by Michael Babcock
Michael Babcock 2007
Please note: All opinions
stated in this article are those of the author.
What Makes a Dish
For some time I've had a minor hobby of collecting
recipes claiming to be "Thai" that, in reality, are not Thai in any way,
manner or form. Married to a Thai cooking teacher since 1994 and having
traveled in her company to Thailand on 14 separate occasions (as of
February, 2007), I do know a little bit about what makes a dish Thai.
Although there's something amusing about these recipes and the
lack of understanding that they represent, there's also something
unfortunate about them. I hope, soon, to have a link up to a talk that
Kasma gave in the fall of 1995 to the American Institute of Wine and
Food at a conference on Pacific Influences on the 21st Century
Table. Kasma's talk was devoted to this very topic, the widespread
use of the word "Thai" to describe various products and dishes. All the
quotes of Kasma come from this talk.
In the talk she noted how
adding an ingredient (or two) that is found in Thai cooking to a dish in
no way or form makes that dish Thai. For one thing, there probably is
not a single ingredient that is specifically Thai – the
ingredients used in Thai cuisine are shared by many southeast Asian
cuisines; one exception might be a specifically Thai curry paste. If a
dish is made by an American chef who does not understand the heart of
Thai cooking, it is still an American dish even, if he or she tosses in
a "Thai" ingredient or two and calls it Thai. In Kasma's talk she said:
A good chef should also know, too, that ingredients by
themselves do not make a cuisine. It is the way of cooking that produces
the unique flavor combinations that characterize the cuisine, be it
French or Italian, Indian or Thai. Thai cuisine is a unique style of
cooking that makes use of a wide range of ingredients, combining them in
a way that produces flavor harmonies. A lot of these things are wildly
conflicting and contrasting, chaotic flavors, these sharp, pungent
flavors, and the Thai creativity is how to pull them together and create
flavor harmonies that reflect the taste preferences of the people of our
country, the people of Thailand. That's what makes the food Thai.
She points out "Thai food is the soul food of the Thai
people" and talks of how it nourishes their soul and spirit. She says:
In Thailand, my homeland, and the neighboring
Southeast Asian countries, food and the sharing of food lie at the heart
of our culture. It is the pulse of our life: the many different kinds of
food that we eat, the ways of preparation, the rituals of serving, the
occasions on which we serve them – all of these are inseparable
from our history and are intrinsic parts of our cultural heritage, in
which we take pride. It defines our identity. It defines who we are.
Food is incredibly important in Thai culture and behind Thai food are
the faces and personalities of individual Thais.
feel that to call a dish "Thai" when it is not, is disrespectful to
individual Thai people, to the Thai people as a whole and to Thai
culture. In Kasma's own words:
I personally feel that
it is disrespectful to use the name of my country and people to sell a
product that falls way below our culinary standards.
There is also an aspect of unconscious exploitation about it: the casual
naming of something as "Thai" assumes that something that does not
really belong to us is ours to use as we wish.
This habit of
characterizing a dish with a country's name is not limited to
westerners. In Thailand we sometimes come across a dish called "American
Fried Rice" – apparently so named because of the inclusion of
ketchup in the dish; as we'll see below, perhaps they should use peanut
A New Way of Naming
need to come up with a new nomenclature for their recipes. Call it
"Thai-inspired" or give it another name that reflects the recipe. If it
is not Thai, please don't call it Thai." As Kasma says: "We need to come
up with new vocabularies that would accurately describe what you're
A Note on Peanuts
All too often the one
ingredient shared by "Thai" dishes turns out to be peanuts. It's almost
somewhat of a joke – all too often you come across a "Thai" recipe
and, when you read the ingredients, peanuts are the only ingredient that
would make it Thai in the author's eyes.
Peanuts are a very
minor part of Thai cuisine – you can travel in Thailand for months
and see nary a peanut in the prepared food. The main dishes I have had
them in are in the peanut sauce often (but not always) served with Satay
(really an Indonesian Dish), Pad Thai (which is really
Chinese in origin, see
Kasma's comments on Pad Thai), Massamun Curry and Som Dtam
(Green Papaya Salad). Except for Som Dtam, none of
these dishes lie at the heart of Thai cuisine.
from Brazil to Africa to North America, where their value as a food crop
was recognized. From there they went to southeast Asia. Peanut sauce is
really Indonesian in origin. You may want to read Kasma's article Peanuts
and Thai Cuisine. If you don't trust Kasma, here's another article
Truth About Peanut Sauce. Really, just because you saw peanuts in a
Thai recipe on the web doesn't mean it is an integral or even minor part
of Thai cooking nor does it make a dish that uses peanuts Thai.
In addition, the Thais do not use peanut
butter at all. The only country in the world that uses peanut butter is
America. As Kasma notes in her talk, if a dish has peanut butter, it's
an American dish.
A Note on Links
I am including
links to a Google search results page for each recipe: you can then
follow the link to the recipe, which should be the very first result.
This is because many of the search engines improve rankings of web pages
based on the number of other sites that link to them; I don't want to
encourage people to find these recipes – they might think that
they represent actual Thai food.
Here are a few recipes that, for me, epitomize faux-Thai recipes. Please
note, I have not personally cooked any of these recipes so my evaluation
is based on imagining what the dish would look and taste like.
Crockpot Thai Chicken
My Name: Crockpot Chicken with Peanut Butter
This is a recipe on the Busy Cooks part
of the about.com website.
There's not really a single
"Thai" flavor in this recipe. The ingredients are chicken thighs, salsa,
(SALSA!), peanut butter, lime juice, soy
sauce, ginger root, white pepper and roasted peanuts. Place in a
crockpot and cook for 8 to 9 hours. Well, ginger and soy sauce are more
Chinese than Thai. Salsa is Mexican. The one point in this recipe's
favor is that it uses chicken thighs rather than breasts; unfortunately,
the skin is removed. (Note: for Thais and, I believe, nearly all Asians,
the breast meat of a chicken is the least desirable part; however,
Asians do like their chicken skin.)
This recipe is also an
excellent illustration of how the misnaming of a dish Thai based on
including certain ingredients simply perpetuates itself; it is an
illustration of how misinformation spreads via the web. I had an email
correspondence with the author of the recipe in which she stated: "Many
Thai recipes use peanut butter and spices with chicken – that's
why it's named 'Thai Chicken'. At least that's what I've learned, and
looking around the internet, many others think so too . . ." (She lists
links to two recipes: one is a recipe "Thai Chicken Satay" that includes
a peanut sauce; the other two are for chicken with peanut sauce and are
definitely faux-Thai.) As for the salsa: "The salsa is just an easy way
to add complex spice tastes to the dish." Unfortunately, they are
Mexican spice tastes, not Thai.
Thai Taco Salad with Tangy-Hot
My Name: French's Tangy Taco Salad with Peanut Butter and
Found on the French's food site. The
word "Thai" sells.
Link: I can't get this to come up in
Google, so on this one you'll need to go to www.frenchsfoodservice.com/
and then go to the Recipes page and enter two words – Thai Taco
– in the "Quick Recipe Search" box to the upper left.
A good illustration that taste buds apparently differ
widely. I can't conceive of making this recipe in a small quantity to
try let alone the twenty 2-cup portions the recipe makes – that's
one gallon plus one quart!
There is not a single ingredient in
here that is recognizable as Thai. There's Frank's® RedHot®
Original Cayenne Pepper Sauce, peanut butter, orange juice, sugar,
garlic, French salad dressing, chicken. It's all placed in flour
tortilla bowls that have iceberg lettuce, spinach, cucumber slices and
tomato wedges. This is yet another example of a recipe that assumes
peanut butter is the defining characteristic of Thai cuisine. And, even
though Thai cooking does use garlic (although 2 tsp for 5 quarts of food
is a laughably small amount) and cucumber slices, their inclusion in the
recipe is not enough to make this recipe Thai. Really.
My Name: MIRACLE WHIP Beef Salad
This is a recipe on the Kraft Foods Website.
Link: Thai Pepper
Salad – the first two Google results are Kraft recipe
lists – you'll have to find the Thai Pepper Salad link to click.
Another example of "unclear on the concept" and
another example of an inappropriate use of the word "Thai" to sell
products. At least there is no peanut butter in this recipe. Its
ingredients are (and, to quote Dave Barry, "I am NOT making this up.")
boneless beef steak, MINUTE rice, a small red pepper, carrots, MIRACLE
WHIP dressing, soy sauce, and BULL'S-EYE Original Barbecue Sauce. Note
that the recipe takes its name from "1 small red pepper, cut into
strips." The beef is grilled and everything's tossed in a dish.
Actually, it takes more than "1 small red pepper" to make a recipe Thai.
Believe me on this one. Also believe me that MIRACLE WHIP and BULL'S-EYE
Original Barbecue Sauce have nothing to do with Thai cuisine; although,
now that there's a recipe on the web that contains them, someone
probably will get confused about this.
I think it's worth
printing the answer I received from a representative of the Kraft
Consumer Relations Department when I wrote them an email asking them to
tell me what makes the recipe "Thai."
The recipe is
called Thai Pepper Beef simply because we have tried to incorporate some
of the aspects of Thai cooking into it.
Bordering on the ocean, Thai food generally includes a lot of fish.
However, beef and pork are the main meats used. Rice is also widely used
in Thai cooking. In addition, there is a wide array of stir-fry, spices
and herbs used in Thai cooking.
We have tried
to incorporate a few of these ideas into the recipe you are asking
Thank you for contacting us with your
Well, it doesn't have fish, it isn't a
stir-fry and doesn't use spices or herbs but it does have beef and rice
(although it is MINUTE rice, in a dish named for the country that gives
us Jasmine rice and where rice, delicious rice, is considered the staple
of a meal). So there you have it: rice and beef are supposed to make a
If you wish to
read these recipes for yourself, copy and paste the search terms
(including the quotation marks) into the search engine of your choice,
although these were tested only in Google; I've tried to get the terms
so you can click directly on "I'm feeling lucky"
are some of the other recipes, in no particular order. If you'd like to
email me with some of your own favorite examples, return to the home page and click on my name at the bottom
of the page to open an addressed email.
Greatest Number of Bad
Link: You'll need to go
to www.kraftfoods.com and enter the word Thai in "Recipe Search" at the
top left corner of the page.
Kraft deserves a special
mention here for being really unclear on the concept. They've come up
with twenty recipes that are truly inappropriate in using "Thai" to name
them. They include as many of their own products as possible in the
recipes. In addition to the Thai Pepper Beef above, their website
includes the following:
- Thai Beef Salad. Especially
notable for its use of both Zesty Italian reduced Fat Dressing and A.1.
Teriyaki Steak Sauce. One wonders – would it still be "Thai" if
they left one of these two ingredients out of the recipe? It does, after
all, have peanut butter.
Link: Thai Beef Salad
Thai Lettuce Bundles. With hoisin sauce. I am not making this up. Other
ingredients include mayonnaise and, predictably, peanuts.
Link: Thai Lettuce Bundles
- Thai Turkey Lettuce Wrap. The ingredients are: coleslaw
blend, MIRACLE WHIP, teriyaki sauce (????), lettuce leaves, turkey
breast and Kraft 2% Milk singles.
Link: Thai Turkey Lettuce Wrap
– you'll have to scroll down the page to find the link.
- Peanut Thai Noodle Salad. Includes soy sauce, peanuts,
lime juice and Italian pasta (fusilli).
Link: Peanut Thai Noodle
- Thai Dog. Beef Franks with peanut butter,
cider vinegar, cucumber & crushed red pepper. Mercifully, there's no
MIRACLE WHIP, hoisin sauce, teriyaki sauce or low fat Italian dressing.
Dog – click on the third link; then you'll have to scroll down to the "Thai Dog" link towards the bottom (or do a search).
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