Pad Thai Diplomacy: Cultural Enrichment or the End of Authenticity?

variety of vegetable salad

Pad Thai – Image from unsplash.com

Thailand is considered a country of hospitality. Whatever you ask, the answer will be “Yes, I can do that for you”. But how is this willingness to adjust to others affecting them? And are they possibly hurting their own authenticity by trying to please others?

We will specifically be talking about Thai food culture: I think everyone is familiar with it. When thinking of Thai food, most people think of a curry or a Pad Thai. But It is so much more than just this. Thai food has a great diversity of ingredients, it is artisanal, it is rational and it has a rich heritage (Fuller, 2018).

Thai food is found all over the world, but why exactly is this? And are these numerous restaurants genuinely authentic Thai food? It all comes down to Gastrodiplomacy.

What is “Gastrodiplomacy”?

I am sure that, where ever you may live, there is at least one Thai restaurant close to you, or at least in the nearest town or city. On top of this, I’m sure you are most likely familiar with the dish Pad Thai, or a good Thai curry. This is all due to one thing: Gastrodiplomacy.

You may or may not have heard of it: Gastrodiplomacy is also known as culinary diplomacy and it is a globally used strategy by countries that works off the idea of “the easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach” (Rockower, 2012), and this is exactly what Thailand has been promoting for the past 20 years. It has become a trend in foreign policy for countries. This trend in particular has been a huge source of cross-cultural understanding without us even realizing it. Food can be a connector of people from all ethnicities and countries, and the fact that “food tourism” is one of the most common forms of tourism, shows that Gastrodiplomacy works.

I think it’s safe to say that they succeeded since as of 2019, there are (unofficially) over 15,000 Thai restaurants to be found globally (lionbrand.com, 2019).

In my own country, the Netherlands there is as of 2020 a Thai population of 22,000 (CBS, 2020), and a number of Thai restaurants that lies around 200. This means that there is a ratio of 1:110 Thai citizens for each restaurant in the country. And I can confirm that Thai restaurants are high in demand and will remain to be a success.

Ronn Sushi storefront at night

Mason City, United States – Image from unsplash.com

Gastrodiplomacy and tourism

Culinary diplomacy of many countries, including Thailand, is directly related to tourism. It is used as a way to increase their cultural value and national brand through the use of food or cuisine. It’s all in making tourists aware of the cuisine in your country and using channels through which they come into contact with it. In 2002, the government of Thailand launched, “Global Thai”, including Thailand Restaurant Company, Ltd. The plan was to launch thousands of Thai restaurants worldwide, in an attempt to boost awareness of Thai cuisine and increase tourism flow to the country.

Of course, it makes economical sense too, since food tourism can generate billions in revenue. International travelers to Thailand spend on average 20% of their spending on food (UNWTO, 2018). This just shows how culinary diplomacy has already laid its roots in the cultural identity of the country and the perception of tourists.

This all sounds great, right? Cross-cultural understanding and people from all over the world finally getting to appreciate the wonderful thing that is Thai food. However, there is one little issue: authenticity.

It is quite a commonly known fact that Thai food is very often spicy. In order to make the dishes appeal to the culture and tastes of western countries, the flavors are often dumbed down. Originally spicy dishes are made milder so that they can appeal to western preferences. Along with the launch of the Global Thai program, the public health ministry came out with a book called “A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad” which was filled with information on how Thai chefs can adjust their dishes to the tastes of foreigners (Vice, 2018). Eventually, the food could stray away further and further from what the cuisine is intended to be.

However, this problem does not just occur outside of Thailand’s borders. Let’s talk about food culture in Thailand itself.

Street food in Thailand

I’m sure now one of the first things you thought of is the phrase “street food”, and you would be correct. The street food culture is one of a kind, and it is integrated into Thai culture as a whole. Street food can be found at any time, day or night. All vendors are exactly the same, yet completely different. Despite (unsuccessful) governmental efforts to restrict the dimensions of vendors on the street, the street food culture continues to be booming. Street food is seen as a unifier, of both tourists and locals of all income levels, and it feels like a never-ending party.

A Foodie's Guide to the Best Street Food in Bangkok | Hive Life Magazine

Street food in Bangkok – Image from Netflix (Street food Asia: Bangkok)

 

If you have ever experienced the Thai street food culture, in Bangkok for example, you will have seen that the prices of meals are very low, which is one of the reasons why it attracts so many people: it is very often cheaper than cooking a meal yourself. Street vendors make little money, because of these low prices. Because the problem is: if your prices are too high, there is more than enough competition around you which will provide the customers with what you can’t give them. One way in which the vendors can reduce their costs of the food is by reducing the quality of ingredients they are using.

So in the end, many vendors use low-quality ingredients which then, in turn, does not produce the greatest quality of food. This phenomenon is a contributor to the loss of the taste of Thai food.

In the Netflix Original ‘Chef’s Table’, the Michelin-star chef Duangporn Songvisava (nicknamed Bo) claims that the roots in Thailand are disappearing, because Thai people don’t know how to cook from scratch anymore. They use industrialized and processed products which are low in costs so that they can sell it for lower prices (Fuller, 2018).

How can traditional Thai food culture be protected?

Bo founded her restaurant ‘Bo.Lan’ with the belief and aim of preserving authentic Thai food as it should be found, and that the best Thai restaurants should be found in Thailand. As said in her documentary she refused to “dumb down” the flavors of her food in order to please tourists. She’s had people walk out of her restaurants because of this, but she chose to stand to her beliefs and keep her food authentic.

The restaurant works exclusively with local farmers and sustainable products. Bo.Lan is working on achieving a carbon-neutral restaurant and reducing their environmental impact (Bo.Lan , n.d.). Furthermore, they are inspiring and motivating chef’s all around the country to do the same.

Chef's Table' Season 5, Episode 3: 'Bo Songvisava' Recap - Eater

Food from Bo.Lan – Image from Netflix Original ‘Chef’s Table: Bo Songvisava

 

In terms of the gastrodiplomacy found all over the world, the Thai Ministry of Commerce created the Thai SELECT certificate to guarantee the authentic taste of Thai food and the use of Thai products worldwide (Thai Select, n.d.). Their objective is stated as following:

to increase the recognition of quality Thai restaurants and Thai food products as well as encourage Thai restaurant operators and food producers to raise the quality of their products and services while maintaining authenticity.

And the end, this is what it is all about: showcase Thai culture and cuisine to the world but meanwhile making sure that culture doesn’t get lost in the process.

So what does the future of Thai cuisine look like? Recapping back on the words of Chef Songvisava, the ideal situation is that traditional Thai recipes continue being preserved. The continuous gastrodiplomacy around the world is slowly changing the perception of what Thai cuisine should be. Hence, why it is so important that organizations such as Thai Select exist in order to promote restaurants that serve certified traditional Thai food.

However, with the uprising of younger generations and the increased demand for sustainability, the word “authenticity” is slowly having its lines blurred. As mentioned before, Thai food is extremely diverse and artisanal, which is why there are many variations of traditional recipes from Thai chefs who provide their own twist to it. And eventually, it will come down to those people who feel the responsibility to preserve traditional Thai food and who will fight for it.

 

Sources used:
  1. Bo.Lan . (n.d.). Retrieved from Bo.Lan: Essentially Thai: https://www.bolan.co.th/2019/index.php
  2. CBS. (2020). Bevolking; geslacht, leeftijd, nationaliteit en regio, 1 januari. Statline.
  3. Fuller, A. (Director). (2018). Chef’s Table: Bo Songvisava [Motion Picture].
  4. lionbrand.com. (2019, March 29). Gastrodiplomacy: Why Are There So Many Thai Restaurants? Retrieved from Lion Pride: The Official Lion Brand Blog: http://www.lionbrand.com.au/blog/gastrodiplomacy-why-are-there-so-many-thai-restaurants/
  5. Rockower, P. (2012). Recipes for Gastrodiplomacy. Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, 8(3), 235-246.
  6. Thai Select. (n.d.). WHAT is Thai SELECT? Retrieved from Thai Select Experience: http://www.thaiselect.com/
  7. UNWTO. (2018). GASTRONOMY TOURISM. Bangkok: UNWTO.
  8. Vice. (2018, March 29). The Surprising Reason that There Are So Many Thai Restaurants in America. Retrieved from Munchies: Food by Vice: https://www.vice.com/en/article/paxadz/the-surprising-reason-that-there-are-so-many-thai-restaurants-in-america

 

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