Jul 03 2012

How Thai restaurants in touristy areas get it wrong

Published by at 3:50 am under Food


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.

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10 Responses to “How Thai restaurants in touristy areas get it wrong” ...

  1. janon 03 Jul 2012 at 4:02 am

    this is because places with a very good location tourist wise don’t need to try hard to make people come back.

  2. tanyaon 03 Jul 2012 at 4:15 am

    Amen.

    I was in Koh Lanta last week and ate at a beachside restaurant listed on TripAdvisor as “one of the best for real Thai food”.

    They served me a panang curry that had never met coconut cream and had the gall to charge 150 B for it (plus 30 for rice)! If it had at least tasted good, I wouldn’t have minded the price, but it was a huge disappointment in every way.

    I’ve had better Thai food at mall food courts in Canada :/

  3. Joe Kingon 03 Jul 2012 at 4:20 am

    Yes and no doubt if thai restaurants in tourist areas took your sage advice and served up real hot thai dishes they would have a bunch of pissed off farangs sending the food back and whining…i have NEVER had a problem getting spicey as i want. Just ask for it with a smile ..since you must speak some thai not sure why you would have a problem?

  4. Saschaon 03 Jul 2012 at 6:10 am

    Word word word!Thanks for this post mate! I live for more than 1.5 years now over here in Thailand and still go crazy over the ‘English translation’ on the menu. Just like you said ‘chicken in thai sauce’ or ‘chicken in thai curry’…wtf? (on the other hand that was motivation to learn how to read Thai).

    But still, even though you order Thai food, they usually do it ‘mai ped’ (not spicy). When I ordered it spicy the other I day I almost had to fight with the cook to really cook it ‘Thai style’ and not ‘farang style’.

    Finally, just like you stated, it’s usually better the hit the local street shop and eat some ‘real Thai food’ over there. The might ask you once if you’re sure but they won’t screw you and, if it’s really to spicy for you, have a good laugh about how funny and red the farang face can get ;-)

  5. David Luekenson 03 Jul 2012 at 5:16 pm

    “I’ve had better Thai food at mall food courts in Canada”
    Tanya, LOL, sad but true.

    Joe, with all due respect, we must have a different idea of what’s “spicy”. I lived and worked with Thai chefs for nine years and my spice tolerance is above that of many Thais that I know. With that said, having worked in Thai restaurants for a long time, I know first-hand that it can be a thin line between complaints about “too spicy” and “not spicy enough”, so point taken on that. Cheers.

    Sascha, good point that the lack of transliteration should be an encouragement to learn to read Thai! And, I agree that the most frustrating thing is when a Thai server looks straight at me when I ask for something “pet pet mueang gan kon Thai” and STILL brings out the “westernized” version. I swear they must sometimes write “farang” on the ticket, no matter what the foreigner asks for or if the foreigner speaks Thai.

  6. Devils Denon 07 Jul 2012 at 12:25 pm

    These touristy Thai restaurants in Thailand need to stop thinking that foreigners can’t handle too much heat from Thai food. Every time I visit Bangkok, I’m looking forward to some chillies and other spicy condiments to pump up my adrenaline. Because of that, my Thai travel is more riveting!;)

  7. Onon 28 Jul 2012 at 7:43 am

    Hi all,

    I do agree with you about all that restaurant who treat you as child, but for excuse, I must said that we must prevent some tourist to eat some of our local food because at the end they blame us for not make it clear that it was spicy ( end we don’t want them to spend all night sitting on their toilet ;-).

    But on the other end, when people come at our restaurant we make traditional spicy dishes, who is necessary actually to fell the test of a lot of our specialities.
    Just keep in mind too that not EVERTYTHING is spicy here :-)

    Come have a dinner at our restaurant in Satun town, @On’s The Kitchen, and be sure you will eat what you suppose to or if can’t eat spicy……we also have this chicken wings in bbq sauce !!! ( actually our western food are more eat by local thai family !!!!! )

    On director of @On’s The Kitchen

  8. [...] so many other Thai restaurants in touristy areas, Suk 11's menu is very well put together. Each item includes its Thai name, which is written both [...]

  9. Chris Wottonon 13 Oct 2013 at 5:23 am

    Just found this piece, but ay-bloody-men. The transliteration issue (or lack of it) is what gets my goat the most – I might know what ‘gaeng som pla chon’ is, but I’m sure as hell not going to recognise it as fish curry, or be able to pick it out from ‘spicy Thai fish curry’ and ‘fish with spicy Thai curry’ sauce alongside it on the menu.

    Hilarious, incomprehensible translations are another matter – a friend who came to visit me has half a Facebook photo album full of photos of the menu at a beach restaurant on Koh Si Chang, where dishes included:

    – woman’s breast cabinet minced pork soup (a deep dish is, a pot is)
    – spicy lemongrass sea soup
    – the squid steams the lemon
    – egg squid cooks an egg
    – the squid fries the garlic
    – the shrimp burns
    – shrimp in fish sauce
    – the shrimp fries the garlic
    – snapper the thicket roasts salt
    – snapper the thicket fries to pour the fish sauce
    – snapper three taste thicket
    – snapper the thicket wades a garden
    – sour soup made of tamarind Chinese uncle fish paste estimates the thicket
    – snapper the thicket steams the lemon

    You get the picture!

    I also take On’s point though, that not all Thai food is spicy, and I think that’s something that’s important to remember – and often forgotten by westerners who think that in order to eat local they HAVE to eat spicy. Not so (and I’m not sure that’s not you, David).

    From my perspective this all largely stems from what seems to be a prevalent idea among Thais (and I say this not intending to insult Thailand or pick a fight with anybody), that they are unique in the world and that no other country compares, including on the cuisine front. The idea that a westerner (I am going off the word ‘farang’) could possibly eat a genuinely spicy dish is just an alien concept to many (not all) Thais, hence the well-intentioned but honestly patronising and a little insulting attempts to save you from yourself. It’s just one example of a situation where many Thais can’t see that, actually, Thailand is often not as different to other nations and peoples as this country’s massive sense of nationalism and patriotism has them believe.

    The real key, and you touch on it above, is not to eat in touristy restaurants at all – if I eat somewhere local and order in Thai, I never have a problem at all. That’s not always easy to do – I sympathise with your comments about Khao Lak and smaller islands because I found exactly the same on Railay (compared with the abundance of great local food in Krabi town, as you know all too well). But where I’ve got the choice, I’ll avoid anywhere with an English-language sign outside like the plague.

  10. David Luekenson 13 Oct 2013 at 3:38 pm

    “something that’s important to remember – and often forgotten by westerners who think that in order to eat local they HAVE to eat spicy. Not so (and I’m not sure that’s not you, David).”

    I now see how this piece lends the impression that “authentic” Thai food has to be spicy; good point by On. Obviously that’s not the case. Can’t beat a nice, bland bowl of jok with a little ginger and egg first thing in the morning.

    The point was that many dishes that are normally very spicy are not only served mild but also lacking other typically intense flavor elements in tourist area Thai restaurants — often even if a Westerner specifically asks for it the “real” way.

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