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Thai Raid

In America, Thai dishes are being toned down. The Thai government wants to step in to stop it.

Bangkok hot beef salad is a nest of lettuce topped with sizzling beef in a hot and tangy lemongrass sauce, says the menu at Blue Orchid. This place calls itself a Viet-Thai restaurant. I wonder if the beef in the salad is chopped fine and highly seasoned, as in the Thai dish called larb. But the young Vietnamese-American waiter has no idea what "larb" is.

"I don't speak Thai," he says in a Texas accent.

Okay. "Which of your Thai curries has eggplant?" I ask, further examining the menu. I want to see if Blue Orchid is using the authentic tiny round eggplants unique to Thai cuisine, or the cheaper Japanese eggplant cut into small pieces.

Blue Orchid's hot beef salad may taste fine to the Western palate, but it's not traditional Thai.
Troy Fields
Blue Orchid's hot beef salad may taste fine to the Western palate, but it's not traditional Thai.

Details

The Future of Fusion: Second in a five-part series 281-870-8636. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Bangkok hot beef salad: $6.95
Pad Thai: $9.50
Thai hot curry shrimp: $9.95
Thai curry pork: $8.95

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"None of them," he says. So much for that authenticity test. I'm beginning to wonder what kind of Thai curry this is, anyway.

"Is the Thai curry pork made with red, yellow or green curry?" I ask.

"All the Thai curries are the same," he says. "I think it's yellow."

We order the beef salad, pad Thai, and pork and shrimp curries. The beef strips in the salad are gently seasoned but still tart and oily enough to taste great over cold lettuce. The pad Thai has the expected noodles and sprouts with cilantro and seasonings, but no egg, no tart flavors and very little chile heat.

The pork curry is tossed with cabbage, peppers, onions and crinkle-cut carrots. The shrimp curry comes with mushrooms -- and the same peppers, onions and crinkle-cut carrots. Not only are the mild sauces the same color , they're made identically, with coconut milk, peanuts and the same seasonings. The curries taste fine, but they aren't Thai. Using identical ingredients and one sauce for every curry would be anathema to a Thai chef.

"Are there any Thais in the kitchen?" I want to know when the waiter comes back.

"No," he says. "All the cooks are Vietnamese. But they know how to cook Thai food."

Well, they know how to cook Viet-Thai fusion food, anyway -- and that's good enough for the restaurant's avid Anglo patrons. But there are those who feel that compromised Thai dishes, like the ones served at Blue Orchid, are undermining the culture of Thailand.

Fusion food is part of the emerging world culture of cosmopolitan cities everywhere, say its defenders. All cuisine is fusion cuisine in the long run, they argue. After all, the fusion of New World ingredients with Old World cooking is at the heart of nearly every type of European cuisine. In fact, fusion cooking is generally an accurate reflection of change in a culture: Tex-Mex, for instance, was created by the Texas Hispanic community during a period of assimilation; Vietnam incorporated baguettes and pâté into its cuisine when it was colonized by the French.

But when a fusion cuisine does not reflect the underlying culture, it can create resentment and charges of exploitation. Such is the case with Thai fusion. And now the Thai government is doing something to stop it.


The Thai West tacos at Liberty Noodles are soft corn tortillas filled with grilled chicken and pork strips, stir-fried mushrooms, onion and cilantro. The taste of the corn is jarring -- if only because it doesn't harmonize well with the rest of Liberty Noodles' pan-Asian menu. It's this culinary incongruity that has caused food historian Elizabeth Rozin to single out Thai tacos as one of the most egregious examples of bad fusion cuisine.

"The dish needs some work," shrugs Thai food expert Dr. Foo Swasdee after she eats one of the Liberty tacos. Dr. Foo, as she is known, holds a Ph.D. in food technology from Texas A&M and owns several Thai restaurants in the Austin area. She's also an importer and packager of Thai food products and a volunteer consultant to the Thai government's export board. Dr. Foo has brought two fellow Thais to dinner with her.

We all sample a bowl of what the menu calls Annie's Special. Liberty Noodles' founding chef, Annie Wong, created this version of the classic Thai noodle dish khai soi. Slippery egg noodles and chicken chunks are submerged in a pungent, soupy yellow curry, with rich coconut milk, red and green onion and a topping of crunchy fried noodles. It's a wonderful combination of flavors, in my estimation, but the Thais at the table don't think it should be called khai soi.

Dr. Foo reminds me that I ate the definitive version of this dish at a tiny restaurant in Chiang Mai a few years ago in her company. Unfortunately I can't recall what it tasted like. But I do remember the basic premise of all Thai cooking that Dr. Foo beat into my head on that trip.

"Sweet, sour, hot and salty -- Thai food must have all four of these flavors," she drilled.

When Thai food is prepared for an American audience, the heat and sourness are inevitably toned down. So is the salt, more often than not. This creates an imbalance; without the hot and sour, Thai-American fusion food tastes too sweet. The three Thais at the table all agree that Annie's Special isn't nearly as sour or spicy as khai soi should be. But as the owner of a Texas Thai restaurant, Dr. Foo also understands exactly why Annie's Special is one of the most popular dishes at Liberty Noodles.

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