On The Rising Trail Of Thai Food In America

Posted: Oct 12, 2017



SAN FRANCISCO — Crunchy hearts of palm and giant shrimp stir-fried with holy basil and the perfect ration of red chiles. A green papaya salad, freshly shredded and mashed with an extra portion of tiny Thai limes.

There was a downside to living in Bangkok for a decade as a New York Times correspondent and being surrounded by great Thai dishes like those: It really raised the bar for when I moved back to America.

Last year, a few weeks after my family and I arrived in the United States for a new posting and a new life, we went to a Thai restaurant in Manhattan where my son, then 9, casually rattled off an order of one of his favorites, pad see ew gai — stir-fried rice noodles with chicken, garlic, leafy greens and a mixture of dark and light soy sauce.

The Thai waiter, having not encountered many American children who speak Thai, was charmed. He doted on my son, and after he had delivered the food made a standard Thai inquiry: Is it delicious?

“It’s pretty good,” the boy told him in Thai. “But it’s very, very sweet.”

We had just encountered the bland and sugary food found at so many Thai restaurants in the United States, and other places outside Thailand. Ever since, I’ve been preoccupied with a mystery: how one of the world’s most sophisticated and flavorful cuisines can be reduced to such a starchy and insipid mess.

I’ve heard lots of explanations. One is the persistence of a belief — not unfounded — among some Thai chefs that Westerners like their food sweet and can’t handle spice.

At Kin Khao, holy basil is tossed into a dish. Some items on the menu are followed by this caveat: “Warning: This is not Thai food for beginners.” Credit Josh Haner/The New York Times
When I was living in Bangkok, a Thai friend told me she had worked in the kitchen of a Thai restaurant in Austria. I asked her whether it was difficult to cook for farangs, the term Thais use to describe Europeans and Americans.

“It’s easy,” she said. “You pretend you are cooking for children.”

Thai food is not the only cuisine to have been transformed in the journey across oceans. But I’ve made it my mission to track down good Thai cooking in the Bay Area, where I am now the Times bureau chief. I quiz every Thai person I meet, trade tips with diplomats and scour the streets for high-end and hole-in-the-wall restaurants that hold promise.

What I’ve found has been encouraging. A number of restaurants here serve dishes that respect the complexity of Thai food and its balance of sweet, sour, salt and spice. They’re part of a sea change that in recent years has produced ambitious and acclaimed Thai restaurants around the country, particularly in West Coast cities like Los Angeles and Portland, Ore.

“It’s a golden age for Thai food,” said James Syhabout, a Thailand-born chef and cookbook author who owns Hawker Fare, a San Francisco restaurant that specializes in dishes from that country’s Isaan region. “Restaurants serving good Thai food, as they do now, didn’t exist two decades ago because there wasn’t the community to support it, besides our own community.”

“Now diversity is more celebrated. And we are more brave, more proud of showcasing our ethnicity,” said Mr. Syhabout, who also owns Commis, an Oakland restaurant that has two Michelin stars.

When his parents opened their first Thai restaurant in the late 1980s, they made their dishes milder and sweeter to attract diners unfamiliar with the cuisine. “The last thing any chef wants is to get the food sent back.” he said. “You want to play on the safer side.”

In California, the change has come in part because the Thai population has reached a critical mass: The Thai Consulate in Los Angeles estimates that there are more than 200,000 Thais in the state, enough to have restaurants that cater only to them.

San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, the epicenter of the down-and-out in a city that has become largely unaffordable to all but the very wealthy, is also home to some of the city’s best Thai food.

There I met Narupon Silargorn, who came to this city as an art student and in 2008 opened Lers Ros Thai, where most of the early customers were Asian.

“I didn’t care whether farangs liked it,” he said. He also didn’t care that many customers couldn’t properly pronounce the name (layre rote tie), which means “excellent taste.” Now he has three branches, and two-thirds of his customers are not Thai. The image of farangs with unsophisticated palates is out of date, Mr. Narupon said.

For years, Thai chefs in America pointed out that fresh ingredients were not available; they were forced to buy Thai vegetables frozen or out of a can. That has changed with the intertwining of immigrant groups in California.

Thai chefs today describe an informal partnership with ethnic Hmong refugees from Laos who came to America after the Vietnam War. Many settled as farmers in California’s Central Valley.

It’s a classic American and Californian story: The Hmong farmers grow herbs and plants essential to Southeast Asian cooking, and the Thai chefs rejoice over access to freshly plucked Kaffir lime leaves; calamansi, a small citrus fruit akin to a kumquat; unripened papayas ready to be shredded into som tam, and the chickpea-size Thai eggplant found in dishes like green curry.

The Hmong grow cilantro, for decades a staple of California cuisine; they know not to slice off the roots, which are used in Thai soups, chili pastes and meat marinades.

Michael Yang, a Hmong immigrant who works for a University of California agricultural program in Fresno, has helped organize small-scale Hmong farmers to sell Asian vegetables and herbs to restaurants, grocery stores and farmers’ markets in the Bay Area. “We took a full busload of farmers to meet with restaurant owners,” Mr. Yang said, describing a trip three years ago. “We wanted them to make connections.”

When he began working with the farmers 24 years ago, they were growing about 50 varieties of Asian vegetables and herbs. Now they grow more than 200. “The list just goes on,” Mr. Yang said. “I’m still discovering new crops that are coming in.”

One avid customer for Hmong produce is Pim Techamuanvivit, the Bangkok-born owner of Kin Khao (Let’s Eat), a Thai restaurant wedged between the Tenderloin and Union Square.

Kin Khao breaks the mold of Thai restaurants in a number of ways. The staff is a mix of Thai and non-Thai. There are no wooden elephants and pictures of Thai landmarks; in an otherwise sparse wood-and-white dining room, Ms. Pim has chosen a Thai accent mark, mai toh, as the restaurant’s icon.

My favorite dish there so far is a yam som-o, which is normally made from pomelo, a citrus fruit the size of a cantaloupe that grows in the tropics. This version is a medley of citrus fruits — pomelo, grapefruit, blood orange — mixed with small fried shrimp, cilantro, peanuts, shallots, mint and toasted coconut.

Sometimes an item on the menu is followed by this: “Warning: This is not Thai food for beginners.”

Ms. Pim described one such dish, namprik long rua, an intensely spicy sauce. “It’s got shrimp paste, it’s got a lot of garlic, it’s served with raw vegetables, some of them quite bitter,” she said. “It’s supposed to hurt you, probably for a couple of days.” (Another convention that Kin Khao breaks is price. A solo dinner a few months ago cost me more than $100. My crab meat and betel leaf curry was delicious, but set me back $55.)

A 10-minute walk away is Zen Yai, where the check for two people came to $35. Zen Yai is a meeting spot for the Thai community, and most of the conversations I heard at nearby tables were in Thai.

Still, there is a lot of mediocre Thai food in the Bay Area, and beyond. Leela Punyaratabandhu, a Thai-American cookbook author who shuttles between Chicago and Bangkok, says she has been to restaurants where it was clear that the chefs and waiters would not eat what they serve. This is especially true of pad thai, a dish that has become the defining Thai dish in America. It’s probably eaten more widely here than in Thailand.

The worst pad thai Ms. Leela had in America was in a restaurant in Detroit. The Thai waitress warned her not to eat it, but Ms. Leela says she wanted to experiment. “It was really, really bad,” she recalled. “The server was looking at me with a puppy face that said, ‘Sorry’ and ‘I told you so.’”

How to find flavorful dishes in Thai restaurants that tailor their food for American tastes? I usually speak Thai in the hope that servers will take me seriously. Ms. Leela asks the staff what they would serve if their parents came to the restaurant.

Sometimes, authenticity can be painful. When I beseeched a waitress at Daughter Thai Kitchen, in the Montclair neighborhood of Oakland, not to hold back on the spice, she asked me to estimate my heat tolerance on a scale from one to 10.

I told her nine. And I nearly cried my way through a three-alarm southern curry.

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By Thomas Fuller October 10, 2017 Source: NYTimes.com



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