Thai Raid

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

"The Thai government would send the food police in here and they would say, 'This isn't really Thai food,' " says Dr. Foo. "And I would say, 'So what? People like it.' "

Dr. Foo has agreed to meet me at Liberty Noodles to talk about Thai fusion cuisine and the Thai government's intriguing authenticity campaign. Last year, the commerce department announced that it would help launch 3,000 new authentic Thai restaurants around the world -- more than 1,000 of them in the United States. Thai officials reportedly are seeking to raise $10 million in start-up funds for the launch. The rest of the investment will come from the private sector, which will own and operate the restaurants under Thai government supervision. It is the first time any government has participated in the restaurant business to such an extent.

The brainchild of Thailand's former deputy commerce minister, Goanpot Asvinvichit, the program has an ambitious three-tier marketing plan. The restaurants will include a fast food outlet named Elephant Jump, a mid-priced eatery called Cool Basil and a fine dining concept to be known as the Golden Leaf. The purpose is twofold: first, to increase Thai food exports and raise awareness of the country's culture in general, and second, to show the world that real Thai food is nothing like the watered-down fusion cuisine we've been eating.

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.


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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Over lunch with a Wall Street Journal reporter in Bangkok, Asvinvichit pointed to a bowl of tom yum goong, a soup made from prawns and lemongrass. The soup is supposed to be spicy, he said, very spicy. "But in America, they make it mild. Maybe they like it that way, but it's not traditional tom yum anymore. It's distorted."

In order to right such culinary wrongs, the Thai government has opened a training center in Bangkok that will turn out hundreds of Thai cooks. One of the more unusual instructors is an Australian chef named David Thompson, who operates a famous authentic Thai restaurant in Sydney.

At a government-sponsored food conference in Bangkok in 1999, Thompson told the audience that he was "shocked and appalled" by the way bad fusion cooking was ruining traditional Thai cuisine. He blamed hotel chefs who read too many food magazines for the awful fusion dishes now found in that city's fine dining establishments. Mango risotto with olive oil, garlic, coconut cream, curry paste and lemongrass stock was one menu item he cited.

"I hate fusion food, hate it with a passion," Thompson told an Australian food magazine. "In its trauma and enthusiasm it's like a gangly youth with pimples."

Vong, a French-Thai fusion restaurant created by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, was a smash hit in New York in the mid-1990s. Foie gras with mangos, duck breast in tamarind-sesame sauce, and lamb shank in green curry were among the critics' favorites. Apologists attempted to explain these unlikely combinations as having historical roots in the French colonization of Indochina, but those who knew better agreed that Vongerichten's food was sheer fantasy.

Thai food has long been a favorite of fusion-minded chefs for several reasons. American and European diners find authentic Thai seasonings too extreme, so fusion chefs use the bold Thai flavors in new ways that are more accessible to mainstream audiences. But Thai food also ends up on so many fusion menus because there have never been enough experienced Thai chefs in the United States or Europe to fill Thai restaurant kitchens.

While there are some 45,000 people of Vietnamese extraction in Houston, for instance, there are only a couple of hundred Thais, Dr. Foo explains. "It's impossible for a Thai restaurant to hang on to a good Thai cook," she says. If they have permanent residency, they open their own restaurants. So Thai restaurants are constantly training foreigners to cook with Thai ingredients and seasonings. While these chefs may admire Thai culture, they have no particular loyalty to it. So rather than attempt authentic Thai cuisine, the cooks at Vong, Blue Orchid and all the fusion restaurants in between simply borrow a few Thai flavors and use them to create their own dishes.

There is little argument that Thai cuisine both inside and outside Thailand is undergoing an identity crisis as a result of the fusion trend. But the reaction of the Thai government has been astonishing. Never before has a nation responded to a challenge to its food culture with such determination. The Thais seem intent on seizing control of the way their cuisine is interpreted worldwide. But government oversight has its opponents.

Last year, Dr. Foo and many other Thai restaurant owners from around the world gathered in Bangkok to consult with the Thai government about the "Global Thai Restaurant" plan. They were not enthusiastic about having to compete with subsidized Thai restaurants. Dr. Foo advocates another idea: If the Thai government wants to teach the world about authentic Thai food, she argues, why not just train the young Thai cooks, negotiate with foreign governments to get them visas and then let existing Thai restaurants around the world employ them? The government is not likely to accept such a plan, however; without direct oversight, Thai officials could not guarantee that the new Thai chefs wouldn't end up cooking the same old fusion.

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