Thai food, made bland

Thai food, made bland

We'll have no more of this creative tom yam talay if the government forces through its plan to dumb down Thai food so it's all cooked from one bland recipe and looks the same. (Photo by M2F)
We'll have no more of this creative tom yam talay if the government forces through its plan to dumb down Thai food so it's all cooked from one bland recipe and looks the same. (Photo by M2F)

Thais should question the latest order to come from the office of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha calling for standardisation of Thai cooking at home and around the world.

Standardisation is the enemy of Thai food. Not only are bureaucrats the least regarded of all food experts, they are now insulting their own mothers and families through this order. The "goal" of the Commerce, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture and Industry ministries is to make all Thai food as predictable as KFC or Pizza Hut. The plan is poorly conceived and unachievable.

First of all, the very notion that there is one way to cook a dish is laughable. Consider Thai massaman, which in 2012 was named by CNN as the No.1 dish in the entire world. In the first place, like dozens of popular Thai dishes, it's not traditional Thai. The curry originated in the Middle East and went through many iterations before the first bowl was cooked in Thailand.

Every mother can whip up an excellent massaman. So can many roadside stalls, virtually any market and most Thai restaurants at home and abroad have their own version of the dish. Every cook is proud of his or her massaman. Yet the one your mother made tastes just a bit different from the one cooked by the father across the street. It's a crying shame that the diversity of Thai cuisine is considered by today's government as a pitfall and not a positive feature of our cooking.

First on the government's list to "fix" is som tam. The reason this spicy, papaya-based dish is ubiquitous from Bangkok to Bangor to Brisbane is precisely because each cook or chef does it just a little differently. The government wants chefs to stop producing hundreds of subtly different versions of tom yam goong and use a ministry-approved recipe, no variations involved?

And the world's best known Thai dish of all, kuay teow pad thai will lose all character and become a bland noodle dish. Presumably it will be approved for freeze-drying. And it should be noted that even McDonald's, that stereotype of blandness and numbing, worldwide sameness, varies its menu in every country. The government aims, then, to do worse than McDonald's. It would dumb down Thai food's rich spices, herbs and regional tastes -- because there is no alternative if the goal is standardisation.

How sad. An editor of this newspaper had it exactly right in 2013, when the Yingluck Shinawatra government failed to standardise Thai food. Thai cooking is the only Thai traditional art that is still alive and thriving. That is because it is open to experiments which give each dish new meaning.

Of course, none of the four ministries or the Prime Minister's Office has a shred of authority abroad. It is barely conceivable that a harsh programme could try to force universal sameness on restaurants and food courts in Thailand. If that succeeds, this would be the accomplishment and the lasting legacy of the Prayut administration: The celebrated dishes of Thai food would be promoted and developed only by dedicated cooks and chefs outside Thailand.

Gen Prayut occasionally takes a wok and prepares some noodles in public. We haven't noticed his detailed cookbook. Like everyone's mum, like a market stall owner, like a gourmet chef in a high-end restaurant, the prime minister's noodles are his dish. May they stay that way forever.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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