I grew up in a Thai restaurant. Ever since the age of 5, I was immersed in not only the culture of being Thai American but in the culture of feeding others with food from my family’s country. My Dad ran the restaurant(s) full-time, while my Mom had a day job and helped out in the evenings and weekends. Whether it was learning how to make Thai iced tea, folding napkins in the back, answering the phone to take reservations or to-go orders, or eventually becoming a hostess, Thai food is such a huge part of my identity.
Recently, I had an opportunity to moderate a talk about Thai food and culture with a group of others whose connection to Thai food is profound as well—whether as chefs or as professors. We discussed the history of Thai food and how it came to be so popular in America.
You can see the video conversation right here and some of the main things we discussed (many of which I was learning for the first time as well):
- In 1939, Siam became Thailand, and the identity of being Thai or Thainess was formed.
- In the 1930s, the Thai government issued cultural mandates on what it means to be Thai— including eating no more than four meals daily. This speaks loudly of Thai’s cultural rooted love of eating!
- Pad Thai was developed during this era, as a unifying hearty dish. To date, it’s the only dish with “Thai” in its name.
- U.S. cultural exchange programs of the ’60’s and ’70s were responsible for bringing Thai food to the U.S. decades before many Thais moved here. Early Thai restaurants had to lean in and cook what Americans knew of Thai food.
- Early Thai restaurants in the U.S. often attached themselves with Chinese words in their names to get guests in the doors, as Americans were more familiar with Chinese cuisine—Thai-Chinese Food.”
- The first Thai cookbook in America was called “Thainese Cooking,” published in 1965 by a white woman in west Los Angeles.
- How would you describe Thai food to an American who never had it? “A mix of Chinese and Indian?!?!”
- The American dream may be to own a home, but the Thai-American dream is to own a home so you can grow a makrut lime tree in your backyard. Makrut limes and leaves are essential in Thai curries, soups, and stir-fries.
- Thai food struggles to command higher prices. Among ethnic cuisines, Thai food often scores the lowest average price of what people are willing to pay.
- There is no such thing as “authentic” Thai food. Food, like culture and language, changes over time.
- Today, there are more independently owned Thai restaurants in America than there are Walmarts.
Here’s a full transcript below if you’re interested in the full conversation…
Joy Deangdeelert Cho, @ohjoy
Kanjana Thepboriruk, @niuthai
Kanjana Thepboriruk, Associate Professor of Thai Language
Department of World Languages & Cultures
Center for Southeast Asian Studies
Northern Illinois University
Mark Padoongpatt, @mpadoongpatt
Chair, Department of Interdisciplinary, Gender & Ethnic Studies
Associate Professor of Asian American Studies and Interdisciplinary Studies
Director of Asian & Asian American Studies
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
UNLV Website: https://www.unlv.edu/people/mark-padoongpatt
Academic Research Consultant, Exit Spring Mountain Podcast, KNPR
NOTE: Translated and/or Thai words are denoted with [brackets], colored hot pink.
EDITED FULL CONVERSATION:
Conversation begins: ~minute 9:51.
*NOTE: Please subtract approximately 7 minutes and 10 seconds from each time stamp to follow along in real time on the transcript below.
Vanda: Dan, do you want to introduce yourself?
Dan: Hi, สวัสดีคร้บ (Sawatdii – greetings) khup. I’m Dan Rabilwongse. Currently chef of Tartine Sycamore, also chef of Woonokoki? Gnocchi, which is a new kind of concept we’ve been working on with some people popping up all over LA. Born and raised in LA, obviously Thai American, Catholic school educated all my life and then I decided after working in business I didn’t want to do that anymore so I went to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena before it closed down. I went there, I graduated and then started working in the industry right away. Cut my teeth really at Bouchon Beverly Hills for eight years, started off picking herbs and doing all the the prep work and then left there is executive sous chef, which is kind of like one of the crowning achievements of my career I think, being able to work for that group and for that person, Thomas Keller. And then just kind like you know working around LA, here and there, worked at [inaudible] little bit Tsubaki, just with some old colleagues from Bouchon days right. And now here we are.
Vanda: Dan, tell them about your mom’s Nam.
My mom’s Nam was like kind of this thing back in like the ’80s and ’90s here in LA. She was quite famous for it and she named it Naem Prida after my brother and she made it out of the house. As we were kids we’d see her making it all the time with her two hands only, no machines, nothing. Wrapping everything by hand and that’s how she kind of raised us. That’s what she brought to the table while my dad went to work, you know full 8 day hours, you know, whatever. So that was the legacy that she had that as a cook now I’m trying to bring back, you know. I’ve been playing around with it and trying to remember it, you know. It’s had its difficulties because my mom’s still around but she has dementia so it’s hard to ask her the subtleties and the nuances of what she did so it’s been interesting, it’s been an interesting ride to figure out.
Vanda: You’re killing it, you’re killing it.
Dan: I mean sometimes it comes out great, sometimes it comes out not so great. I don’t know. Maybe the weather – maybe I should try the karma thing like Vanda—uh, like Alisa—
Vanda: We just came off of a collaborative dinner amongst a group Thai-American chefs including Dan and one of the girls, Alisa, she’s Chef De Cuisine at Republique, also Thai-American, her parents make chicken แหนม (Naem – fermented pork sausage) because they don’t eat pork and the secret to that is they store it in their car to get like the right temperature so maybe that’s, yeah.
Dan: The fermentation, yeah.
Vanda: The fermentation. Thank you, Dan. Mark, Kanjana Joy, you can chime in. You can intro.
Mark: Yeah I guess, we’ll go in that order. I’m Mark Padoongpatt. I’m associate professor of Asian American studies at the university of Nevada Las Vegas or UNLV. Also born and raised in LA. My parents met in LA, I was born in Hollywood, but they moved to the San Fernando Valley, right now วัดไทย (Wat Thai – Thai temple), so I grew up as a วัดไทย (Wat Thai – Thai temple) kid and I wrote my first book – was on the history of Thai food in LA and the way that food shaped Thai-American identity but also Thai-American community and just the way that food played such an important role in bringing Thai people together but also how American society saw us and the way that we tried to navigate that, right, the way that people see us through our food first and what that means for the community. So yeah, I’m really — I mean I’m just listening to Dan, and you know we’ve already had a conversation but I’m just excited to be here and really grateful that I get a chance to learn from you all and just to listen from you all. I almost feel like I want to sit back and learn about all of your experiences. Yeah! That’s me.
Vanda: Mark, is that a picture in your background of any significance?
Mark: Haha! To my own personal life, yes. My Zoom background is from the show “Insecure” on HBO. So it was the first couple seasons this was Issan Lawrence’s apartment in Inglewood. But also personally when I was finishing my PhD at USC I lived just about a mile away from this apartment, so it kind of takes me back to the Inglewood days in grad school but also one of my favorite shows.
[12:49] Kanjana: Are you wearing a food shirt, Mark? I just, I need to know what that bottle is on your shirt.
Mark: Yeah, so this is um – one of my cousins, my cousin-in-law, she lives in Chinatown, New York, and so she sent me this shirt of a Thai grocery store in Chinatown. I decided to wear it today to match the vibes.
[13:20] Kanjana: Nice. I’m teaching days of the week right now so I have to wear วันจันทร์สีเหลือง (Wan chan si luang – Monday is yellow), you know, I have to wear – I have to inception my students. Hi, my name is Kanjana ชื่อเล่นชื่อน้อยหน่า (Chue len chue Noi Na – My nickname is Noi Na). I am a professor of Thai language and Thai culture here at Northern Illinois university. I literally just realized through our pre-meeting actually that I kind of got a PhD in Thai language to like spite the ผู้ใหญ่ (Phu Yai – seniors) because they were always saying how we’re not Thai enough, our Thai isn’t good enough, so it’s like a very long-game middle finger to – haha. It was my research assistant who actually summed it up that way, she’s like you kind of had a long-game middle finger to the elders in your community. I was like, Wow, I didn’t realize I was that spiteful. But, yeah, so you know, we deal with our ethnic and linguistic insecurities in different ways. I went full academic with it. So now I get to slap my credentials all over the ป้าๆ (Paa Paa – aunties) at the วัด (Wat – temples) who like to criticize my friends’ Thai.
[14:33] I’m a child of a Thai restaurant so when I read Mark’s book I actually shed actual tears, I cried, because it was our story — I always get emotional talking about your book, sorry. So my mom came as an exchange professor at the University of Wisconsin and saw an opportunity
that if she wanted anything good to happen to us we needed to come to the “land of dreams,” right, and so she had us come here, we overstayed our visa, she opened a Thai restaurant, so it was like the book layed out, right, into our life and so I always have a very close relationship with food and it’s interesting teaching about it now from a linguistic point of view as well.
My research focus is on Thainess as a notion, how it’s performed, how it’s understood, how it’s transmitted across generations, how it’s regulated and defined both historically and in the present and so Thainess began abruptly. I focus, when Thainess started to become constructed by a particular regime, and you look at how that plays out when we bring it with us to the diaspora. I was born in Bangkok and I came here when I was 10 so I get to bridge our parents’ generation, the first gens and the second gens, because I have passing ability in both. I feel very lucky and I take that responsibility very seriously because the adults will listen to me. Not only am I an อาจารย์ (Achan – professor) and Dr. So and So, my Thai also doesn’t mark me as different from them. Whenever I can, I try to amplify kind of our generation’s voices to the older generations in a way that they can understand. What it is that we go through as racialized people, right? But I’m also very privileged in having grown up in Thailand as an ethnic, linguistic, religious majority. So I know what that feels like and I carry that with me here even though that wasn’t my experience growing up here in Wisconsin. So I’m trying to do a lot of things in my research to make that an experience for everybody.
[17:08] Joy: Oh is it me? Hi. I’m Joy. My Thai name is นันทกา (Nanthaka). I put my maiden name on there so you guys can know for sure that I was Thai. It’s a little confusing with my married name. I grew up in Philadelphia, born and raised to parents who had Thai restaurants, my whole life. My dad had, although they came to the States to take their masters, he was very frustrated with the normal corporate world and decided to start a Thai restaurant with four other partners because they couldn’t afford to do it by themselves. And so one by one, they started with five and my dad slowly bought out each one of his partners until he was the only owner.
[17:48] We started in Chinatown Philly with the first restaurant. And then they eventually expanded to having four Thai restaurants at one point in my life. So me and my brother were the kids who grew up in the back, folding napkins, making Thai tea, answering the calls, making reservations, explaining to people what the food was and it was very much a part of my life. And while I’m not in the food business now, I mean, I can appreciate everything that goes into it, not only on the business and the food and on the culture and everything, because it was really just my life for such a long time. That was deeply cemented into me.
[18:27] So I am now a designer. I have a lifestyle brand called Oh Joy. I met Vanda through somehow the internet, like a long time ago. I’m a big fan of hers and not only her food but what also she represents and how she’s been trying to bring, just have these conversations. I think, especially in the last year. Being Thai American I’m sure we’ve all struggled with this. Even Asian Americans. I know holy, just sort of identity things where you are born in America, you want to be American so bad. I know for me, I wanted to have blonde hair and blue eyes and I really pushed my culture away for a lot of times.
[19:09] I remember Wednesdays was the day I would go to the temple with my dad and he would wake me up early and we’d have to take the food to the monks. And I hated it. And I was like, why do I have to do this? None of my white friends have to do this. But it’s funny, you appreciate those things later in life. And you wish that you could have taken that appreciation back to your younger selves and said like, Oh my gosh, you understand what is here? Like how amazing this is. So I’m happy to be here to moderate this conversation today and meet all of you.
[19:42] Vanda: Thank you, Joy. Should we get started? I mean, did everyone get a chance to review the Google doc that was put together by the conversation I had with Professor Mark and Professor Kanjana? Anyone wants to add anything additional to that? We can review it briefly before we start.
[20:25] Mark: I was wondering, Vanda, since you mentioned my background. I was thinking if this gets kind of circulated via social media, would it be better if I just used a different background and just blurred my background? So that way there’s no like, Hey, you’re using an image from the show.
[20:44] Vanda: Do you, I don’t know. I’m always about doing you and being your most authentic self. I met you with this background the first time we spoke so keep it going. Joy, do you have any stylistic advice?
[20:59] Joya: Well, where are you right now? What does your real background look like?
[21:01] Mark: Oh, I’m just in my office, it’s actually not a bad background.
[21:09] Joy: If it’s not a bad background then do your real thing.
[21:12] Mark: Yeah. Let me see if I can just—
[21:15] Kanjana: I’m promoting น้องการ์ตูน (Nong Katoon’s) artwork by a Thai American artist.
[21:23] Vanda: That’s a really good background.
[21:26] Dan: Should I blur mine? How do I blur it?
[21:28] Joy: No, don’t blur it. I like the real thing because the blur makes it almost look like it’s virtual. Yeah, that looks better.
[21:35] Mark: So let me just, in case anybody decides to walk all up in the kitchen I can angle it.
[21:41] Kanjana: And it would be on purpose right, we’re talking about food. It would be totally okay if somebody comes back there.
[21:56] Joy: I know that there’s an outline of questions, which I will refer to and ask everybody. Now it says. Vanda I think you and I talked about this, it sort of says who is going to address it in like a brief outline? Is this stuff that you guys already talked about?
[22:11] Vanda: Stuff we kind of talked about, stuff that would be fitting into those questions, just like food for thought. We veer off of that. It’s totally fine. And then it’s being edited. It’s going to be edited to a shorter version and then three short kind of videos of each of the questions. I think the three questions has a timeline to it too. Like the past, early ’80s and then the present right now. So it kind of has a timeline to that. And anything else that comes up, we’ll edit through it. I want you to have fun. Enjoy, be honest, speak your mind and Joy can moderate through.
[23:02] Joy: Okay. So we really just have three main questions, which it sounds like in many cases, two to four of you will speak up on. I’m going to let you guys sort of go and chime in rather than feeling like I need to call on each individual person because it is conversational and somebody might say something and then you’re like, Oh yeah, blah, blah. So I’m going to kind of just let that happen. Because this is different than a live panel where certain things, new things may come up, we have an intention behind this. So we have certain things that are planned with the edits. Vanda, do you want any sort of intro, like do you need something for the beginning of these to sort of introduce the group, or are you going to take from our introductions we already did?
[23:43] Vanda: I think we can probably take from the intro, but maybe you want to start again with just Thai American food and identity panel and maybe we can all just introduce ourselves.
[23:59] Joy: Like a shorter version, what you would say?
[24:01] Vanda: Shorter version, first and last name. Who you are briefly. I can start first if you like.
[24:09] Joy: So what I’ll do is I’ll introduce, we have it recorded. I’ll say who I am, what this panel is. Have you each do a quick introduction and then we’ll go with the first. Hi, everyone. I’m Joy Deangdeelert Cho. I’m so happy to be here today for a Thai-American food and identity panel with some amazing people who are all going to introduce themselves. Vanda. Do you want to start?
[24:37] Vanda: Yes. Hi, my name is Vanda Asapahu. I’m the chef and owner of Ayara Thai in Los Angeles. I’m also a second generation restaurateur.
[24:47] Dan: Hi, my name is Dan Rabilwongse. I’m also a Thai-American, current chef in Los Angeles. Working on a couple different concepts right now.
[25:03] Kanjana: Hi, my name is Kanjana Thepboriruk and I’m professor of Thai language and culture at Northern Illinois University. I’m a child of a Thai restaurant.
[25:13] Mark: Hi, everyone. I’m Mark Padoongpatt, associate professor of Asian American studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and also Thai-American born and raised in LA.
[25:25] Joy: And to also add, I’m also a Thai-American, born and raised in Philly, now living in Los Angeles and also the child of Thai restaurants. I’m excited to get into this conversation with you all. So let’s start with, how is Thai food introduced to the rest of the world?
[25:44] Kanjana: Well, let’s, let’s go back a little bit further before food. Well, maybe not before food, but it is the moment when Thainess start. So what’s interesting about Thainess is that it abruptly started on June 24th, 1933, officially, which growing up Thai, you don’t think that that’s the case. You think it’s always something that’s been around. But on that date, June 24th, 1939 field Marshall จอมพล ป. พิบูลสงคราม (Field Marshall Po. Pibulsongkhram), he introduced this first cultural mandate. So first of 12 cultural mandates that declared everyone who lives within the current political border of what was known สยาม (Siam) at the time to be Thai.
It also changed สยาม (Siam) into Thailand and it actually erased all hyphenated identities. So if you used to identify yourself as Muslim Thai, you’re now Thai, or if you used to be Chinese, you’re now Thai. So in a very interesting way our people began to be Thai on a particular date. And then the other cultural mandates built on that and tried to create this new thing, this Thainess in several ways. So one of the ways was defined when we should eat, what we should eat, how we should live, how we should divide our days, how we should dress, what we should speak.
[27:06] So two related mandates, when we think about food would probably mandate number five, which said that Thai people should use Thai products. So Thailand being in the middle of all of these great empires, the Chinese empire, the Khmer empire, the Mon, Burmese, Lao and Malay. We always had a mélange of cuisine, especially in the port town like Bangkok or อยุธยา (Ayudhaya). But in trying to build this Thainess, the government said we should only use Thai products. And so that’s when Thai food really started to get codified into something that was uniquely Thai.
[27:48] So you see the birth of ppadot Thai during that era. I think we all are familiar with pad Thai and if we really think about it pad Thai is the only dish that has the word Thai in it. There’s no other Thai dish that has to announce itself as, Hey, I’m Thai. But it betrays the background of how that dish came to be. And then another mandate that relates to that is mandate 11, which is historical record to show that Thai people were eating more than four times a day because the mandate states that we should not eat more than four times a day. So if that’s a reflection of your life, that’s okay. You’re just doing it the traditional way.
[28:33] Mark: Yeah. And I guess I can kind of take over from that moment. So like 1930s, 1940s Thainess becomes kind of institutionalized in the Thai government and I guess the spread of Thai cuisine to the rest of the world. Well, we’ll focus on the United States because I think the US after World War II, right around the 1940s and 50s is the new global leader. They’ve
defeated Japan. And so the US is kind of tapped as the next world leader. And so the origin of Thai food and how it gets kind of brought over to the United States, I think it happens in three main turning points, three main ways.
[29:19] The first is that Thai cuisine, the history of Thai cuisine in the United States, doesn’t actually start when Thai people physically step foot in the United States. It starts when the US goes to Thailand and US intervention in Thailand during the rise of the Vietnam war or the events leading up to the Vietnam war. So the United States has a deep interest in establishing relations, good relations with Thailand during the 1950s and 60s, because they’re concerned, the state department is concerned about the spread of communism.
[29:56] And so as part of that, the US starts to build all of these cultural exchange programs, all of these relationships on the ground in Thailand. So not just at the government level, but like tourism, the peace Corps. And so all of these US citizens and I call them ordinary citizens because they’re not government officials or military officials. So they start making their way to Thailand, learning all of these recipes, collecting them and then publishing them and sharing them in the United States like a decade before any large number of Thai people even get there.
[30:32] And so the first Thai cookbook at least that I found on record is called Thainese Cookery. And it was published in 1965 by a white woman in west LA. And she wrote this book, published this book and shared it with all of her, at the time kind of suburban housewives, suburban neighbors. And so that was really the first moment. And I think it’s, it’s important to start there to show that the food came here, not because of just immigration and immigrants bringing their food culture with them, but that it was part of larger global politics.
[31:11] And then in the 1960s and 70s is when you start to see Thai restaurants open up throughout Los Angeles in East Hollywood, down near Linwood where Thai people were going to school because a lot of Thai people came to study in the United States.
They were all over LA and all over Southern California. And so you start to see all of these restaurants open up everywhere and then it becomes concentrated in the west side. So anybody from LA knows the west side is one of the wealthier, this is Beverly Hills. I mean, Dan knows this. Beverly Hills, West LA is one of the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods in Southern California.
[31:57] And by 1970s, there’s like over 50 restaurants on the west side alone. And so that’s when you start to see it become both more popular, but also somewhat of a trend. You have celebrities and people in the movie industry and the music industry, trying Thai food for the first time and giving it some cultural cache. Well I’ll back up and say the 1970s were also important because of the opening of the Bangkok market, of ปราโมทย์-ติลา ติลกมลกุล (Pramote-Tila Tilokmonlakun) who opened the Bangkok market in 1971 and brought the ingredients, the Southeast Asian and Thai ingredients that restaurants could use, that home cooks could use for the first time and made it widely available and consistently available. Because this was a year round supply of Thai produce, Thai ingredients. And so you could rely on that market to keep your restaurant running, basically. So those are I think the key moments and then, yeah, I’ll stop there for now.
[33:17] Vanda: The Bangkok market. I mean, I think for us as a Thai American family, living in Los Angeles was our bread and butter. My parents came in the early eighties, actually mid eighties and definitely Bangkok market and the Tela family was our best friend because it was a source of all food. And I remember like the ขนมครก (Khanom Khrok – coconut rice pancake) in front of Bangkok market. Dan, do you remember that? And you would just hang off the side to like wait for the ขนมครก (Khanom Khrok – coconut rice pancake) because it takes so long to make. But definitely a hub of gathering. I feel like it’s the hub equivalent to the วัดไทย (Wat Thai – Thai temple) for many Thai Americans in Los Angeles.
[34:05] Mark: And I think before the Bangkok market, there was just like, Thai people had to be so creative and innovative to create [34:15 inaudible] because ใบมะกรูด (Bai Ma Kroot – makrut lime leaves) wasn’t available, you couldn’t grow it in the United States because it was seen as a threat to other citrus. And so people were like, smuggling it in, people were traveling 60 miles to Riverside to pack it, take it off some trees, I think from UC Riverside, bring it home, freeze it, pack it, and then use it to cook and for curry paste. And so it was all kinds of creativity going on among Thai cooks and Thai chefs.
[34:51] Dan: Yeah. I mean, my dad says that all the time, back in the seventies, when they came there was nowhere to get มะกรูด (Ma Kroot – kaffir limes) and all the unique ingredients, like ข่า (Kha – galangal) and all that, it’s like impossible. And then when the market came, it finally was kind of like that segue for him. But now it’s like, even back then, it was like super expensive. And it was like, Oh my God, it was such a hot commodity. And now we have a garden with two trees in the back. It’s like, my dad’s always making like sayings, like, Oh, we’re growing money in the backyard now, because it’s like, look at all this wealth that we never had. And like, look at it. It’s just like flourishing. I’m like, I don’t know what to do with it. There’s so much fruit and like leaves. So I even try to incorporate that into some of my food at Tartine for a little bit.
[35:44] Vanda: I think a sign, a sign, Dan, of a Thai home owner and the American dream of owning a home, the Thai-American dream is to own your own home so that you could grow มะกรูด (Ma Kroot – kaffir lime) tree in your backyard. And so it’s something that you settle in and you’re going to be living here forever because it takes so long to grow. You also have two trees.
[36:07] Dan: The first one they grew was like way tucked in the back corner because they were afraid people were going to steal it. Like honestly this is a serious concern for them. It’s like we can’t just have people coming off the street and just picking our มะกรูด (Ma Kroot – kaffir lime) because this is our thing. So it’s literally in the back corner.
[36:25] Kanjana: I can confirm that. So I grew up in Wisconsin, so มะกรูด (Ma Kroot – makrut lime) didn’t make it to us for a while. And the struggle was real and the nearest place for us to get น้ำปลา (Nam Pla – fish sauce), ใบมะกรูด (Bai Ma Kroot – makrut lime leaves), ข่า (Kha – galangal), โหระพา (Horapha – sweet basil leaves), anything that you want to eat was three hours away in Chicago and we would make these monthly pilgrimages down to Chicago just to get the ภูเขาทอง (Phu khao Thong – Golden Mountain) soy sauce for your fried egg in the morning, just something so simple. And should you, for whatever reason, fail to make a detailed list and you like slipped off the fish sauce on your list. Oh, well, we’re going to have to wait until next month, until my mom can take off work to do that. And I absolutely can confirm the ต้นมะกรูด (Ton Ma Kroot – makrut lime tree) because even as a homeowner in Illinois now, which is not the ecological system in which มะกรูด (Ma Kroot – makrut lime) can thrive, I’ve got two of them suckers in pots. And I drag it in, I put it out of the summer and I put it back in and it’s yeah. I can confirm that is still a thing, even in Illinois.
[37:37] Dan: It’s irreplaceable. There’s nothing to really match that flavor and it’s in everything. We put it in, literally everything. It’s great. I love it.
[37:50] Joy: Alright. Well, we talked about how it took a while for some of the ingredients to be available, but what were some of the other struggles of early Thai restaurants in America?
[38:02] Mark: Yeah, I mean, I think we touched on it a little bit. I mean, I think how do you create a market for a cuisine that no one knows anything about? And I don’t know if it’s so much of a struggle as much of it is just kind of similar to opening up a restaurant, where I think that first generation of Thai restaurateurs opened up these Thai Chinese restaurants. So kind of using Chinese names as a front, Thai Chinese food, or even just like Chinese food as a front to get people in the door and then as they’re eating, they would slip them a little Thai dish, and say, Hey, you seem to be liking the Chow Mein, but have you tried the ก๋วยเตี๋ยว ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือ (Kuai Tieo…Kuai Tieo Rua – Noodles…Boat Noodles).
[38:54] Like try this out or try ราดหน้า (Lad Na). It’s just a way to get people in the door to introduce this new cuisine. And we all know of course that the flavor profile of Chinese cuisine and Thai food is so different. But I think Thai restaurateurs were playing with that kind of orientalist view of Asian people as kind of just, they’re all Orientals, they’re all kind of the same. And so they really used that and played with it, even though we know that there are Thai Chinese or ethnic Chinese Thai people. My read of that is that Thai people sort of understood how American society viewed Asians and this could be a really creative way to introduce Thai cuisine.
[39:38] Dan: It made it approachable, I think, just like tacking on the Chinese aspect, which was already familiar. And then just kind of segueing that into the society, like getting white people to kind of understand what this food is very gradually. But it’s like, Hey, it’s similar to Chinese, but not really, but I think that’s how it got started. Because I think there was a little bit of that fear. Like, oh, people are not going to like our food because it’s very strong flavors. It’s very intense, spicy, all that kind of thing.
[40:12] Joy: I remember as a kid working in my parents’ restaurant because I would answer the phones and I would give menus to customers and they would ask me as a kid, well, what is Thai food? I remember when we first opened this one sort of suburban area, Philadelphia, we were the first high Thai restaurant that anyone had ever tried and they were trying, there was a line out the door because it was this new fad. It was this new thing. And so as a kid, I would say, well, it’s sort of like a mix of Chinese and Indian, which obviously we know it’s not really, but it’s sort of, some of the noodle dishes or some of the savoriness, you could sort of connect to Chinese food, but then some of the spice and some of the other flavors you can connect to India, which obviously they have both have influences also. But as a kid, it’s so interesting how you have to describe it in some way to someone who has never had those flavors before.
[41:04] Kanjana: Yeah. And my mom opened her restaurant quite late. I mean in again, Midwest timeframe. So we opened in 94 and at the time we were the third Thai restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. And as with any new business and we all know that you have to differentiate yourself somehow from the existing places. And so the first place was opened by an American man who was married to a Thai woman. And so it very much did what Mark described, is that it tried to make it accessible as much as possible. And it had the unfortunate location of being next to the owners veterinary clinic, so it fed a lot of those negative Asian stereotypes.
[41:56] And I remember people joking about it, like, oh, that’s why it’s there. And all of the Thai restaurant owners subsequently in Madison worked at that restaurant. And then we slowly opened our own, all of my aunties and uncles, slowly opened our own. So by the time my mom’s restaurant came about, she had decided to not Americanize anything, which was kind of a bold move in the Midwest in the ’90s because they honestly were not ready. And she grew up in the south. So their dishes, like ข้าวยำ (Khao Yum – rice salad), which comes with น้ำบูดู (Nam Budu – fermented fish juice), which is like not at all accessible, even to some Thai people from other regions. It is just fermented fish juice that you put over this amalgam of ingredients. And she also had ผัดสะตอ (Pad Sato – bitter bean stir fry).
[42:50] And we were a big hit with the Malaysian students and the Indonesian students because we had all of the กะปิ (Kapi – shrimp paste) flavor. We had all of the fermented everything flavor that they missed, that no other restaurant like dared serve. So that was kind of our point of pride. But there was always this division. What would the Thai Malaysian, Indonesian, Singaporean international students at UW Madison order and then everything else that everybody else ordered. But we had that opportunity to be able to do it more “authentically” as much as we can in the Midwest.
[43:29] And to go back to the money tree, or the Thai money tree being the kaffir lime leaf tree. I remember picking up the kaffir lime leaf at the one Asian grocery store that we’d finally got in town, who would drive to Chicago on our behalf and then upcharge it so that we could get wholesale and we would pick up and I had learned Spanish at the time and all of the employees working, the loading docks for the restaurants were all Spanish speaking. And I remember the main guy, he knew I spoke Spanish. So he could always ask me question. He would be like, what is this stuff? Because he would unload it and he didn’t know what they were, which was ironic because I think many of them, many of the ingredients were grown in Mexico where he came from.
[44:12] But obviously not for him. But he would ask and I said, Oh, this is a type of lime tree that we have in Thailand. It’s kind of bumpy. We use it in curries and he would said, Why does it cost more than drugs and he’s like, how could you put this in food? It’s so expensive? And my mom never wanted to use less than the required amount. And I’m sure we’ll talk about this later. So that made our price point a little bit higher than the rest of the restaurants, because she was like, this dish requires 8 to 10 kaffir lime leaves. That’s what is going to go in there. And it was just like 8 to 10 lime leaves in the ’90s was like making it rain on somebody’s ผัดพริกขิง (Pad Prik King – spicy ginger stir fry).
[45:02] Mark: I mean, this is something that I argue in the book and I really want to hear from Vanda and Dan about their experiences, even as second generation. For immigrant restaurateurs and even the people who racially represent an immigrant. So even though we’re born here racially, we sort of represent an immigrant community that they’re confronted with the reality of race in America immediately, and even opening a restaurant, you have to navigate the racial context. Because you can’t even just say, I want to cook the food I love. Because then it’s like, Well, will people like it? And then how will people see us as a people and then as a community? So you bear the weight of a lot of this responsibility of like, if I just cook whatever I want and people think it’s gross, or you’re kind of afraid to introduce it because you don’t know if they’re going to like it or how they’re going to see you.
[46:04] I think all of that is something that is, I think a lot of Thai immigrants faced early on. And that you just can’t separate that reality of the way that society sees you racially from the food that you cook, because it’s written on your body. The fact that they were already making that connection between the veterinarian office and your food, it’s like now you have to think about, well, Can I just cook whatever the hell I want or is this going to come across and so, I don’t know, I’m wondering, Vanda, Dan.
[46:43] Vanda: I mean, my parents started our first restaurant in East LA in the ’80s. It was a little bottega. I don’t think it was permitted. It was like the former meat station turned into a cooking station with a lot of random furniture. And I think that struggle of cooking what you want and cooking what you have to, to pay the bills is definitely like a struggle then and now and being Thai Chinese, like Thai, Chinese restaurant. I remember during that time there was a print shop. I think it was called Budget Printing, Thai Budget Printing. I think they were located somewhere on Sunset and they did a generic menu for all restaurants. They essentially put your restaurant’s name and your address on there. And it was actually one of those to-go, the ones you put in the door knobs of homes, everyone had the same menu.
Everyone had the same combo. Everyone had the angel wing, the stuff like wings, everyone had หมี่กรอบ (Mi Krop – crispy rice noodles). And if you didn’t have it, it was up to you to cross it off. So imagine them printing thousands of menus for you. And as a kid, we couldn’t make certain dishes, we would have to cross it off before our parents hung it at someone’s door. But it was essentially that. And I remember, like มะกรูด lime (Ma Kroot – makrut lime) obviously expensive, can’t find any exception, but our price point in East LA was much lower. And so we had to use substitution. People asked me often, like Pad Thai, like I saw it on the New York Times. You can use ketchup, you can use Sriracha and whatnot. And I’m like, whoa, how did all of that come about?
[48:37] And I remember having a conversation with my parents and they’re like in the ’80s we didn’t have tamarind. Like in the early ’80s, late ’70s, we didn’t have tamarind. And the best and cheapest substitute that was available to us is ketchup. So therefore that is why we use ketchup. And I remember speaking to Achan Kanjana about Pad Thai using traditionally the มันกุ้ง (Man Kung – shrimp paste with bean oil) or the shrimp head shrimp paste. That’s why it’s orangey yellowy. And it’s synonymous to what Pad Thai is to Americans. But when people order chicken Pad Thai, and it’s still that orangey hu, what we use is actually paprika, which is for Mexico. And so that gives us that color.
[49:25] So we kind of innovate it in a way, and it’s defined even today, we use มันกุ้ง (Man Kung – shrimp paste with bean oil) at our restaurant, but we still have to put that paprika just as an added, because if the color is off, God forbid, then it’s not like an authentic Pad Thai that Americans are used to. So I think all of this stems from that shortage and supplies in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and now onward, even though the supply chain is much better, but we’re known as that. So we kind of have to stick to that. My dad feels that if our Pad Thai is seat, like the color is faded, we won’t be able to sell it. And so we still continue doing it today and it’s still the best seller. But those are the struggles of the past and still of today.
[50:23] Dan: Yeah. For my parents, at least my mom was the cook, the Thai cook obviously in our household. She grew up in the north and she used to call พี่มัน (Phi Man – [Thai name]) in her house which was like a cook servant that they had. And she taught her all the kind of the food and all that. But then I guess when she came here, I don’t know if it’s like, not shame, but it was kind of like my mom was so afraid of making her own restaurant plus, one for obviously all the hard work it would take, but it was just like, she didn’t think people would go for it if she cooked the food that she wanted to cook. When she ตำ (Tam – to pound) her own like เครื่องแกง (chili paste) and all that, it’s like really intense.
[51:12] They never really went that route of a restaurant. They just did certain foods very well at home and like for friends and for family and whatever, it’s just a small like following especially with her แหนม (Naem – fermented pork sausage). But one of the things I remember as a kid is we weren’t allowed in the kitchen because she didn’t want us to ตัวเหม็น (Tua Men – be stinky) and then go to school and be embarrassed. She didn’t want people to look down on Thai people because like, Here’s this stinky kid, it smells like fish sauce or whatever. So a lot of the things when I grew up seeing that, kind of made you question like, Oh, what it is to be Thai. And there wasn’t really other Thai people around.[52:00] So it was just us, it was just me and my brother in LA. And then we had a couple cousins around, but we didn’t go to school with then Thai people. I don’t know, for us I think that
was the struggle for my parents trying to find that identity and like find the balance for us, for the children to not bring down the community. I don’t know. It was a weird dynamic growing up. But yeah, it was just like one of those things.
[52:36] Mark: Yeah. This, it’s why it’s hard for me to accept when people would critique or maybe even fully criticize Thai restaurants and even chefs for like cooking inauthentic Thai food, or like, Oh, they don’t cook like the right Thai food. I’m like, you don’t have any idea, decisions going into the food that comes on the plate, that’s just beyond the food on the plate. I’m pretty sure the food at home is different from the food here and there’s a reason for that. And so just thinking about that, I really try to avoid making these like, Oh, it’s not authentic. They don’t know really how to cook because there are a lot of decisions to be made there. So that was really eye opening, but also not surprising, but just like really interesting to hear all your stories.
[53:29] Vanda: I think that you see even, Malaysian restaurants, Lao restaurants that are like the new kind of Asian restaurants that are popping up. As Thai we kind of rode on the coattails of Chinese restaurants, Malaysian Lao restaurants are now riding on the coattail of Thai restaurants, where they have to serve Pad Thai. I’ve seen in Malaysian restaurants and Lao restaurants, just to be that bridging gap like Chow Mein was to our food so that people feel safe and familiar and then hopefully try something more of what they would cook for their family.
[54:11] Kanjana: That’s how you know you’ve made it, that noodles and company serves Pad Thai. I just remember them adding that to the menu and thinking we’ve made it. There are now appropriate versions of our food, in this Boulder, Colorado based noodle chain. I had very mixed feelings about it obviously, but to be included into that big umbrella of noodles. When people think of noodles that are one of our dishes, however, artificial and constructed it may be, but it’s a provost, it says Thai in it. It’s created to promote Thainess and here we are at a main chain serving Thainess by who knows what, and however, but to give credit, they do use fish sauce. So goes to them. I don’t know, I can’t speak about the tamarin.
[55:11] Dan: No, but it’s a testament to all the early Thai restaurants that, take it kind of safe and kind of lay the foundation for chefs for like me and Vanda. We’re going back to what we want to eat and we’re putting it out there for people and it’s being well received. People are receptive, like who else is doing หมูกระทะ (Mu Krata – Korean-Thai BBQ) on the street in Westchester. To me that’s just like amazing and people love it. Because it’s something that’s unique. And I’m like even like จิตรลดา (Jitlada), they’ve been around for so long, but now they’re getting more and more popular because they’ve just kind of like went crazy with their food and just made as authentic as they could with the ingredients they have now.
[56:01] And people love it because as it is, a lot of people are now traveling to places like Thailand and to Vietnam and they’re eating it where it’s from. And it’s like, they want those flavors, authentic flavors. So kudos to all the previous generations for laying the foundation for the chefs of like our day now that we can do whatever we want and I can make my flavors as bold and as funky and as authentic as I want, and people will eat it. People will definitely eat it now.
[56:34] Vanda: This goes back to our conversation we had like the other night about แหนม (Naem – fermented pork sausage). If you don’t know, Dan makes amazing creations with the แหนม (Naem – fermented pork sausage). I think one of my favorite was when you made it into like a nigiri, like a sushi bite. And we are mentioning that, if this is a different world in a different paradox and Thai people or Asians were the first waves of immigrants to the US, people would be celebrating this แหนม (Naem – fermented pork sausage) and not pepperoni pizza. It would be as common as any sausage that you would have or baloney. It would be put onto sandwiches or on a rice to take to school. And it would be very normal to have, but I know as a kid, it wasn’t my first choice of a lunch that I would bring to school, but I’m happy that we’re celebrating it now.
[57:39] Dan: It’s pride and joy.
[57:43] Joy: Let’s talk about some of the current challenges of Thai restaurants and Thai American chefs today.
[57:53] Vanda: Dan, you want to stab that first or you want me?
[57:55] Dan: Oh, go ahead. I need to think on that one.
[58:01] Vanda: So as a second generation restaurateur with a 17-year-old restaurant, I’ve kind of inherited it about, I would say fully about 8 years ago. I still work actively with my mom, who’s still in the kitchen many, many days a week. It’s just so hard to get her out of there with the labor shortage and her amazing skill. I always say that she’s my best worker, because she does the job of three people. And you can’t find that kind of work ethic nowadays. But mainly the struggle of being second generation is the side of my parents kind of letting go. And when I want to put on a certain dish, like my sister and I did, a dish like a lobster roll, and they’re like, wait, is that Thai, how are you going to make that Thai?
[58:55] But we’re like, we identify with it. We want to make it kind of like a yum and put it on a bread roll, that my sister baked and my parents are still very much traditionalists in a way that they don’t know what traditionalist really is, after speaking to Achan Kanjana, like, what is that? What are they trying to sell or what was sold to them? What Kool-Aid did they drink out of that made them feel like this is Thai and this is not. But slowly I think over the years, we made น้ำพริกอ่อง (Nam Phrik Ong – Northern Thai chili paste) lasagna, and my dad was like, what น้ำพริกอ่อง (Nam Phrik Ong – Northern Thai chili paste) lasagna, what are you making? น้ำพริกอ่อง (Nam Phrik Ong – Northern Thai chili paste), which is Northern, and you’re putting pasta in it. This is blasphemy.[59:42] And after they try it, I mean, food is food. And at the end of the day, I always tell them, really what is Thai food? What is Thai food? And my parents couldn’t say. And so my brother concluded Thai food is what Thai people eat. So regardless of what it is, if you can eat it, that is Thai food because you have in Thailand, like green curry pizza, which is so mainstream, which feels so Thai. We had the privilege of cooking with a Thai Top Chef a few months ago, and her boundaries, like she had no boundaries. She embraces her French training, but she also
embraces the traditional Thai cooking. And she kind of puts it together. But for me and my sister, we have that struggle with, mentally what our parents have kind of put into our head of what is Thai and what we can do.
[1:00:34] And I think it comes from a bit of fear for them, doing something safe, that has been tried and true. And has gone through the test of time works. It pays the bills. They don’t want us to rock the boat, versus being super creative. I think that is something. And I think for the general community in LA, at least, it’s welcoming. I think a lot of young Thai American chefs someone I admire is Justin of Anajak Thai, who is shaking things up. I think the other day he did a cheese mango, sticky rice, which is very bold. And I commend him for just pushing the boundary of having that conversation, of doing something a little different and being his authentic self.
[1:01:40] Joy: And then Dan, as a Thai American French chain chef, do you find that you have some similar struggles?
[1:01:46] Dan: Oh, absolutely. I was just going to say I struggle a little bit with identity as far as am I being true to my heritage, my Thainess? But what I’ve come to realize me being a classically trained French cook, a chef, that’s one side of it and then I learned in Japanese restaurants. I’m only just beginning to skim the surface of learning or getting back into cooking, authentic Thai food. But the struggle is I’m doing it from memory. Because like I said, my mom is not really a resource anymore. But it’s just like my brother and I always try to like decipher these dishes that our mom made for us that really evoke those memories of happiness and childhood and all that nostalgia.
[1:02:41] But what I’ve come to realize is that, it’s not being like untrue to myself. It’s just, I should be able to take from all the things that I’ve learned and to make just good food, like Vanda said, it’s what we want to eat, right. So even while I was at Tartine, I’m bringing very Thai flavors to American-style cafe and people were very receptive and loved it. Justin, actually, said something on one of those infatuation embryos or something, he’s like, he named Tartine Sycamore like one of the top five Thai restaurants in LA because they asked him which ones he’s like, like low key, a secret Thai restaurant because there’s a Thai chef there, he’s pushing the boundaries of like what’s acceptable and things like that.
[1:03:34] All that’s changed now, but I’m working with—
[1:03:40] Vanda: The โจ๊ก (Chok), Thai โจ๊ก (Chok – Congee) on the Tartine.
[1:03:42] Dan: Yeah. I mean I did joke. I did แหนมข้าวทอด (Naem Khao Thot – fried fermented pork sausage) on my menu, things like that. People were blown away with it. But this new concept I’m working on Woonokoki? it’s like Vancouver style-ish of kind which if you know anything about Vancouver, it’s just like an amalgamation of Asian communities. It’s Thai, it’s Japanese, it’s Chinese, it’s Malay, it’s all of that. So it’s like, I can do whatever I want on the menu now. I’m doing a little bit of a Japanese with a little bit of Thai influence, whatever. I think this น้ำจิ้ม (Nam Chim – dipping sauce) would be great with like this grilled fish or this grilled pork, whatever. And so I’m coming to terms with that, after a long battle with what I thought was authentic and what was real. So now I’m just like, screw it, I’m doing what I want and it’s going to be good. And if it doesn’t, then we’ll go back to the drawing board. We start again.
[1:04:51] Kanjana: That’s innovation. And as a diner, obviously I’m not in the kitchen anymore, at least outside of my home and to take what I’ve learned historically. And how I grew up as a Thai-American, 1.5 gen Thai-American, who grew up in a Thai restaurant, but also my mother and her colleagues were really kind of embedded in the circle of Thai studies. So we were privileged in that we met so many foreigners who really wanted Thai things because that’s their academic focus, that’s their academic interest. And that’s like a weird niche market for a Thai restaurant. And Madison hosts the Southeast Asian Studies Institute. And so there would be a flood of people coming to Madison for 8 weeks to learn intensive Thai language.
[1:05:47] And they wanted. In a way it was their immersion language. And they would come to my mom’s restaurant because of her academic ties and practice their Thai and trying to eat her food because the instructors told them that if you wanted to taste something as close as you would, when you go to Thailand, you go to Suko Thai. And the fact that the name Suko Thai is interesting because my mom, we are not Northern people. I grew up in Bangkok, my mom, as an academic, she wanted a name, one that says Thai and two for people to ask what it meant. Because she’s a professor, she’s a teacher. So people would ask what is Suko Thai? And she said, Well, funny, you should ask is the very first Thai empire and kingdom in 1292.
[1:06:35] So I had this spiel, like what Joy said, people would call and ask what Thai food was. People would ask us as I’m calculating their totals or whatever, what is Suko Thai anyways? And I would get to tell them the history of the Thai alphabet and the whole shebang. And the innovation of it, when I went back to Thailand as an adult to do my field work for my PhD studies. And I saw that Thai chefs were just doing whatever. And the little box that we all grew up in as Thai-Americans, that’s so well defined. It’s not a perforated edge of Thainess. We didn’t grow up with perforated edges for the boundaries of Thainess. It’s not permeable, it’s not malleable.
[1:07:25] It’s the thing. And to go to Bangkok, to do my graduate research and see that people were doing green curry, stir fry with spaghetti noodles, I was like, what is happening? I was like, They can do that? But then, as our conversation earlier, it was like, they can do whatever they want because Thai food is what Thai people eat. And that was so freeing for me, as someone who was struggling to define their Thainess, in a very academic, like nerdy historical way. I’m going to know everything about Thainess so that my Thainess could never be questioned.
[1:08:06] And would go to the side of the street vendors and they would just like, yeah, Pad macaroni. And I was like, what is Pad macaroni? Why is macaroni in everything? And also the noodles you’re using is not technically macaroni, it’s Rotini but okay. I want to see that kind of innovation. So thank goodness for you guys or Buddha, I should say. Thank Buddha for you guys.
[1:08:34] Dan: As long as it hits the five tastes.
[1:08:39] Mark: I love this conversation because, I think even as someone just even outside of food. As someone who kind of struggled with their own Thai-American identity. One of the big turning points in my life, and I’m thinking about everything you all just said. I think one of the big turning points was, taking kind of ethnic studies classes and realizing that this idea of a national identity or even individual identity is never fixed. And so once I realize like, Okay, what it means to be Thai is always going to be unsettled. And that makes me feel good. That makes me in a weird way, knowing that Thai American identity is always unsettled and always changing actually makes me feel grounded.
[1:09:26] In a way that, I don’t have to conform to this rigid idea of what being Thai means. There are different ways to be Thai. And at some level it’s not even up to me or us. Like society is going to see us as Thai. That’s just what it’s going to be. So I think kind of figuring that out in the ways that you all describe, I was like, what is authentic Thai food? What does it mean to be an authentic Thai? And I think if anybody has an answer to that, I would feel like that’s very rigid. You can’t tell, you can’t define and pin down. Even Thai food, like two neighbors in Thailand would cook a same dish differently. So what are you talking about when you say authentic Thai cuisine and I say that, but at the same time, I can understand when Vanda said, there’s a fear for the older generation, of like losing Thainess, going back to what Kanjana said.
[1:10:26] So I get the fear because the fear is, you don’t want to lose what makes the country unique or different and you kind of move towards defining it in these very fixed hard ways because you don’t want to be colonized or you don’t want to be completely erased. And so I get the impulse to want to be like, no Thainess has to be this, this, this, and this. And if you turn it into lasagna or if you make it into sashimi, then it’s not Thai and we’re losing. I get the fear that all of a sudden it doesn’t mean anything anymore.
[1:11:08] Vanda: Mark I’m wondering if it has to do with something, with being immigrants, like our parents being immigrants and having to hold on to something that they had to leave. I can’t even imagine, in the late ’70s, early ’80s having to leave my homeland, pre-internet days.
[1:11:31] Dan: That struggle was real.
[1:11:32] Vanda: Like bringing everything that you have in the luggage you can carry to come to a country that you know no one or very few people, in the language you can’t effectively communicate in. I can’t even imagine. So holding onto whatever tradition that is, however weird that we think it is maybe is their only like anchor.
[1:11:59] Mark: Absolutely. And 100% agree. And I think even to add to that, great point. I think if anybody was untraditional, it would be the migrants. They left Thailand. And so the process of like leaving and deciding, I don’t want to live in Thailand. I want to go to the United States, then you kind of double down. Now I got to like really be Thai. Thai people in Thailand wouldn’t call you the most inauthentic right now because you left.
[1:12:29] Dan: You’re the black sheep. Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of like, you have to kind of double down on that to say, Okay, I need to really claim my roots now because subconsciously I felt like I left and how do I make sense of that for myself, if I’m so Thai, why would I leave Thailand? And so you kind of do this process with yourself. So absolutely when I think for sure.
[1:12:56] Kanjana: And if you zoom out, and just go beyond even just the Thai community, looking at just diaspora and people who are outside of their home cultural, linguistic context, you see this type of holding on extremely tightly. So if we go to the extreme spectrum of that, you see the Amish, who came in the 1800s and they dress like they’re from the 1800s, they speak like they’re from the 1800s. So the German that they speak, what we call Pennsylvania Dutch, which is German, it’s amazing because they held on so tight that they are still in the 1800s. So as a community, if we want to grow, however we want to grow. And I love that our community is so diverse and so large and so scattered.
[1:13:54] And I’m only saying that now as an adult, obviously. As a child growing up in Wisconsin, like I really wanted another Thai person around that wasn’t my sister or my mom. But our community I think is old enough now in the United States to acknowledge and accept differences. So there are regional cuisines coming out. There are Northern dishes and Southern dishes. And I don’t think without the passage of time, without the sacrifices of the first generation that we would have room to do that now. And I think you can look at any other cuisine like Chinese cuisine, there wasn’t room for Yunnanese restaurant or Szechuan hot pot specifically, 20 years ago there wasn’t.
[1:14:46] But the fact that we get to grow and we have room to grow and reinterpret what it is to be Thai, what Thai food is and how we want to do it. I think that’s amazing. So in a way we’re almost getting to the same point that the Thai chefs in Thailand maybe are at, where our Thainess maybe someday won’t be questioned and we can just do whatever we want. This is just me full fantasy dreaming now. But someday.
[1:15:14] Mark: Everybody who’s listening is going to be like, they’re not real Thai people. They’re not Thai, but I have a say that for them now, we know that’s coming. These aren’t real Thai people. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
[1:15:30] Kanjana: I have a PhD, a piece of paper that tells me that I’m Thai, I teach people how to speak and be Thai. So they can come for me and I have a title, but I’ll stand up for y’all. [1:15:45] Vanda: There’s one more struggle that I really want to talk about, is the perception of Thai food to the general American public, where Thai food is often deemed as cheap and has to be fast. And I think either Professor Mark or Professor Kanjana mentioned before, amongst Asian food rankings and the price that people would pay. You have Japanese food at your highest end and often receiving those marks of Michelin and highly accredited awards. And then you have Thai food, which often lands at the lower end of the spectrum in terms of price and
value. I think this is definitely a struggle of me personally, as I run a Thai restaurant business and how we price. We love to talk to everyone about that and your personal struggles of Thai food having to be cheap and having to be fast.
[1:17:00] Dan: I think it comes to elevating it. There are people in Thailand that do it, like Chef Tan does that, she elevates that cuisine. She presents it in a different way. She stays true to the flavors and the backgrounds and what makes that dish true and tasty, but she just presents it in a different way. And I think we just have to slowly change that kind of mentality. And it’s just going to take time. I try to do that sometimes with my food, I’m always talking about making ต้มยำ (Tom Yum) soup consomé. People always kind of like when you order a ต้มยำ (Tom Yum) soup. It’s like all the ข่า the ตะไคร้ (Kha – galangal ; Ta Khai – lemongrass) and all that stuff that’s just swimming in there.
[1:17:51] For me, like, it’s great, but you don’t need that. It’s served its purpose, it’s given it this is flavor. But what if I used like a French method and made the raft and clarified this stock, now you’re just eating this beautiful, clean stock, that’s like mind blowing flavors and then that’s it. I think we just have to be creative and find that way. And then you do something like that. I think people will be like, Oh, shit, this guy’s elevating the game a little bit. And it feels more value. Because a lot of our Thai food is like, when you hit it in the wok and it’s done, it’s like two seconds. So that’s kind of what it is, it’s quick and it’s fast and it’s inexpensive, it’s like working food. But I think we as chefs can slowly elevate that game a little bit and bring it up to that next level, kind of break that mold.
[1:18:56] Kanjana: And historically there’s always been a distinction in Thai cuisine as far as records have gone anyways, between home food and special occasion foods. And as immigrants, I don’t think we were allowed that distinction in the beginning. The distinction is very clear in Thailand อาหารบ้าน อาหารวัง (Ahan Ban, Ahan Wang – folk food and royal food) they’re not the same and the amount of work that goes into certain dishes is for a kitchen that has a full staff. And French food is afforded that distinction because of the historical kind of dominance that it’s had in Western cuisine.
[1:19:34] I mean, there are things that you are not making at home because it requires a full staff and it requires two days of prep, but when certain Thai dishes cross the ocean, we lost that distinction. And if we get to bring that back, so people know like price point wise, of course it makes sense because they’re side of the street food, like you said, it’s in and out of the walk, people have 30 minutes to eat. They’re on the go. Totally makes sense, that the price point would be lower. But if you’re doing things that takes a full staff and two days of prep, then there’s no reason that should be the same. And I would love for one to see that distinction come to the US.
[1:20:24] Mark: Yeah. And I think another part of this and I agree with both of you, and I think American consumers and eaters have a responsibility as well. I think we have to detach and separate authenticity with cheap. And especially when it comes to Asian food, I mean, this happens with Mexican food as well. It’s like, the cheaper the tacos, the more authentic it is. And so I think that is so deeply connected for a lot of diners that like, yeah the cheaper the food is, the more authentic it is. And so if you do the ต้มยำ (Tom Yum) consomé, then it’s kind of like, well, I don’t know if that’s like authentic anymore because it should be cheap.
[1:21:16] If I’m paying this much, is this like not Thai food anymore? Is it going somewhere else? And so I just feel like eaters also have a responsibility to say, you know what, authentic or Thai food can be different than what I think it is. And I have to be willing to pay more for authentic Thai food. That’s new, authentic Thai food. So I think there’s a responsibility there too, that like the chefs and the restaurateurs and you all can only do so much, but eaters have to disconnect those ideas.
[1:21:50] Vanda: I think within our own community too, I feel that Thais eating at Thai restaurant and judging the food because of the price point is also, like probably the hardest thing. I know that being on the west side, we provide benefits for our employees. We provide fair livable wages. And when people come from maybe the Hollywood area into Westchester and they see the price that we charge, which I don’t feel is high, feels high when compared to Thai town. And educating our diners and educating our community is really important I think to push the boundaries of the possibilities of what Thai food can be.
[1:22:38] I was at a restaurant I think two weeks ago when they served their dessert menu, their entire dessert menu, the price point was higher than my Pad Thai. The cheapest item on the dessert menu was like $16 and was a soft serve. I talked to Dan about this already, a soft serve. And I’m like, what am I doing wrong in life? When I am selling my best seller for less than a soft serve, like what is going on? And so it made me kind of think like, There’s so much that goes into a Pad Thai. People don’t know about it. And that saucer use like special milk procured and chocolate from a certain place. And they educate their diners of that. And so I think the burden is now on me to do that and raise that level of what we can do with Thai food and how we can charge. It’s a way to think, it’s not them, it’s me.
[1:23:41] Dan: No, it also comes from that poor immigrant, like mentality. My dad is always complaining about how expensive Thai food is now. And I’m like, Dad, it’s just so expensive to make this food now, you don’t understand a lot of the times. And it’s disconcerting sometimes, because like you won’t eat at certain restaurants anymore. It’s like it’s too expensive and it’s not as good as it used to be. And it’s too small like blah blah blah. I’m just like dad, the times of change, food is getting more expensive. Like Vanda says, like there’s so much that goes behind a plate of Pad Thai besides the ingredients, it’s the rent, it’s the labor, it’s all these things that people don’t anticipate, don’t appreciate, and hopefully now that this pandemic, whatever is kind of like getting people more of that, understanding that food costs a little bit more, and they’re willing to pay it. So I think we’re moving in the right direction.
[1:24:44] Joy: Well thank you, everybody. This was such a great informative conversation. I think that everybody watching will learn a lot from it and I thank you all for your time today.