Dumbing it Down: Thai Food and America’s Palate

There was recently a conversation on Slog about Thai food, and the “typical” American’s response to it. Apparently there is a practice that occurs in some Thai restaurants of presenting a dish with less spice than what the restaurant would serve themselves. In other words, they have a definition of “5-Star spicy” that they use for themselves, and a less hot “5-Star spicy” that is applied to everyone else.

The resulting conversation is indicative of two major food camps here in America. On one side we have those who want to experience the true “exotic” nature of a dish, not one that has been watered down for the standard American palate. On the other side is a group of people who want the food their way, regardless of how authentic it may or may not be. Both of these positions were mentioned in the Slop piece.

The first camp was represented with Jonathan Gold, a food writer who carries around a card with him written in indic script that essentially reads “Please give me your your best spices. I can handle it. Honest”, so that when he’s in Thailand, he’s gets the a real meal, not one dumbed down for a tourist.

The second camp was represented by a family in a Thai restaurant here in America who stated that they wanted absolutely no spice in their dish at all.

Setting aside for the moment the incorrect assertion that all American’s have roughly the same tastes, I do find this divide between approaches to food utterly fascinating, mostly because there’s false assumptions being made by everyone.

I love the idea that there’s this “authentic” dish floating out their in the ether some where, and that there are a handful of self-described food anthropologists out there who believe that they can find it. Recipes are a reflection of culture. Period. The fact that there is more than one way to prepare any given dish is indicative of that. When someone tells me they’ve cooked an authentic Italian meal, I honestly have definitive idea what that means. Authentic to what Italians eat today? What they are fifty years ago? One hundred?

Food changes generation to generation, and is influenced by swath of variables as simple as farm production, and as complex as class structure. Recipes change based off of the availability (or lack-thereof) of said food. Add to this the fact that recipes are also an individuals interpretation of an idea and what we’re left with is no definitive recipe for bolognese sauce or kaeng khiaowan. That’s not to say that recipes can’t have definitive characteristics, but how those characteristics are achieved can be vast or minimal.

All of this is my way of saying looking for an authentic imported cuisine experience is almost always a lost cause, because the word “authentic” is undefinable.

Add to this is the fact that there is not one single imported cuisine that has been brought into the United States that hasn’t been altered in some manner to accommodate our tastes. Spaghetti and Meatballs is about as Italian of a meal as General Tso’s Chicken is Chinese. Hell, Mexican cuisine didn’t even make it across the border before being altered into a variation called “Tex-Mex”. There’s a long standing tradition of having inauthentic “authentic” cuisines here in the United States. American-Thai cuisine is just another in a long line of interpretations passing itself off as “real”.

That being said, anyone who goes into a Thai restaurant asking for “no spice” deserves to be kicked out on their ear. Asking for “no spice” at a Thai restaurant is akin to going to a steakhouse and asking for a veggie burger. It smacks of that very American tradition of “the customer is always right”, an idea that is demonstrably wrong. But business is business, and I’m sure that the restaurant, working on thin margins to begin with, doesn’t wish to risk throwing any revenue out their door, even if it means compromising those defining characteristics mentioned above.

Now let’s address the issue of two different standards of “5-star”. Honestly? I’m not that concerned about it. Because I know , deep in my heart, somewhere in each Thai/American community found here in the States is that one Thai restaurant who, when they say “5-star spicy” actually mean “5-star spicy”. And when I find such a place, I swear by all that is delicious and good that they will see my business on a regular basis.

And those places whose “5-star spicy” doesn’t raise a single bead of sweat will never see a dime from me again.