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.