The popularity of Thai cuisine has grown significantly in Britain over the last few years. Pat Chapman’s Thai Restaurant Cookbook describes how there was only a handful of Thai restaurants in the UK a few years back and yet this number had grown exponentially to 500 by 1996. Yep, mine is an oldish edition – I’ve been a fan of Thai food since I first visited Thailand in the late 1980s. I’d like to know how many Thai restaurants there are in Britain now, as there are new ones popping up every month even where we lived in Greater London.
This growth in popularity is perhaps partly attributable to the increasing number of tourists visiting Thailand and discovering the culinary delights for themselves. The recent plethora of celebrity chefs has also fuelled the demand for the cuisine. It’s hard to think of any of these chefs who, if not actually making a TV series and writing a book about Thai cuisine, have not at least included Thai food in their repertoire.
Thai food is popular, and deservedly so, but in my opinion much of what is served as so-called Thai isn’t Thai at all. It’s blanded down to appease the perceived farang (Westerner) palate. Not only are there many restaurants which serve food that looks fairly authentic but isn’t (the favourite trick being to substitute slivers of red pepper for chillies), there are also numerous bottles and boxes in the large supermarkets containing gunk with the description “Thai style” – most of this is no more Thai than Yorkshire pudding. And what really winds me up is celeb chefs and silly magazines like BBC Good Food offering “Thai” recipes which, as Burns would have said, “wud mak ye spew”. If people want to write recipes for bland tasteless stuff and other people enjoy eating the results, that’s fine. But please don’t call it Thai – because it’s not.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that all Thai food is very spicy. Much of it is, but the keyword is “balance”. None of it is bland, though, and a disgusting hash of this and that with a teaspoon of curry paste and without the necessary ingredients just isn’t Thai food. Thai food, made properly, takes time and requires many specialised ingredients. Describing the food to someone who may not have tried it is like describing a picture on the radio, but here goes anyway.
Finally, before I go, maybe I ought to describe Thai food, which is what I said I was going to do in the first place. It’s unique. It’s just not like any other cuisine. It requires a whole host of outrageously delicious ingredients that are not found in other cuisines. It balances the flavours of salty, sour, spicy and sweet in a way that’s unimaginable without tasting it. It combines the freshness of fragrant herbs such as lemon grass with the pungency of nam pla (a salty liquid made from fermented fish). It burns you with chillies and soothes you with coconut milk. It makes your taste buds explode with such delicacies as Chiang Mai spicy sausages, seafood soup, red curry, green papaya salad – oh wow! This is making me hungry…