It’s little wonder that Thai food — known for its potent spices and savory flavors — has become wildly popular around the world. And nowhere is this more true than in the United States, which has welcomed an extraordinary amount of Thai restaurants over the last several years.
But how does the experience of eating Thai food in the U.S. compare to the real deal?
It turns out, there a lot of differences between the two dining experiences. In the U.S., traditional recipes are often adjusted, both to appeal to Americans’ palates and to account for the availability of ingredients and spices. Plus, there are crucial differences in how the cuisine is served.
To Spice or not to Spice
If you’re from the U.S., accept the fact that what you consider spicy is verydifferent from what Thai people consider spicy. With its reliance on ingredients like chili peppers, ginger and peppercorn, Thai food in Thailand packs a serious kick — enough to make a lot of Americans cry.
Phubej Pangphairee (Pluem), a 15-year-old student from Chonburi who spent the first few years of his life in California and Florida, says that when he’s in Thailand, his go-to order is “Thai basil with pork, not spicy.” Pluem is used to eating spicy food, but in Thailand, the mild option burns plenty.
Since American restaurants often dial back the spice intensity, if you want to enjoy Thai food in the authentic way, you should specifically ask for extra spice.
Just remember: If it’s not numbing your mouth, it’s not real Thai food.
According to Minky Tee — who moved from Bangkok to Ohio in 2009 and now runs a Thai restaurant in Cleveland called Banana Blossom — the use of frozen vegetables in dishes like stir fry and fried rice is a more common practice in America than in her homeland. The reason? Frozen veggies are often cheap, easy to store and have a long shelf life. Thailand restaurants, conversely, typically use vegetables that are in season, locally available and freshly picked.
Mew Fry, who grew up in Bangkok and moved to the U.S. about a decade ago, also notes that the American version of Thai food often includes unusual vegetables, like broccoli and bell pepper, not found in authentic Thai food — the result of America not growing all the vegetables found in Thailand.
A Bit of Garnish
Since main courses are often shared in Thailand, restaurants generally have an array of condiment and seasoning offerings available — think fish sauce, chili paste and vinegar — so you can tinker with the flavor profile of your own plate. In America, though, you may only have soy sauce and sriracha on hand to liven up your meal.
You’ll also find that Thai dishes in Thailand usually come with a side of vegetables consisting of cabbage wedge, cucumber slices and sometimes green onions — a healthy addition often missing from American Thai food menus.
Keeping it Simple
In Thailand, you’ll find the best, most authentic dishes being served in styrofoam containers by families along the side of the road. That’s quite different from the U.S., where food is served in a much more formal manner (because, well, food regulations).
Of course, Thailand has nice sit-down restaurants as well, but eating in them isn’t the norm for Thai people, who prefer their fare served with minimal fuss.
Not-So-Nice Fried Rice
As one of the most popular Thai dishes, khao phat (fried rice) is an essential part of any Thai food menu. Chanachon Boonphakdee (Nam), who hails from Chonburi, Thailand and spent nine months studying abroad in Nebraska, says it’s his favorite dish — and he has strong opinions about the way American Thai restaurants prepare it.
From what I can discern, the American version of fried rice contains peas, carrots, chicken, onions, water chestnuts and way too many other things,” he says.
A staple at Thai food restaurants in Bangkok and beyond, pad kra pao is a flavorful basil sauce typically served with chicken and a side of rice. But when Sean DeGraw — a Florida native who spent a year teaching elementary school in Kanchanaburi, Thailand — orders pad kra pao gai in America, he is always disappointed.
“It has a lot of vegetables and the meat isn’t minced,” he says. “The sauce is almost too sweet and not spicy enough. The basil is different here, and there isn’t a side of fish sauce.”
He could probably go on forever, but you get the point. Pad kra pao just isn’t the same to him on the Western side of the world.
Curry is a key component of traditional Thai cuisine — but it tastes quite different in Thailand vs. the U.S.
Elise Lamoreaux, who moved from Massachusetts to Thailand a few years ago, says Americans “crave creamy and comforting;” as a result, the curries they’re served are creamier, made with additional coconut milk and less of the acidic and spicy ingredients, like fish sauce and chilis, that Thai people love.
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