money can acquire old documents, but it doesn’t mean they have the expertise to make sense out of them.

  18. Michael September 19, 2012 at 2:59 am #

    Another angle on the whole history argument is, how far back do you go? After all, what some would say is the most essential of all ingredients in Thai cuisine, the chili pepper, isn’t native to Asia. It evolved in the new world and wouldn’t have existed in Siam until introduced by western traders in the sixteenth century, or later. It doesn’t actually seem to have come into widespread use until the 20th century. Before then, the primary curry spices were ginger and black pepper.

    I’ve read a number of accounts by the early European visitors to Siam, especially from the 19th century. “Accuracy” as you point out is arguable, but they’re still interesting reading. I couldn’t find a single mention of chilies. Ginger and pepper, yes. Pla Ra, yes. Chilies, no. One of the more humorous accounts that comes to mind, especially in light of the many comments about potatoes, is the 1881 journal of Norwegian Carl Bock, “Temples and Elephants”. He recounts a dinner with one of the princes of Chiang Mai, where the prince’s favorite dish was – fried potatoes.

  19. Pear September 19, 2012 at 5:42 am #

    I’m neither a great historian nor an expert on Thai cuisine in any sense – I only have an undergraduate degree in History of Art, and my experience of Thai cuisine has been home-cooked food from my parents, who have had to adapt to living on the lowish end of a middling income in Britain. They were educated working class people before they came here nearly 30 years ago. If you talked to them about the fine details of Royal Thai Cuisine, they would say, ‘ห๊า?’ but my parents have a lot of wisdom to impart on the everyday food eaten by the working class of Bangkok, and also some of the food of the North East – my maternal grandparents are from Korat, while my paternal grandmother was from Ubon. I come from a family of farmers, cooks, teachers. We have neither the aspiration nor the wherewithal to enter high society, so I’ve never felt any intrinsic shame or inferiority about our humble roots. So I should be straightforward and say that I am completely biased in favour of the food of the common people having at least *some* part in representing what is authentic Thai cuisine.

    However, it’s important to review my own position: my parents managed to emigrate to Britain. I was born here. Even though I’ve been raised in a mostly Thai way, I am still in every sense quite distant from larger, active source and context of Thai culture. We can only afford to go to Thailand once every 4 – 5 years, and my contact with Thai people other than my parents is brief – mostly polite conversation with aunties and uncles of my parents’ generation. In some ways, I am really no different than any other farang. It has certainly affected how I identify – as a British-born Thai. I say that not because I want to identify more as a farang due to Anglophilia, but because I want to show I am conscious of the fact that I have a different Thai identity, one which is inextricable from Britishness. So what do I know about Thailand at all, let alone something as hugely important as cuisine? I feel that the question, ‘Authentic to whom?’ must be asked, too.

    So, it’s probably not really of any note that I share your position on this question, and also that more questions emerge in *my* mind when I try to settle on a definite answer – even a private one just for myself.

    However, I think that I can tentatively apply some of my training and my lived experience and knowledge to this question. Food, like art, is a cultural product that is consumed, isn’t it? As an undergraduate, I was interested in the search for ‘Thai-ness’ in Thai modern art. This is along similar lines: a search for a quintessial, intangible quality linked to national identity. As with food, I did not reach an ultimate conclusion; in fact, I began to think that it was far more interesting and fruitful to look at all these viewpoints and let them speak for themselves. It’s like that AlunaGeorge song: ‘Some people want me to be heads or tails/I say no way, try again another day/I should be happy not tipping the scales…’

    Before I plunge anyone who gazes at this tome into a post-structural abyss (a.k.a. my navel), I will comment on specific parts of your post.

    I agree that, with regard to Royal Thai Cuisine, one must interrogate the notion that the consumption of the elite most righteously legitimises and elevates it above all other kinds of Thai cuisine. It is disingenuous to think that elites have nice things merely because It Is How Things Are The End. Elites not only have access to resources, knowledge, and labour, but also attempt to control dominant discourse: they can perhaps more easily disseminate the idea that their set of codified skills and sensibilities to do with food is the most authentic (and generally superior). But is there necessarily a link, here, between what is “superior” and what is “authentic”?

    To say that something is inauthentic – that is, less Thai – is truly a big deal. National identity is very important in Thailand. But we must remember – and obviously your knowledge of Thai history is far superior to mine, so correct me if I’m wrong – that Thai-ness itself has not exactly been a stable notion; there has always been tension about and around the boundaries of the Thai and not-Thai, an anxiety about the porosity of borders, of categories. An attempt to deal with this problem is to distill the essence of Thai-ness – and that raises the question of what Thai-ness *is*. So, we must ask, then: what are the most diagnostic features of this category, i.e. Thai cuisine? We must ask this because, in the interests of rigorous methodology, we must know how we are constructing the metric of authenticity by which we are to measure Thai cuisine.

    Also, as a general thing, I am suspicious of the ‘yay good bedtime story’ notion that history in general has a single glorious telos; either side of this “peak” is the ascension of human productivity due to progress and development, then at the other side it is all decline and corruption and this is why we can’t have nice things, booooo. We can track development, we can interpret sources to indicate a pattern – but it is important to acknowledge variations, different values. Go too far into the good bedtime story methodology, and – amongst many other problematics – you collapse the multiple threads and sources of history into a simplistic, homogeneous narrative. There is a problem, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, with the single story. The observation of this as problematic is not the product of post-modernist politically-correct revisionist nazel-gazing, but – as you said – a conclusion that can be drawn from comparing a range of primary sources–if you’re any good at research in the first place, that is. What does “peak” even mean? The best dishes? If so – how are they the best? The most dishes being produced/written down?

    Questions, questions! :)

    • Humberto March 26, 2013 at 8:02 am #

      I enjoyed reading your views.You managed to cut the nonsense that often circulates around, real any thing or not. Are people cooking thai food with love? or are they just interested in the show off?You have also, in my understanding, realesed for the Thais the real freedom that in fact is not allways possible in their way of life in Thailand. Thank you for your thoughts.

  20. salvarsan September 19, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    Excellent observation that cuisine, like language, has vocabulary and grammar that evolve irrespective of purist opinions.

    Purism is a mental rigidity that portends other inflexibilities, not all of which may be ameliorated by medication.

  21. Ellyna September 19, 2012 at 7:31 pm #

    I believe the definition of authentic Thai cuisine belongs to each of its beholders. As an Indonesian, I grew up in a culinary culture that is very rich, not to mention diverse. Although I had only had a taste of Thai cuisine at much older age, somehow I can still tell the difference between the two rich culinary styles. Is it the liberal use of chili, lemongrass and coconut milk in Thai food? Definitely no, because I can easily pinpoint an Indonesian dish that also use all of those.

    If I were given two curry samples from the 2 countries randomly and without knowing the names or the ingredients, I still have faith that I will be able to distinguish between Indonesian “gulai” and Thai curry upon tasting. Authentic or not, I believe, is not the core of the problem here. It is whether the food / restaurants can trigger that sixth sense in the diners, to convince the tongue that what the person just ate was indeed a Thai flavour. =)

    • Leela September 19, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

      This article wasn’t meant to address the point you’ve brought up.
      But you did bring up a good point which is that the cuisines originating from the same region (Southeast Asian, in this case) that:
      1. employ pretty much the same ingredients and
      2. have borrowed from and lent to each other quite extensively,
      have somehow emerged in the modern times as different cuisines that are unique and distinguishable from one another.

      Those who maintain that Thai cuisine (or Vietnamese, Indonesian, etc.) is a nothing but a random hodgepodge of different culinary cultures tend to downplay this uniqueness that is objectively discernible.

  22. Renee September 20, 2012 at 2:29 pm #

    People hate fusion? News to me … I love it.

    Fusion I think is just the evolution of food. To hate is to hate change? And perhaps never grow …

    IDK

    Interesting post, though. :)

  23. Pete September 22, 2012 at 8:35 am #

    ‘The unanswerable question!’ goodness me!

    Very interesting question, and I think the simple answer is the notion of ‘authenticity’ doesn’t really exist.

    We can look back at a simple recipe such as… ต้มยำ …. looking back at old recipe books, in the past 100 years… all the recipes are different… in the main ingredients used… some call for prawns.. some call for fish, pork belly,… even banana blossom… There are also slight variations in methodology as well… As there are endless different ต้มยำ recipes out there (both old and new), surely it’s impossible to say that there is one that is the ‘authentic’ one.

    And if we go past the recipe books, we have the oral recipes, these also vary from generation to generation, as each ‘grandma’ can add different things to the ‘original’ recipe passed down from her
    grandmother.

    There are also other factors that will influence ‘authenticity’ …. different regions have different recipes…Different classes of people, different tastes of each person, to use 1 chili or 10? technology also plays a part as different equipments and tools are available.

    So I think when it boils down to the very essence… the notion of ‘authenticity’ is meaningless and in a way stops any new innovation in Thai cooking. Just by looking at the current landscape of Thai cuisine, there is a good mixture of different chefs, with different ideas, (Nahm, Sra bua, Boran).. There’s also people in the villages continuing to grill things on hot coals, harvesting and eating their own rice. Thai, fusion, or foreign, it simply depends on what people like to eat and most importantly what they think of as delicious!

    Just by looking at contemporary western cuisine today we can see a shift away from authenticity ( Fat duck, NOMA, Le Chateaubriand ) and more focus placed on quality of ingredients, local, organic produce and above all is INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY, just like in art. I do personally believe that innovation is what keeps a cuisine alive, and without it, the heartbeat of Thai cooking would stop.

  24. frans September 30, 2012 at 1:40 am #

    david Thompson is and represents thai food.

    • luvwtr September 30, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

      Seriously David Thompson? Believe me size does not matter in this case. Nothing I have made from David Thompson’s way-to-thick cookbook has had the most important ingredient in Thai cooking – the heart.

      Thai cooking is about the stories, the emotions, the heat, the smells, the fish sauce, the rice, the lemongrass, the galangal, the sound of the mortar and pestal. THIS is what makes Thai cooking authentic.

    • Mandy October 1, 2012 at 12:13 am #

      Your comment has such bad grammatical structure that I’m ashamed I actually understand it.

      Frans, you must be really dumb about Thai cuisine and stunningly gullible. No other way to explain this comment.

      Nobody represents Thai cuisine. Period.

    • Jinda October 1, 2012 at 6:34 am #

      God, I knew somebody would bring Thompson into this discussion where he doesn’t belong. Frans, how should I put this delicately? Oh yeah, you’re deluded.

  25. Kate October 4, 2012 at 11:36 pm #

    I will go straight to the argument on who (or what) “represents “authentic Thai cuisine.” I am a Thai who is currently living in Sydney and have been here for over 10 years. I have been asked frequently on where one can fine authentic Thai food and my answers always is “come to my place I will cook you a Thai dinner”. I do believe there are 2 major important ingredients for an authentic Thai cuisines. You will need a Thai palate and a Thai spirit to accompany the meal.

    Thai Palate

    It is somewhat difficult for me to explain the palate. A complete Thai meal must have a balance of textures (soft, firm, crunchy, etc), a balance of flavours (sour, sweet, salty, spicy, oily and bitterness — this last one is somewhat the third dimension and only those who has more developed taste would appreciate) and the look and taste of freshness (fresh herbs usually added after cooking process). It does NOT matter for whether you can acquire Thai ingredients of not ( where a Thai lives overseas one has to be adaptive) as long as you can balance the taste and the texture and stay true to the principal of the dish. When a Thai composes a meal, whether it is a meal of one main dish or several (or even when going out), they must make sure that dishes do have at least a few flavours and texture combinations. As far as ingredients go, I have no objection to use lemon instead of lime in Tom Yum or add milk in stead of coconut milk. My dad (who lives in Thailand) never add either milk or coconut milk in Tom Yum while my uncle across the road prefers one with coconut milk. My sister likes adding Carnation evaporate milk to Tom Yum (and she is by far the best cook recognised by the neighborhood). There never is a fixed recipe for Thai food. We adapt and experiment and cook to our individual palate just like everyone else in the world.

    Thai Spirits

    Thai meal is all about sharing your food with love ones and sharing the work preparing it too. The spirit starts with you go to the market to sort out fresh ingredients together. Take the ingredients home and do the prep work together. For instance, to make Green curry with chicken, my brother will start pounding curry paste, I will squeeze out coconut milk from grated coconut bought from the market while my sister will dice the chicken. My 10 years old niece will pick pea size eggplants and Thai basil. Everyone will potting around the kitchen smelling, tasting, offering help and opinions until everything is done and everyone is called to the table.

    We put all main meals in the middle and everyone has a bowl or plate of rice in front of us. We eat in a grazing manner, take one spoonful (if you take more than one at a time you will be seen as a greedy person) of main meal at a time to our plate. We will then share stories of the day, praise the cook, and be happy and grateful of what we have.

    It does not matter where you live or whether you have a market or not, it is the same. When my brother came to Sydney, we went to Wollies to sort out ingredients and we cooked in the same curry with lamb and canned coconut milk and used pea instead of pea size eggplants and Italian basil instead of Thai basil and we had equally good meal because there were heart, soul, love and sharing in the meal and for me it was as authentic as it got!

    If we do cook for guests, we then offer Thai hospitality to them instead of obviously getting them cooking with us. Being a Thai host (or perhaps any host) is about giving the guests the best that you can offer accompanying with a lot of smiles and friendship. There is nothing better than seeing the look in the face of your love ones enjoying the meal and knowing that it was cooked by you!

    In conclusion, my (personal) answer still stand. It will be difficult to get authentic Thai meal from a restaurant as you may get 100% Thai palate but you will only get half of the Thai spirits :-).

  26. Nathanael October 22, 2012 at 11:10 pm #

    I say, if it has chili peppers in it, it contains newfangled New World ingredients, and is therefore not genuine Thai cuisine.

    Well, then, that rules out almost everything eaten in Thailand nowadays. So.

  27. Zelda December 1, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    I’m so glad to have discovered your blog. This is such an interesting post, and, whilst I know very little about Thai cuisine, I do cook a lot of Chinese food, and ‘authenticity’ is something that I have pondered throughout my own cooking journey, particularly when I encounter the opinions you describe. Thank you for exploring the issues so thoroughly, and articulating your thoughts so intelligently. I’m going to read through the comments before I add my views on this subject!

  28. Zelda December 2, 2012 at 9:02 am #

    Here are my thoughts, Leela (I’m a slow reader). Upon further reflection, I realize that I have nothing to contribute to the main discussion, my familiarity with Thai cuisine being limited to the occasional Pad Thai at my local pub, lol! Very nice it is, too. As for the offshoot question, I offer my somewhat incoherent musings that might provide food for thought should you decide to post on this subject at a later date (I do hope so!)

    I have often wondered at what point would a dish be liable to prosecution under Trade Descriptions; when does a restaurant’s offering overstep that line into fusion territory; or how unconventional can a chef be in technique and choice of ingredients before his/her culinary confrères start bleating on about authenticity? Personally, I like a lively cooking-related debate, and it seems that everyone has his or her own standard for authenticity. At my own table, family members cannot agree on the correct way to cook any one dish, be it a humble Chinese standard such as fried rice – “You use fresh rice? Really?” – or the once-a-year festive indulgence that is foie gras – “Salt and pepper, nothing else! You add alcohol? Really?” – let alone reach a consensus on the authentic cuisine of a whole country! I daresay such points are debated ad infinitum the world over, proof that cooking is the one truly democratic art form.

    And yet we can all agree on a bad version of a dish. So perhaps the authenticity question is something of a red herring, a point of pedantry that clouds the issues that really matter (or should matter, imho). After all, it’s futile getting worked up about the correct way to roast a bird if said bird is of the spongey-fleshed, hormone-injected variety that has never flexed its leg muscles in its short, cooped up life. Which leads me to back to the Trades Description Act, whereby goods and services must be ‘fit for purpose’. By whose standard? Are most people aware that the standard ‘velvety’ meat or ‘bouncy’ prawns they expect to be served in Chinese restaurants are achieved through liberal application of bicarbonate of soda and cornstarch to cheaper cuts of meat that would otherwise be inedibly tough if stir-fried? Nothing at all wrong with cheaper cuts, btw, although it would make more sense to slow cook them – of course, that takes time, and time eats into profitability. But when bicarbonate of soda is used as a deodorizing agent for less than fresh meat, and when that particular texture of slimy tenderness becomes the recognized ‘standard’, then one must wonder if it’s not a case of the tail wagging the dog.

    Am I being elitist? No, I don’t think so. Just proud enough of my food heritage for it to pain me whenever food writers perpetuate these expedient techniques – “Learn the secrets of Chinese cooking! Re-create your restaurant favourites at home!” – instead of championing freshness and sustainability; encouraging resourcefulness in using locally available produce; or exploring acceptable, albeit non-traditional substitutions. Elitism, in my view, is dishing up poorly executed food based on the assumption that your non-Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese customers don’t know any better, that the Western palate is too unsophisticated to appreciate the true flavours of the cuisine, so give people what you think they want, it is ‘good enough’.

    I suppose that such a ‘them and us’ mentality might have been understandable in the early days of the diaspora, when foreign food was viewed with suspicion, and certainly from what I remember growing up, tastes were fairly conservative in 1970s Britain! But today, there is NO excuse for the MSG-laden, congealed, oily fare that passes for Chinese cuisine in so many establishments. For me, ‘authenticity’ is a universal if elusive quality, defined by a sincerity and integrity achievable by all, and at every price point. It involves a degree of respect for those you are cooking or writing for, evidenced by caring enough to source or recommend using the freshest ingredients you can lay your hands on in order to make the best version of a dish that you possibly can.

    OK, rant over! Whew!

  29. John Coombs March 25, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    The value of Thompson’s books, from my perspective, is that there are a couple of hundred recipes in “Thai Food” and “Thai Street Food” that go beyond the “standard 100″ or so found in most Thai cookbooks here (in the U.S.) If he went back into the cooking history of Thailand to find some of those (aristocracy, royal palace, wherever) that’s kind of interesting… but it’s not definitive. Similarly, I’m happy to have Kasma Loha-Unchit’s two books: she does a nice job of putting recipes in the broader context in her first book, and her second uniquely collects a bunch of seafood recipes that I might not have encountered otherwise. (Would someone please, please do a book of great Thai salad recipes?) I’m all for letting a thousand flowers bloom… but we sure don’t need another dozen “standard 100″ books… and another “standard 100″ Thai restaurant here locally. Make the food interesting, follow the tradition, AND present something interesting /different… that would be fun… in a cookbook or a restaurant.

    • ClaireT March 25, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

      John, I agree and disagree. I, too, have found Thompson’s Thai Food to be interesting, but precisely because it features recipes which most people, even the Thai, don’t know, it has no practical value to me. I, like most people, want to learn to cook Thai food, because I want to make the dishes that I had yesterday or a week ago at a Thai restaurant, not some unknown dish enjoyed by people from the last century whose cooking might or might not have represented Thai cuisine. Interesting, yes. Helpful? Not really. At least not to me.

      Kasma’s books are great, but, like Thompson’s books, they don’t answer the questions that people have or solve their problems.

      What many of us need is a book that presents the standard 100 in a new way so that they finally make sense to us. This blog has done an AMAZING job on that so far. For example, I had seen many pad thai recipes and cooked from many of them. Who needs another pad thai recipe, right? Wrong. Until I found the blogger’s five-part pad thai series, I’d never figured out why my pad thai never really tasted like what I had in Thailand or why the noodles always clumped up. I look forward to seeing more of this type of thing in her book. I have a feeling that she will do what she does best which is cover the familiar ground but go really really deep.

      • Ken G March 26, 2013 at 9:43 am #

        I agree. Thompson’s books are interesting but not useful as they stand. I do use them but only in the sense of getting ideas and then simplifying. I have other books like that that cover historical Laotian, French and English cooking. I don’t directly cook from those either.

        If you want useful revelations get Fuchsia Dunlap’s series of Chinese books. Yes, I know she’s English – but she is a professional chef and has done her homework in China very very well. Results from her books always come out better than the rest.

        Perhaps she will get excited about Thai?

  30. Mary-Anne March 25, 2013 at 11:03 pm #

    My love affair with Thai cuisine and culture began even before my first trip to the Kingdom of Thailand in 1989 when we took our children for winter holidays. we were fortunate to have a yes authentic Thai restaurant situated in a bowling alley on Saratoga Avenue right in the middle of what is known as Silicon Valley. it was our delight with the cuisine that beckoned us as a family to take that first month long trip to the Kingdom of Thailand. It quickly became apparent of the diversity of the Thai palette of Flavours. (yes palette as in colorful array, not palate)

    The fiery notes of dishes in Krabi and further south in Thailand are quite far removed from the delightful bitter notes of Isan, and certainly not to be confused with the soupy curries sans coconut milk of the Plains areas, or the unique dishes of Mae Hong Song, and Bangkok has it’s own taste and unique flavour personality.
    .
    I have now traveled various corners of this diverse country over thirty times since that first addictive taste of culture and cuisine of my favourite of the other 76 counties I have traveled. Some things in the cuisine have evolved in the well traveled areas, but the techniques and Flavoursl remain steadfast in those more remote villages.

    I have been fortunate to spend time with Thai home cooks, five star chefs, street vendors, and overseas Thais such as Kasma Loha-unchit who ignited the love of this culture and cuisine in her kitchen when my husband I first took classes from her. We live only a few minutes apart :-)

    Over the years I have continued to learn both recipes and techniques from so many amazing cooks Who have been willing to share their knowledge with me. My passion for gardening has enabled me to share seeds with many, in turn teach them organic methods and to build the tilth of their land replacing some of the “new” farang ways of chemicals. I grow many of the common and less common Thai ingredients including those of Hill Tribes and Laos farmers here in my garden in California.

    I hold the so called Royal recipes with respect. There is a lady of the family who is transcribing these old recipes. I am sorry I can’t recall her name, but have her information. I met her about 6 years ago. Hers is a labour of love. She is writing of the dishes served in the Royal family of the King’s father and grandfather. I find historical recipes of great interest not for their taste, but of what they tell us of history.

    Thailand does have what I guess you could term as fusion foods due to immigrants from surrounding countries. One could say noodles are fusion having been brought to Thailand by the Chinese, not to mention the path of chiles entering Thai cooking. It would be near impossible around Nong Kai not to partake of a lovely Vietnamese breakfast cooked in a battered aluminum dish, and the Indian spices in Southern Thai curries.

    I have read each comment here on this thread and as is my nature have learned more on the best cuisine in the world.

    lagoon

    Mary-Anne

    sorry for the caps here and there which iPad is want to do, just like the auto spell corrected than can become hysterical at times

  31. Nancie McDermott March 26, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    I completely agree with each of your three points, and am delighted by your thoughtful and articulate ideas around the ponderous, loaded concept of authenticity. My opinions on this were laundry bouncing around in the drier and pulled out into a tangle — you have sorted it out, folded it and put it where we can see what it is and put it to use. The notions of “pure” and “worthy” signal a big trap for me, in which the pleasures and stories around food and cooking become a battleground, with right against wrong and one opinion elevated to The Truth, until it gets dated and toppled by the next Truth. This: “See, I think we all want to be one of those cool, authoritative gatekeeping purists who .hate fusion too; we’re just not clear on what fusion really means…” I remember coming home from several years in Thailand to find curries with bell peppers included. I was shocked: Shocked! and began to sniff at this sacrilege. Sniffed for quite a while, built up a list of wrongs, until I came around to what you say here about the carrots. So easy for the principle to become “I know something you don’t know…” rather than interest in learning and sharing and celebrating the kitchen and the place and people in it and around it. My favorite observation you make is the folly of considering What Is Written Down as either true or The Truth. We have only to glance around to see how much in writing and on record is false, suspect, mistaken or at best merely a piece of a bigger picture. We look for the one thing, the best, the true, like we can find it and be There, Done, Right. Wrong question, wrong attitude, and it shuts down the pathways to all the places and all the stories. Thank you for this, and so eager for your book.

  32. Michael Babcock March 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

    Don’t forget that Thai cuisine is really the ultimate fusion food. Chillies and rice noodles are just two of the ingredients that came from somewhere else and are now so much a part of Thai cooking that we forget where they came from. (From the Portuguese and Chinese, respectively.)

    Kasma Loha-unchit (full disclosure, my wife) has a good article on “Thai Food is Fusion Food.”

    http://thaifoodandtravel.com/blog/thai-food-is-fusion-food/

  33. Ken G March 30, 2013 at 10:40 am #

    Saying “real Thai food” is like saying “real American food”. Would that be BBQ? Deli food? McDonalds? The idea that Thai food is in any way monocolor is funny. Thailand has not always been Thailand. In the 19th century it was many kingdoms. The book “Hot Sour Salty Sweet” has an excellent introduction on Southeast Asian diversity of people and food. There are significant differences between the food of Bangkok and the Isaan food of the Northeast.

    I am not horribly interested in “authentic” – but more in diverse and tasty. Last night I made Tom Kha Gai (Chicken in Coconut Soup) – from a recipe straight from a Chang Mai cooking school. But I used shrimp – not chicken – it was yummy – and nobody was harmed. I have studied Thai and Vietnamese cooking a lot in the past few years but am most interested in the ingredients and how they are used,
    I doubt that I would attempt to do SE Asian if friends from that area came for dinner – with the possible exception of my pho. Why serve ice to Eskimos as it were?

  34. Christopher December 19, 2013 at 1:46 pm #

    The history of Thai cuisine is much like the history of humanity in that it is nonlinear and consists of no single peak. Rather, history is like a double helix spiraling upward toward the sky to infinity. In this model, I see there are a multitude of “peaks” in human history as well as in cooking and cuisine. For example, there are probably examples of peaks of cuisine in both royal and non-royal Thai families, some that were recorded, and some that were not. It is false to claim that royal Thai cuisine is objectively better than non-royal Thai cuisine because quality of cuisine is measured by subjective standards. Yes, I claim that a simple fisherman or fisherwoman’s meal can be subjectively tastier than the most sophisticated and intricately complex meal eaten by royalty. Furthermore, I see the history and food of the poor and working classes to be as valuable as the history and food of the elite royal classes because I believe that all human beings are inherently equal even if our socialization tells us otherwise. To this end, I view “authentic” food as being any food eaten that has a reference made to its authenticity. Therefore, it is possible to eat authentic Thai food at any place in the universe at any point in time (past, present, or future), so long as it is a human being eating the food and referencing the authentic “Thai-ness” of the food. I define Thai-ness as a story that references itself, and when people recount this story it creates an authentic Thai experience. Thus, to eat authentic Thai food requires that only two conditions be met: 1. That food is eaten, and 2. That Thai-ness is referenced. Since most people are familiar with eating food, I will proceed to discuss what it means to reference Thai-ness.

    Referencing Thai-ness requires self-reference, which is why people often cite certain ingredients, people, or geographic regions as being authentic. The argument goes something like this: “I am eating Tom Kha Gai made with galanga root which is authentic Thai food because galanga root is an authentic Thai ingredient”. The food is not authentic because of the galanga root, but is rather made authentic by the eater verbally referencing the Thai-ness of the galanga root in the context of it being used as an ingredient in a Thai dish. The self-referencing of authenticity is what makes something Thai. Following this argument, it becomes clear that authenticity is ultimately a subjective experience that is established by a human’s decision to reference something that references itself. In other words, it is human beings who decide whether food is authentic, not the ingredients.

    In this light, it makes complete sense why two food critics can be served the same food at the same restaurant at the same time, and one food critic can proclaim the food to be authentic while the other critic decries the food to be inauthentic. For example, food critic number 1 is served McDonald’s french fries with mayonnaise for dipping sauce and posits, “McDonald’s french fries are only authentic American food if they are served with ketchup for dipping sauce because ketchup is what McDonald’s has traditionally proffered its patrons”. Food critic number 2 is served the same portion of McDonald’s french fries with mayonnaise for dipping sauce and replies, “McDonald’s french fries are authentic American food regardless of the dipping sauce used because the french fries are made from the original McDonald’s recipe, and the eater has the right to innovate by using whatever dipping sauce they wish — innovation is part of the authentic American dining experience”. Again, it is not the ingredients, restaurant, or geographic location that makes the french fries authentic American food, rather, it is the food critic’s decision to reference some self-referential aspect of the experience of American-ness, or lack thereof, that determines whether the food is authentic, or not. The second food critic brings up an interesting new point, that of innovation, which some may also call “fusion”.

    Fusion cuisine is food that either: 1. Simultaneously makes a self-referential reference to two or more cultures (e.g. Mexican-American Food), or 2. Innovates and makes a self-referential reference to innovation as an aspect of the culture (e.g. Dipping french fries in mayonnaise is American food because innovation is an aspect of American culture). Fusion cuisine presents a new dilemma to the food critic because the critic must be able to either make two self-referential references from a single meal, or make a self-referential reference to innovation as an aspect of an authentic experience. It seems to me that fusion food served in a restaurant generally has a higher probability of being deemed as inauthentic by its eaters because there at least as many ways to label the food as inauthentic as there are at non-fusion restaurants, and often there are more ways. For example, a food critic can decide a fusion dish consisting of a hamburger and chips and salsa to be inauthentic in the three following ways: 1. Some aspect of the hamburger leads the critic to make a self-referential reference to inauthentic American food, or 2. Some aspect of the chips and salsa leads the critic to make a self-referential reference to inauthentic Mexican food, or 3. The critic makes a self-referential reference to innovation not being part of authentic American or Mexican food. In contrast, when the food critic eats only a hamburger or eats only chips in salsa, they have fewer ways in which they can decide the food to be either authentic or inauthentic.

    In conclusion, food is not made authentic by ingredients, preparation techniques, geographic origin, or history. Rather, food is made authentic by an eater’s decision to make a self-referential reference to authenticity of the food. One implication of this is that humans no longer need to be bound by any rigid rules of authenticity! The power to judge and determine whether Thai food is authentic is given to each and every person who eats it, means royal and non-royal Thai food alike can be equally authentic or inauthentic. Another implication is that people can actually choose to abstain from playing the “authenticity game” — i.e. elevating the status one food as being more authentic than another food. Perhaps the real wisdom to be gleaned from this essay is that food can be enjoyed in many ways, and while some people enjoy calling food “authentic” or “inauthentic”, other people are equally happy eating food without making any such claims to its authenticity.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Lon Pla Salmon: Salmon Coconut Milk Relish (หลนปลาแซลมอน) | SheSimmers - September 18, 2012

    […] hearing?I’ll talk more about that in the next post (added Sep 18th, 2012: it’s here). For now, let’s lon, shall we? PrintLon Pla Salmon: Salmon Coconut Milk Relish […]

  2. Authenticity - WingerJock - October 23, 2012

    […] grown up in a Mexican household; I find it fascinating how many world cuisines were radically transformed by Mexican natives such as the tomato, chili, chocolate and vanilla. Does the inclusion of these […]

  3. How to Eat Thai Chili Relishes กินข้าวกับน้ำพริก(สิจ๊ะถึงได้สะได้สวย) | SheSimmers - November 26, 2012

    […] the prototypes of relishes, dips, and pastes that we know today. In other words, if you think of  “authentic” Thai food as food from ancient times (implication: before they were all messed up by “kids these […]

  4. Drunkard's Noodles (Pad Kee Mao) - Simple Thai FoodSheSimmers - May 19, 2014

    […] can be substituted and with what. Then without waving the authenticity card at people (because I don’t know what it is), I encourage people to use that information to do what works best for them as long as they adjust […]

Leave a Reply