Your Pad Thai Takeout Has Quite the Origin Story ...
A lot of us love Thai food. After all, that just feels like the correct response to a world of cuisine that places so much priority on fresh ingredients, holistic spices, and super intense flavor profiles. Have you ever stopped to wonder just how Thai food became so popular in America, however?
The story behind this amazing cuisine involves the Cold War, a Cutthroat Kitchen celebrity chef, and (among other things) a taste-testing robot. Let's take a look!
Thai food in America was virtually unheard of during the 1960s, as were many of the ingredients that create its signature flavors. While Chinese fine dining had seen some mainstream recognition since the early 1900s, Japanese and Korean food was introduced to the American palate in the reconstruction following World War II and the Korean war respectively. It wasn't until the Vietnam war, however, that Thai cooking saw an introduction into the American consciousness.
As the Vietnam war was escalating, the Kingdom of Thailand was getting a lot of attention from America. In addition to supplying valuable ground forces during the actual conflict, it served as both a military, cultural and academic staging ground for American interests. At the height of the war, over 50,000 American soldiers were stationed in Thailand, and most spent time there during some part of their deployment. It wasn't just the military either: Fullbright Scholars, journalists, diplomats, and businessmen were also flocking to Thailand, and they brought back an appreciation for Thai food with them.
While this first wave of Thai food may have found a warm reception in suburban cookbooks, it wasn't until the Thai immigration wave of the 1960s that the food really "came" to the United States. In fact, the first-ever Thai grocer in American didn't open until 1972. Interestingly enough, it was the family of celebrity chef Jet Tila that's credited with opening this grocer, Bangkok Market. Fans of the cooking/horror show Cutthroat Kitchen will recognize the same, along with the importance that Chef Jet Tila plays in the perception of Thai food today.
"Before tamarind was readily available, it was vinegar, sugar, and ketchup," Tila has commented. Naturally, having access to actual Thai ingredients significantly increased the appeal of Thai restaurants, the Los Angeles (the location of Bangkok Market) quickly became one of the hotbeds for Thai cooking in the US. In addition to the regular addictive-appeal of dishes like Pad Thai and Kaho Soi Kai, being in LA meant a higher capacity for celebrities to get excited about the food. In fact, Siamese Princess, a Thai restaurant in LA, reportedly had its own special booth just for Madonna.
What happened between the Thai restaurant boom of the 1970s and today shouldn't really surprise you: people discovered that Thai food is awesome and more Thai restaurants opened as a result. The story doesn't end there, however.
If the general awesomeness of Thai cooking has you excited about the thought of visiting Thailand, then you're not alone. In fact, it's something that Thailand's government is subtly counting on. As Thai food continued to grow in popularity during the 1990s, the Thai Ministry of Commerce took notice. In 2002, the "Global Thai" program was launched to give Thailand a uniquely positive reputation via "gastrodiplomacy." If that term sounds like a particularly obnoxious college major, let us explain: gastrodiplomacy is the idea that one of the fastest ways to win over people from different cultures is through their stomachs.
To this end, the Thai Ministry of Commerce realized the value of being able to bring a love of Thai food to as many different countries as possible. In addition to creating a higher global demand for Thai food, the "Global Thai" program also realized the value of setting a certain standard for taste and quality. While this program is hardly the only factor in a growing fixation with Thai flavors, the push seemed to have worked: there were an estimated 5,500 Thai restaurants in international locations when the program first launched, versus more than 15,000 today. The US alone has seen an increase from 2,000 to roughly 5,000 Thai restaurants in the last two decades.
The explosive popularity of Thai food has also come with an appreciation for authenticity, both in Thailand and abroad. Of course, pursuing a high degree of authenticity is a tall order, especially when you've got already high standards in flavor and ingredients to live up to. This has resulted in one of the quirkier bullet points of this story: the existence of the e-Delicious taste-testing robot.
A Bangkok laboratory—headed by Thailand's National Innovation Agency—developed a special AI during the 2010s designed to taste Thai cooking and determine if it met "authentic" standards. Its expectations for food quality were coded after a committee of around 200 chefs and foodies—called the Thai Delicious Committee—were assembled to taste a variety of dishes and rank them based on their quality and commitment to traditional Thai flavors.
So, if you're planning to explore the world of Thai cooking yourself, know there's a machine out there ready to grade you on how authentic your cooking is. But can e-Delicious tell if food is tasty?
"The machine can't tell you if something is delicious or not," says Nakah Thawichawatt, one of the key players in the project. Given that, the existence of this robot is more of a fun-aside than a portent of the restaurant world reaching a dark, Terminator-esque timeline. For now.
Very few types of cooking have exploded across America with the same energy that Thai food has. Its widespread (and still growing!) popularity shows that once diners get a taste of something awesome, there's about to be a whole lot more of it.
What are some of your favorite types of international cooking? Sound off in the comments.