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Cornucopia of Asian Food Links

[ 87 ] February 25, 2013 |

A few interesting pieces on Asian food and history.

1. This is an interesting discussion of the origins of pad thai, a dish that is fairly minor within Thai cooking but is the singular dish of Thai food overseas. It’s connections are closely related to a nationalistic, modernizing project developed by Field Marshal Plaek Pibulsongkram in the mid-20th century:

In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy. After all, he had already changed the name of country from Siam to Thailand as part of a series of mandates meant to shroud its people under a modernized Thai identity. Forks and spoons would be used instead of hands. More European-style clothing must be worn. Thai products should be preferred above all others. Pibulsongkram wanted to create a new Thai diet while making more rice products available for export. According to his son’s suppositions in the 2009 Gastronomica article “Finding Pad Thai,” the codified modern variant of Pad Thai may have originated in Pibulsongkram’s household, perhaps the devising of the family’s cook. Its recipe was disseminated throughout the country, and push carts were sent into the streets to make this newfangled on-the-go meal available to the masses. To eat Pad Thai would be a patriotic act. Thus was born the Volksnoodle for an emerging Thai nation-state.

The name Pad Thai, however, negates the considerable non-Thainess of the dish. Noodles were the domain of Chinese immigrants in Thailand, and pan-fried rice noodles like Pad Thai likely arrived with them hundreds of years ago when Ayutthaya had been the kingdom’s capital. The thin rice noodles used in making Pad Thai is also similar to Vietnamese noodles, like the ones used in making pho. It’s no coincidence that the Saen Chan noodle used in many Pad Thai recipes took its name from Chanthaburi, an eastern province close to Vietnam and Cambodia. Had Pibulsongkram been more purist about his nation-unifying dish, Pad Thai should have been a clump of rice smothered and fried with fiery Nam Prik chile paste, arguably the most Thai of all Thai food. His nationalist ideals of Thailand weren’t deeply rooted in reverence for the past; they were synthesized new from whatever was most expedient.

His choice of a noodle dish is all the more curious in light of his policies against the Chinese ethnic population—immigration quotas, bans on Chinese associations, and the seizing of Chinese businesses. Pibulsongkram had not only decided to curtail the growing Chinese influence in Thailand (China, at the time, sheltered his political rival) but also to subsume its culture under the Thai umbrella. He would later choose to ally with the U.S. in its nascent war against communism, and just a few decades later, GIs on R&R leave would be part of the first wave of Americans to taste Pad Thai.

I’m not an expert on southeast Asian history, but I do have some knowledge and this passes the smell test. It’s really almost a prefect 20th century nationalist project, combining stealing ideas from minority populations while demonizing those very people.

Also, as the article states, most of the pad thai served in the United States is an abomination.

2. Who was General Tso? Zuo Zongtang. And at least according to this article he was the Chinese version of William Tecumseh Sherman, although I have no idea what that means. He also seems to have loved pork, though the dish named for him is a chicken dish. Also, Henry Kissinger shows up in this article.

3. Korean death soup. I lived in Korea for a year. The idea of a place serving a soup so spicy that it causes most customers to vomit, yet is extremely popular, makes a whole lot of sense to my experiences.

Comments (87)

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  1. Richard says:

    “Also, as the article states, most of the pad thai served in the United States is an abomination.”

    The authenticity of a dish is of historical interest but never important to me as a consumer of food. I like pad thai as served to me in most Thai restaurants (just like I love NYC pizza although I’ve never found pizza like that in Italy)

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I’m not particularly tied to concerns of authenticity with this. The reality is that pad thai is about 20 different things in Thailand. My concern is that pad thai in the United States is just not very good and could be much better. We can say this is adjusted to American tastes, but Americans haven’t really tasted much of it outside of a very particular version of the dish.

      I mean, it’s fine that people like it and all. I just think they’d like some other versions better.

    • Manju says:

      The authenticity of a dish is of historical interest but never important to me as a consumer of food

      Oh, don’t be such a California Roller. Authenticity matters…or else you’d be putting mayo on everything.

      The authentic has been vetted. Its gone thru due diligence. I don’t mind you enjoying your chow mein, as long as its understood that its just a gateway. You may start out on burgundy but sooner or later you hit the harder stuff.

      • Richard says:

        I think burgundy (fermented alcohol) precedes the harder stuff ( distilled alcohol) by many hundreds of years (plus I don’t think Bob was referring to epicurean tastes)

        Years of vetting doesn’t mean better. Authentic English food, to give one example, is close to inedible

        • Erik Loomis says:

          Talk about authenticity no one wants to relive.

        • dsquared says:

          Noodles were the domain of Chinese immigrants in Thailand, and pan-fried rice noodles like Pad Thai likely arrived with them hundreds of years ago when Ayutthaya had been the kingdom’s capital.

          this is just the typical American inability to understand that “hundreds of years ago” is an actual time that happened in the history of a country, and doesn’t just mean “in a galaxy far away”.

          The idea that a food can’t be traditional to a country unless it’s grown there in native agriculture since the stone age would imply that the British shouldn’t eat fish and chips (potato introduced in 16th century), the French shouldn’t bother with boeuf bourguignon (tomatoes) and the Italians should regard espresso macchiato as a foreign interloper.

          • Djur says:

            A basic rule of thumb is that any meal you can eat today has existed for no more than 200 years (and probably fewer than 100) in recognizable form, and it probably combines ingredients that would not have been available to combine before that time.

            The exceptions to this are generally along the lines of gruel. Historically authentic food is not something you really want to eat.

            • Bloix says:

              I once went to a restaurant that was reviewed in the guidebooks as the most authentic New Mexican food in Taos. No matter what you ordered, your plate came swimming in lard and piled high with greasy beans. This was food for people who got up at 4 am and went out to mend fence for 14 hours. For tourists on their way to visit the pueblo for a couple of hours, it was inedible.

          • LeeEsq says:

            Isn’t this the basic idea behind the locavore movement? I’ve heard ideas like this more than a few times. If you go into an immigrant neighborhood and tell the people there that they can’t use x or y ingredient anymore because its not local than you’re going to launch a riot. Hell, I’d riot if you told me you can’t eat pineapples because they aren’t local to New York.

          • Oyster sauce was only invented about 120 years ago, allegedly by someone who let a pot of oysters cook down into a sauce at the bottom of said pot.

          • Glenn says:

            I refuse to eat anything other than what nutrients I can absorb from the primordial ooze.

      • Light Rail Tycoon says:

        My local sushi restaurant puts mayo on everything, and they are considered one of the best sushi places in America. Its delicious.

      • xaaronx says:

        No, because mayonnaise is gross.

  2. Yosemite Semite says:

    “Had Pibulsongkram been more purist about his nation-unifying dish, Pad Thai should have been a clump of rice smothered and fried with fiery Nam Prik chile paste, arguably the most Thai of all Thai food.”
    Well, maybe “the most Thai” in some kind of historic fusion sense, although not very purist: All capsicum peppers, the ones called chiles, the ones used in Thai food, came to Asia from Mexico via Spain’s trade with the Philippines after the discovery of the Americas.

  3. cpinva says:

    a korean restaurant serving a soup so spicy, it causes customers to vomit, makes as much sense as american eateries serving chicken wings so hot, they’ll “melt your head right off!”. personally, i’d prefer my food not be intentionally potentially fatal, kind of takes some of the fun right out of it. but hey, that’s just me.

    • sparks says:

      Hence the reason for the Food Network. You can vomit without having to taste the food.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      What you’re looking for (if you’re into spicy food) is something that takes you to the edge, so that you get that endorphin rush after you ride the pain out. When I’m in the mood, I’ll get wings so spicy that I have to pace myself, gasping as if I’d just run the 100 meter, and have a big wad of napkins for my nose (plus that glass of milk) nearby.

      • Richard says:

        There used to be a barbecue place in Los Angeles (Carl’s on Pico near San Vicente) where the hot sauce gave me pains in my shoulder. I ordered it nevertheless

  4. I lived in Korea for a year. The idea of a place serving a soup so spicy that it causes most customers to vomit, yet is extremely popular, makes a whole lot of sense to my experiences.

    One of the first meals served to me as a missionary there was a denjang chigae that made me ill for hours. It was a rite of passage for newbies. By the time you’d been there a year, you’d gotten used to biting into whole onions and more, but there still remained other hot soups (chigaes) that were way beyond the pale. Yeah, many Koreans definitely have a thing for purposely making their food harsh.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yeah, I love Korean food now, but the first 9 months I was there I hated it. It’s been 15 years. I’d love to go back and just eat. Not sure if that will ever happen.

      • UberMitch says:

        Their food trucks serving bulgogi tacos must be incredible!

        • Erik Loomis says:

          The Korean taco thing basically sums up what is awesome about the United States.

          Unfortunately, the Republican Party sums up what is terrible about it .

          • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

            Korean tacos are a thing? What a great idea. I’ve been in Oklahoma too long!

            • Erik Loomis says:

              So like 3 years ago, Farley e-mails me with an idea to combine Korean meat with tacos. I thought he was joking. Indeed, no. But Kentucky is evidently 3 years ahead of Oklahoma. Just don’t tell Rand Paul.

              Also, I think I know like 2% of the people who live in Oklahoma. It’s an absurd statistical anomaly.

              • LeeEsq says:

                In NYC, there is (was) an awesome food truck called Seoul Food that served Korean meat burritos. They were great. Unfortunately, the City Council decided to wage war against food trucks and you can’t find them parked around Union Square anymore.

            • SEK says:

              Korean tacos are a thing? What a great idea.

              I haz a sad.

      • Coconino says:

        I almost took a job in Korea before coming to NM. Mini-coco’s dad said no. I was so looking forward to the food. And a clean Seoul much different from my childhood.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      I went with some relatives to a Korean restaurant in Chicago many years back that either didn’t tell us that one side of the menu was for spicy-hot stuff or we didn’t understand them. Regardless, we ordered almost exclusively from the spicy side. Forget finishing anything, we could barely get started–even my uncle, who grows and grinds his own horseradish because the storebought stuff is so weak.

    • Coconino says:

      I grew up in Korea, and thankfully my parents did not make me try death soup. They did make me try many other things, however, and I’m now pretty grateful for the experience (40 years later). I still have a taste for kimchi, and I’m quite happy to be living in NM, where lots of good, spicy New Mex food is readily available.

  5. Cool Bev says:

    As I understand it, the secret ingredient in proper Pad Thai is ketchup, that modern, mysterious Western condiment. Which is named after Malaysian soy sauce, kecap, but that’s another story.

  6. Anonymous says:

    It would be fitting if there was a dish named after General Gordon that was popular only in China.

    • cpinva says:

      how about “gen. gordon’s spicy rice ball on a stick”? seems appropriate.

      • General Gordon’s Chinese Pork chops?

        When Gordon was helping the Chinese put down the Taiping Rebellion near Shanghai, he rescued a Chinese boy who was separated from the rest of his family, by a flood.

        With the help of missionary funds, this boy, now dubbed “Gordon Quincy”, as he was found near a place the English called Quincy, was sent to Sandhurst in England for training. He grew up to become the chief of police in Hong Kong, and changed his name to Quincy-Wong, as he has finally found the family that he was separated from when he was a young adult.

        His most notable accomplishment was rescuing the kidnapped son of the Chinese emperor, in his role as the COP in Hong Kong.

        He was my great-great-grandfather, known as “The Thunderer” by his servants for his sudden bursts of temper.

  7. wjts says:

    Choo-sung takes pride in his broth, a concoction of the hottest peppers from Korea, India, China and Thailand.

    Oh, so the merciless peppers of Quetzlzacatenango (grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum) aren’t good enough for your precious broth?

  8. And for the reverse migration: Starbuckses in Taipei serve Mashed Potato Sandwiches (on soft bread, slathered in mayonaise) to the locals. My friends there are surprised to hear that Americans very seldom eat mashed potato sandwiches.

  9. commie atheist says:

    I am in love with this sentence:

    In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy.

  10. commie atheist says:

    I am in love with this sentence:

    In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy.

  11. Data Tutashkhia says:

    Pad thai is fast-food crap, but what about some honest bibimbap? In a honest stone bowl? That’s quite good, ain’t it?

    Here in Hungary they are generally very proud of their paprika, and being able to eat super-spicy stuff. I heard a story, at work, about a Hungarian colleague who challenged an Indian colleague to cook a meal so spicy that he wouldn’t be able to finish it. The Indian won.

    • Slocum says:

      Almost no Hungarian food is spicy by broad, international standards, other than condiments like Erős Piszta and pickled hot peppers. The classical fish soup is somewhat spicy.

      • Data Tutashkhia says:

        Well, in their pickled stuff they stick peppers everywhere, tons of them. Very spicy, compared to the russian equivalent.

  12. Thlayli says:

    It’s my impression that Chinese communities in Southeast Asia served a similar function as Jewish communities in Western Europe: ran the commercial activities, provided an easy target when things went badly.

  13. I have never understood the fuss over Pad Thai. Thai cuisine is one of my absolute favorites. I’ve eaten a decent amount of Thai food. Made a decent amount of Thai-inspired dishes. And I’ve never gotten the popularity of Pad Thai or WHY it’s the national dish of a country that makes some of the most deliciously complex food on the planet. It’s always tasted insipid to me.

  14. When you’re a white guy, and you order something “spicy” at an Asian place in Lowell, the waiter says something like, “When you say spicy…?”

    I respond with “I mean white people spicy. Barang spicy.”

    Then they know to use mayonnaise.

    • Bloix says:

      I was at a Thai restaurant for lunch in Las Vegas once with a local guy I knew only slightly (it was work related). I ordered some soup or other and my colleague said, mildly, “that one’s kind of spicy.” Huh, am I a man or a mouse? So the soup came, I took a spoonful, and I could. not. breathe. He was talking about work and I was saying, gah, gah, gah, as the sweat poured into my eyes. I thought I was going to pass out.

  15. [...] also came across an article on the history of Pad Thai (via).  Apparently it  was a dish invented as part of a nationalist modernization campaign, and aside [...]

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