I love the chaos of a meal with Thai people when everyone is hungry. Every person has their own bowl of rice, and the numerous main dishes are placed in the center of the group. There are no heaping portions piled on plates, like at an American table. Rather, everyone is helping themselves, choosing from a variety of small dishes. Spoonfuls of different foods are added to your bowl, bit by bit, creating perfect combinations of rice and fresh vegetables and sauces. When people are hungry, there are hands everywhere, grabbing spoons and dishes as talk flies back and forth.
According to Pom, a balanced Thai meal (on top of rice, of course) has three components- protein, nutrition, and flavor. For example, the perfect bite may be fried fish, some bitter but highly nutritious greens, and a spoonful of a sweet type of nam phrik (meaning a chili based sauce, pounded in mortar and pestle). These are three different dishes, and you need to arrange it all on top of the rice before taking a delicious, balanced bite. Some dishes have the protein and flavor together, like a chicken curry, and the nutrition will be raw vegetables like cucumber or eggplant (aubergine) eaten on the side.
In a way, Thai cuisine is very personalized. With a multitude of dishes and a serve-yourself mentality, each person is creating combinations on their plate that match their palate. You select what you eat and how much. As a newcomer to this dining system, I watch the others at the table, noting what dishes they pair together and trying my own favorites.
One evening, Pom, U, and I visit their nearby family’s house for a dinner party. Over a verifiable feast of curries, lettuce rolls, and different grilled fish, I chat with Pom’s aunt and uncle, who spent much of their lives in Britain and America. The aunt told me that one of the only things that continued to surprise her, when they lived in Florida, was how large the portion sizes were. Meals in American restaurants were one large dish, with perhaps one also large side dish, and it was impossible to finish.
I laughed as they explained it to the rest of the surprised family, because their impressions are accurate- American portions are large, and we make fewer different dishes for the average meal. Now that I’ve been introduced to the Thai style of eating, the idea of returning to a plate of diner meat and potatoes seems horribly boring, and unhealthy. I’ve found that I love these balanced Thai meals, and the diversity in their food.
As I cooked with Pom, we continually returned to questions of “national cuisine” and everyday, complex realities. Pom was quick to question my questions about “Thai food”. What can be said about Thai food, when regional differences abound?
Questions of national cuisine are never clear cut, as tempting as it is to generalize. For every ingredient that Pom uses, she cites a difference in some other part of the country. She’s using oyster sauce in this recipe, but where her husband is from in the northeast, they use a fermented fish sauce. Her mother makes curry this way but her father’s side defines curry and nam phrik differently. And let’s not even get started on the diversity of rice, because that’s where the strongest opinions come out.
Some now-renowned “Thai” dishes trace their roots elsewhere- a popular bright yellow dessert made from egg yolks and sugar syrup was actually introduced by Portuguese traders in the 15th century. Those soups that require chopsticks instead of the usual Thai fork and spoon are actually influences from the large Chinese expat community. But who cares, when these eaten on the street in Bangkok every day?
As often as I ask questions about Thai food, I field questions about American food. And while it is tempting to simplify foreign cuisine into bite size categories, when you try to represent your own county’s cuisine, you realize how complex the question can be for every country.
When asked about American cuisine, what do I say? Do I talk about how I eat, my attitudes, in my position in society? What about how a typical small town Midwesterner eats, versus an urban west coast citizen? How can I express the amazing diversity in my country? And how does the average American eat?
Questions that aim to define and categorize cuisine often miss that cuisine is a living part of culture. Food is always evolving. Cuisine may evolve even faster than many other parts of culture, like music or art, because it is a daily reality, a necessary act. When people need to eat every day to survive, innovations and adjustments in cuisine can spread quickly. There is no way to trace clear lines across cuisines when there is so much exchange.
So how to talk about a cuisine, if it is always changing? It is an interesting exercise, to learn about the subtleties and the distinctions that can lead to the broad generalizations. I obviously love learning and writing about food. Yet, the more I learn, the more I see how complex the questions are. At a certain point, the labels of authentic or traditional start to lose meaning in the idiosyncrasies, and the joy is taken out of the real reason that we love to share our food. While I will continue to explore different cuisines, I am careful not to take anything too seriously, and to enjoy the exploration instead.
So what is Thai cuisine? I’ll tell you after I finish eating.