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Sabai Dee, Somtam




By Andrew Biggs

This week I enjoyed a delicious lunch at Suan Dusit University, my host being none of than the Dean of the Faculty of Education.

We ate at the university restaurant, which doubles up as a training ground for hospitality. Despite our lofty stature we chose to eat traditional Thai food. The Dean had pad kraphao while I ate rard nah.

We also shared another dish.

“It’s a specialty of the restaurant,” my host told me. “You’ve got to try it.”

That dish was somtam but with a difference. Rather than being made with papaya and peanuts, the restaurant replaced those ingredients with apple and cashew nuts. A little sweeter, but that was offset by the lemon and chilies so inherent in this variation of Thailand’s national dish.

What a great lunch; who would have thought the Dean and myself had participated in a culinary offence worthy of the wrath of the Culture Minister?

This week the Ministry of Culture got its pa-sin in a knot over Thai fusion food. Something insidious is happening in the culinary world. More and more Thai restaurants especially overseas are experimenting, veering off the straight and narrow.

I never imagined Thai fusion food to be a cultural stinker. I always thought it was kind of interesting and creative and, best of all, delicious.

I was wrong, according to the latest Culture Minister. He is Vira Rojpojchanarat, and his argument is that Thai food is unique, with recipes handed down for generations. That food is now under attack from “foreign influences” which are changing “the look and taste of certain dishes”. They are a threat to authentic Thai cuisine. Ultimately, it could lead to the disappearance of some unique Thai foods.

So worried is he about this, and so free is his appointment diary, he has found time to set up a special governmental committee to tackle the problem.

The committee’s aim is to protect, on a national level, Thai cuisine and the country’s food culture. One wonders if the committee is going to be armed or wear special uniforms as they implement this national crackdown. Will Section 44 be required?

It is heartening to learn such committees exist in the Thai civil service. One wonders what the members would spend their time doing if it were not for examining the pros and cons of Thai barbecue chicken with fruit and wasabi. That was the accompanying photo to the news story, demonstrating the heinous extent to which foreigners take innocent Thai dishes, strip them of their condiments and wantonly rape them with wasabi and fruit.

Thailand has one of the most exciting cuisines in the world, and really, to tamper with the tried and true recipes can be foolish. However we do need to corner Khun Vira — in the nicest way possible — sit him down somewhere quiet, order him a nice cup of traditional Thai tea, and have a little whisper to him.

I would start by reminding him of a controversy that gripped the country 20 years ago. It began when the Laotian Government announced a cultural fair displaying all things Laotian. There would be displays of traditional Laotian dancing, beautiful Laotian silk, and “wonderful opportunities to sample delicious traditional Laotian food such as somtam, which has its origins in Laos.”

What did they just say? You couldn’t kick Thailand between the legs any harder if you’d ask the country to spread its legs.

Somtam comes from Laos? That’s like saying to an American: “Your apple pie is delicious, but you know it originates in Canada.” Or to an Australian: “Lovely dessert, your pavlova, but it’s a New Zealand recipe.”

The outrage was so loud it drowned out Sukhumvit Road traffic for days. Thais were adamant. Their spicy raw-papaya-chilies-nuts-and-shrimp concoction came from 100 per cent North-Eastern Thais who have made it the staple for every Thai, particularly stick-thin office girls who munch on it every lunchtime because glua oo-an (afraid of getting fat). No, that’s not the reason. They eat it for the same reason everybody does; it’s the most delicious dish on earth.

And it comes from Thailand, as was sternly decreed at the time by Thai government ministers, business leaders, high-ranking monks, game show hosts and stars of local soap operas. Even comedians took a break from their hilarious routines of dressing up as women, or parading Downs Syndrome men on stage, to condemn Thailand’s nasty neighbor for daring to say somtam wasn’t Thai.

Then the Thai tide turned.

One Thai academic came out, very sheepishly, saying there was evidence that yes, perhaps, maybe, somtam could have originated from around the, well, Vientiane region of the world and, um, he had old papers to prove it.

I can’t really remember what happened next. I do remember the academic photographed beside some hoary old tomes he cited as source material. Either that or he was dragged onto Silom Road, stripped naked, his arms and legs attached to four tuk-tuks that drove off simultaneously in four separate directions at the shrill blast of a police whistle. Was there anybody else who’d like to join him?

Things got worse. Another academic (via midnight postings of home-made posters around the Surawong neighborhood) pointed out that Thailand’s beloved chilies — a base ingredient of every dish Khun Vira is willing to defend against experimenting foreigners — are not native to Thailand. They are as Thai in origin as I am.

Chilies came to Thailand around the 16th century via the Portuguese, who got them from Central America. You can read all about it in an excellent book I recently finished, entitled The Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan, which explains the two-thousand-year history of trade between Europe and China and everywhere in between.

I would then go on to explain to Khun Vira that there was a further king-hit; neither are papaya trees! They first sprouted up as recently as 200 years ago from foreign visitors.

I know, Khun Vira. It’s awful. Those dreaded foreigners introduced the very ingredients you are now trying to protect from dreaded foreigners.

Upon hearing this news, 20 years ago, the Thais knew that they had to do. It’s the same thing we did in Australia when the evidence was overwhelming that our national dish, pavlova, really did come from New Zealand. It hurt, dear reader, but we put our heads down and got on with life.

That’s what the Thais did. Game show hosts took up their microphones and the Downs Syndrome comedian was dusted off and dragged back on stage. The academic’s arms and legs were reattached and he was wheeled back to university.

There is another thing I would gently explain to Khun Vira before asking for the check-bill (and of course, paying it myself). I would remind him, respectfully, that this is the era of Thailand 4.0. It sprang from the realization that only two things will heave Thailand into the 21st century as a strong competitor on the world stage.

Those two things are innovation and technology. Yes, innovation. That extends to the Thai cuisine.

I congratulate the Thai chef over at Suan Dusit University who thought up that magnificent apple and cashew somtam dish. That’s the kind of innovation that keeps Thai culture fresh and alive.

Oh but we have taken up too much of the Minister’s valuable time. Thank you for listening to me, and I would ask you, most humbly, to consider my thoughts and opinions. Perhaps the committee you set up could discuss it over a plate of that Portuguese concoction.



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