Cornucopia of Asian Food Links

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.

87 comments on this post.
  1. Richard:

    “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)

  2. Erik Loomis:

    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.

  3. Richard:

    Could be. I’ve never been to Thailand so can’t compare the pad Thai I’ve had here to native pad Thai. But I’ve been to a lot of what are considered good Thai restaurants here in LA and like what I’ve eaten.

  4. Yosemite Semite:

    “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.

  5. cpinva:

    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.

  6. Russell Arben Fox:

    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.

  7. sparks:

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

  8. BigHank53:

    Likewise the tomato, also found in Pad Thai.

  9. Erik Loomis:

    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.

  10. Manju:

    I’m not particularly tied to concerns of authenticity with this.

    I’ll have a Vodka Martini. Shaken, not stirred.

  11. Erik Loomis:

    Vodka being a second-rate base alcohol has nothing to do with authenticity. However, a martini is a very specific drink. And it does not include vodka. Come up with a different name.

  12. Cool Bev:

    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.

  13. Manju:

    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.

  14. Manju:

    I’ll have a “Martini on a a stick”.

  15. Erik Loomis:

    Wit, no.

  16. Erik Loomis:

    This is not true. Ketchup may be used in pad thai in the U.S. Not in Thailand.

  17. Richard:

    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

  18. Anonymous:

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

  19. Manju:

    Wit, no.

    Well, I guess sex on the beach is out of the question.

  20. Erik Loomis:

    One can only hope so. For everyone’s sake.

  21. Erik Loomis:

    Talk about authenticity no one wants to relive.

  22. Lindsay Beyerstein:

    “Proper” is subjective. Ketchup is a substitute for the more traditional sweet/sour combo of tamarind paste and palm sugar in Pad Thai.

  23. cpinva:

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

  24. UberMitch:

    Their food trucks serving bulgogi tacos must be incredible!

  25. wjts:

    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?

  26. Erik Loomis:

    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 .

  27. ninedragonspot:

    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.

  28. Incontinentia Buttocks:

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

  29. Erik Loomis:

    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.

  30. Erik Loomis:

    Great, I’m going to puke now.

  31. ninedragonspot:

    In the bathroom! In the bathroom!

  32. Erik Loomis:

    The neighbors get tired of me vomiting outside.

  33. commie atheist:

    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.

  34. commie atheist:

    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.

  35. wjts:

    You don’t like coffee or mashed potato sandwiches, but you do like Thai food… I’m starting to think you can’t be trusted about anything.

  36. commie atheist:

    Oops. Would delete it if I could.

  37. MikeN:

    We get those at 7-11s here in Taiwan, but with cheese and ketchup.

  38. dsquared:

    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.

  39. Djur:

    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.

  40. Djur:

    However, ketchup is an original ingredient of sweet and sour pork.

  41. Jfp:

    Peanuts too were first cultivated in pre Colombian America.

  42. Anonymous:

    I don’t know that a mashed potato sandwich seems vomit-worthy, so much as weird, pointless and redundant. That’s just too much starch in one meal.

  43. Data Tutashkhia:

    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.

  44. Thlayli:

    That sounds like someone who has trouble getting the hint.

  45. Thlayli:

    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.

  46. LeeEsq:

    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.

  47. LeeEsq:

    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.

  48. BigHank53:

    A dedicated gourmand.

  49. Light Rail Tycoon:

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

  50. The Dark Avenger:

    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.

  51. The Dark Avenger:

    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.

  52. The Dark Avenger:

    Not so much in the 19th Century, although a Thai king of that era called the Chinese “The Jews of the East”, for their roles as traders and businessmen in Asia at that time.

  53. xaaronx:

    No, because mayonnaise is gross.

  54. Halloween Jack:

    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.

  55. Halloween Jack:

    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.

  56. SEK:

    Korean tacos are a thing? What a great idea.

    I haz a sad.

  57. Halloween Jack:

    Don’t look at the White Trash cookbooks, which have a recipe for a potato-chip sandwich. (Also, possum and gator.)

  58. Halloween Jack:

    As one does, of course.

  59. Coconino:

    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.

  60. Glenn:

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

  61. Coconino:

    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.

  62. Glenn:

    Maybe he said “Chus of the East” but it got mistranslated.

  63. Coconino:

    Not much different than English mushy pea sandwiches on white bread with vinegar. First time I heard about those I think I threw up in my mouth, just a little.

  64. Manju:

    Sushi of Gari?

  65. Slocum:

    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.

  66. Richard:

    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

  67. Richard:

    Gator is good. Happy hour at Irwin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in New Orleans, one of the great jazz spots in the country, has delicious gator meatballs

  68. Light Rail Tycoon:

    Miyake, in Portland, Maine.

  69. joejoejoe:

    I had a baked bean sandwich once.

  70. Manju:

    Looks delicious. Now, how do I reconcile that with my comments above? A couple of points:

    1. There are exception to the authenticity rule. One is the the great artist exception. They can break the rules. Like Ali boxing with his hands down.

    2. No one does culinary colonialism like the Japanese. I went to a Texas steakhouse in Columbia. Sucked. They got skinny-ass cows. Japan? Big fat beer-massaged bovines. Wow!

  71. Dr.KennethNoisewater:

    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.

  72. Erik Loomis:

    What’s interesting about it is that it failed to become the national dish of Thailand. But it is the national dish of internationalized Thai cuisine.

  73. Dr.KennethNoisewater:

    That’s weird. I’d always heard that it was, and I just did some digging and Google/Wiki/etc. informs me that it is one of Thailand’s national dishes. This woman seems to be one of the many people who think that. *shrug*

  74. Bill Murray:

    I would not have guessed South Carolina had skinny-ass cows. Or did you mean Colombia the country?

  75. Dr.KennethNoisewater:

    Really? You think all the food on Food Network is vomit-inducing?

  76. Manju:

    OMG. Om.

  77. Hogan:

    And farther out in that direction, the paleo diet.

  78. JSC_ltd:

    Wait, let me pour this candle into my mouth first….

  79. socraticsilence:

    Vodka is for pretentious people who want to drink shine without seeming like hicks, it is an abomination and serves even its more expensive forms as a mixer.

  80. Data Tutashkhia:

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

  81. joe from Lowell:

    I only eat animals that have been indicted for war crimes by an international tribunal.

  82. joe from Lowell:

    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.

  83. Slocum:

    When my toilet is full my vomit, I ask to use theirs. We look out for each other in a community-type way.

  84. Slocum:

    When my toilet is full of my vomit, I ask to use theirs. We look out for each other in a community-type way.

  85. Bloix:

    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.

  86. Bloix:

    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.

  87. Authentic Thai Food | Straight to Heck:

    [...] 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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