Region's fusion cuisine explores common roots
Kathmandu-born restaurant owner says Thais are willing to try new cuisines
At 16, Assajita Awale Dhanwa left his home in Kathmandu, the capital of landlocked Nepal, to study in Thailand. After living here for over three decades, he said its food culture makes him feel at home.
Surrounded by China and India, the Himalayan nation is home to eight of the world's highest mountains including Mount Everest. However, the country was opened to foreigners only in 1951. Thais often go to Nepal to visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, among other archaeological sites, and trek in the Himalayas.
Mr Dhanwa, 50, owner of the Himalaya Restaurant, said when he arrived here, he adapted to his new environment, except for the weather, because its language and food turned out to be familiar to his tongue. Rice, he said, is the staple of Nepal.
"Actually, our food cultures are very similar. We have rice and curry for breakfast and khaja sets for lunch. Khaja is a light meal of pounded unripe rice and bara [lentil pancake] served with tea. We have rice and curry again for late dinner [at 8pm] and go to bed because it is very cold," he told the audience at an event called "The Bay of Bengal: An Aspiration for Sustainability" to promote awareness about South Asia at the MBK Centre on Nov 20 and 21.
The event was held ahead of Thailand next year succeeding Sri Lanka as chairman of Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec), which was formed in Bangkok in 1997 as a bridge to link South Asia and Southeast Asian countries.
In fact, the Bay of Bengal has been part of trade networks in the Indian Ocean since ancient times. It was mentioned in the "Traibhumikatha", the oldest-known full-length text written in Thai, showing that Siamese navigators recognised the Bay of Bengal long ago.
Having been a newspaper reporter for Matichon for nearly two decades, Mr Dhanwa bowed out to open a restaurant in 2008. At first, he offered only Nepalese dishes, but they didn't fare so well because people knew little about his country's cuisine.
Later, he decided to serve them along with Indian food and other adapted dishes, including momos, to suit local tastes.
"They [momos] are dumplings filled with meat and chopped vegetables that originated in Tibet. In the past, our merchants traded with Tibetans and brought yak momos home, but they filled dumplings with buffalo meat. However, it is not a popular ingredient here because it is smelly. I use chicken and goat meat instead," he said.
Jirayudh Sinthuphan, a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Communication Arts, noticed the same links when he was invited to dinner at a stranger's home during a trip to Bangladesh.
"I found that they eat rice and vegetable coconut soup like those in the south of Thailand. This coconut curry includes bitter melon, elephant ear mushrooms, and zucchini. The more I learn about the recipes, the more I find our similarities," he said.
Asst Prof Jirayudh said many well-known Thai dishes like massaman and green curry carry echoes of other local South Asian dishes, adding that the crispy a-pong cakes found in Phuket and Ranong provinces are similar to those of Southern India and Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, Tamil people eat rice flour muffin, which comes from Southeast Asia.
Curry is the staple of South Asian communities and originated in India before it spread to other parts of its region and Thailand. Ginger and turmeric were found in pottery dating back to around 4,000 years ago in Delhi from what archaeologists believe were early varieties of what we call curry nowadays.
Thai curry ingredients like garlic, shallot and chilli were influenced by India. Its proximity spurred the transfer of curry culture, especially at port cities, such as Nakhon Si Thammarat and Ranong, where a 2,120-year-old shipwreck from the Kalinga coast was discovered.
Fusing cuisine for survival
Some perceive fusion foods as a threat to authentic national cuisine while others are excited by the new lease of life they can bring to it. Thai-Indian Naresh Chandhok, the owner of Bangkok Tadka, said food mashups allow chefs to preserve good things from the past while catering to modern consumers' tastes.
"It is the means by which classic recipes will live on. Nowadays, you put cheese on everything. Ingredients are not diverse at all. You can also adapt by learning more about their cultures. For example, unlike Thais, South Asians don't eat chicken skin," he said.
Mr Naresh handed out fusion menus to gastronomes at the event, including mustard fish curry, chilli chicken, black pepper mushroom and mango yoghurt smoothie.
"This is the most popular snack among teenagers. It is fried dough ball stuffed with potato, beans, and spice. It is called panipuri, fuchka or golgappa, depending on location. I made an adaptation that you can eat with tom yam or traditional sauces," he said.