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Thailand for beginners

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How Thai restaurants in touristy areas get it wrong

When it comes to Thai food, I like the real deal. Give me fiery som tam buu pla raa, nam prik bla tuu (pounded chilli paste with mackerel), or gaeng som (hot and pungent yellow curry). Particularly in touristy areas of Thailand, however, I find myself frustrated by Thai restaurants that flat out won’t believe Westerners can eat — let alone enjoy — real, spicy, typical Thai food. Instead, many such places serve bland, mild imposters of Thai dishes, and they charge twice what the real thing would cost in a local restaurant. I’m making my plea to Thai restaurants serving tourists: it’s time to fight for our right to spice!

Cute, but it doesn't make up for the crummy food.

Cute, but it doesn't make up for the crummy food.

My first bone to pick with touristy Thai restaurants is how the majority of menus list each item in Thai script along with an English “translation”, but no transliteration. Typically, these “translations” go something like, “chicken in Thai sauce,” “chicken in Thai curry sauce”, or “chicken in Thai spicy sauce.” Tough decision, yes? Even pad Thai, the Thai equivalent of the hamburger in terms of popularity, is often listed only as “fried noodle”. Maybe next time I hit a McDonalds I’ll go for a nice, juicy “cooked beef in bread”.

In virtually all the Thai restaurants I’ve dined at in the US (I also worked at a few of them for a while), the menus have included each dish’s Thai name transliterated into Roman characters, plus a short description of the dish. Some places transliterate a little differently than others, but eventually one catches on and knows how to spot their favourite dishes on any menu. Unless, for example, the menu lists pad see ew only as “fried noodle with vegetable”, which is typical of touristy restaurants in Thailand.

Therefore, if you’re listening Thai restaurants in Thailand, instead of listing only “chicken with spicy sauce with basil” along with the Thai script, could you please write “krapow gai” or “gapow guy”, or “gopaw geye”. It doesn’t matter how it’s transliterated as long as it conveys the sound of the words just enough for a Thai food lover to decipher what particular dish is being offered.

Once, in a local-style south Thailand restaurant, I received a menu offering “GANG MACHOMAN”. After a moment of reflecting on what this could possibly mean (the name of the Village People’s comeback album?), I ordered some fabulous slow-roasted gaeng massaman curry, and I thanked the chef just for making the effort.

Now that is how it's done.

Now that is how it's done.

Let’s move on to the food itself. I understand that many Thai restaurants in touristy areas find it suitable to offer the standards — pad Thai, tom yum, green curry, panang curry, fried spring rolls and so on. I wouldn’t expect to see blood tempered noodle soup with chicken feet or bite-size fried fishes where you eat the head, tail and all, but I do expect the food that is on offer to be prepared as if it were for a Thai person, should I ask for it that way.

To go off on a bit of a tangent about this, it amazes me how the server, and often a few locals dining nearby, often stare at me with a look of shock when I dive into an extremely spicy bowl of, for example, gaeng ba (“jungle curry”) at a Bangkok street restaurant. Some have even tried to “rescue me” from a dire mistake: “excuse me sir, that is too spicy, farang (foreigners) cannot eat that.” Jing Jing (“seriously”)?

I'm not asking for bugs, but at least a curry with some kick.

I'm not asking for bugs, but at least a curry with some kick.

I realise there are plenty of Westerners out there whose idea of eating adventurously is buffalo chicken wings dipped in ranch dressing, but a great many of my American, European and Australian acquaintances enjoy very spicy food. They also know their way around the cuisines of (at least) Thailand, Vietnam, India, Japan, China and Korea.

So listen up Thai restaurants in tourist areas: millions of Westerners are a lot more adventurous when it comes to food than you think. If we ask for something spicy, don’t say “yeah sure” and bring out a plate of bland, overly sweet curry with next to no spice and a price tag three times higher than what’s on offer at the local spot down the road — you know, the one where we should have gone.

In truth, I nearly always hit the local spots due to touristy restaurants consistently offering crummy Thai food. Yet, in almost exclusively tourist destinations like Khao Lak and many of the smaller Thai islands, there are virtually no local restaurants to be found. My hope is that eventually — like they largely already have in Western countries — Thai restaurants that cater to Westerners within Thailand will catch on to the fact that a lot of foreigners want to eat real Thai food. Until then, I’ll have to fight for my right to spice, or just bite the bullet and grab a pizza instead.

About the author:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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