Thai Food Everywhere

Feb 08, 2010

Chilli-hot or strong aromatic components? What is authentic Thai food?

The other day I was eating Thai food in a restaurant in a Bangkok suburb with a Malaysian tourist and my guest was surprised that the dishes did not taste like the ones in her favourite Thai restaurant in Kuala Lumpur.

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Well, now that I’ve tasted this,” the 30-something woman said, pointing at her Tom Yam Kung, “the one in KL tasted very Malaysian”.

Me, being me, I had to gloat over why I brought her to Kratip restaurant in Bang Kapi Mall, about 30 km away from the heart of Bangkok’s tourist traps.

“The food here is authentic Thai. If you look around, there’s not a single farang (Thai for Westerners) in this restaurant,” I said.

And then exaggerated, “See, everybody is drinking SangSom (a popular brand of Thai whisky).”

“What’s authentic Thai food?” she asked.

I was stumped. An unsophisticated foodie would say “spicy”. But that would be incorrect as Thai cuisine can’t be boxed in; it varies from region to region.

For example, Kaeng Matsaman Neua (Massaman Curry with beef), a popular southern Thai dish, is similar to the beef curry found in Kelantan, which was part of the Pattani kingdom.

Her question was food for thought. And a few days later, I headed to Bo.lan, a one-year-old fine dining Bangkok restaurant with the catch phrase “Thai food as it ought to be”.


92 Pad Thai is one of Thailand's national dishes (Photo credit: Thai Recipes)


Bo.lan does not dumb down its dishes to cater for the non-Thai palate as it believes that the food it is cooking must be prepared correctly.

A customer insisting on prawn instead of beef for its Green Curry with Beef will be told: “We are sorry sir/madam, unfortunately we are not able to do that today because our green curry paste is made specifically for beef and to use prawn will be incorrect.”

The restaurant’s name is inspired from the name of the co-owners – Bo (the nickname of 29-year-old Thai Duangporn Songvisava) and Dylan Jones, a 28-year-old Australian.

Both chefs previously worked at Nahm (the only Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star) in London.

“What’s authentic Thai food?” I asked Bo and Dylan.

“We were discussing this the other day, trying to pin down what Thai food really is,” said Dylan. “And I believe there are many factors that influence what real Thai food is.

“But it comes down to one thing, and that is the final product. The flavour of the dish dictates whether it is really authentic.

“For example, a real Green Curry is slightly salty, sweet (obviously from the coconut cream) and quite hot (as there is a lot of chilli in the paste). And it is non-authentic if it is salty and sweet but not that hot,” he explained.

“It is done that way (less spicy) because customers don’t want it hot.”

Bo added: “Tom Yam should be spicy. And if a customer comes here and says ‘I want a Tom Yam, but I don’t want it hot (with chilli)’, you can’t call it Tom Yam, you have to call it something else.”

Nodding, Dylan said: “You can’t put a Ferrari badge on a Toyota and call it a Ferrari.” However, Bo conceded that there were Thai dishes that could be different in terms of spiciness. “Take Som Tam (papaya salad), you can have it with or without chilli.”

As I was curious to know why my friend thought that the Thai food in her favourite restaurant tasted “very Malaysian”, I asked Bo and Dylan for their take on the authenticity of Thai food in restaurants outside Thailand.

“That’s a tricky question,” said Bo. “In general, Thai restaurants abroad cater for the local palate.

“However, I believe that there are restaurants (overseas) such as Nahm which serve authentic Thai dishes.

“And in some restaurants, if you say you are Thai and you want to eat authentic Thai food, they will do it for you.”

But Bo said: “There are also Thai restaurants in Thailand that dumb down their flavour as they cater to tourists or foreigners.

“When a customer asks for the dish to be less spicy, they are more than willing to do so because they don’t want to lose that customer.” But how about the food?

Dylan answered, “… to the determent of authenticity.”


This post was originally published on Philip Golingai