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.
"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.
"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.
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.
But Dr. Foo is somewhat skeptical that the Thai government's ambitious plans will ever be realized. Goanpot Asvinvichit is no longer at his post in the commerce department, she says. And the aftermath of September 11 has had a chilling effect on the private-sector investments this project would require.
Nevertheless, when I asked the Houston Thai consulate about the program, it relayed an e-mail message from the Thai department of export promotion indicating that the plan is still under way. Global Thai Restaurant Co., Ltd., the company in charge of opening the restaurants and training the chefs, is expected to launch the project by the third quarter of 2002. If it succeeds, countries all over the world may start planning their own culinary interventions.
"The Future of Fusion" looked at five Houston fusion cuisines in an attempt to understand what the foods say about the cultures that created them. The complete series can be found online and will be presented at an academic panel titled "Global Food? Fusion, Creolization and Hybridity in Culinary Culture" at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association in Houston this November.
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