This post is a collection of food pictures from the markets across BK, but I want to point out one particular dish called Pad Thai (ever heard that one before? haha). Rice noodles fried with egg, dried shrimp, a sauce and servings of lime and peanuts. A staple for tourists, locals, drunk Khaosan Rd dwellers…but doesn’t it strike you as odd that a dish in Thailand has the need to declare itself Thai with, you know, the word Thai in the name?
Digging a bit deeper, you will discover that Pad Thai is not a Thai dish at all. Figures, because just as Italians would not call pasta “Italian pasta“, real Thai dishes don’t need that added descriptive.
Stir fried noodle dishes come as an influence from China. In the late 1930s, as the world is submerged in nationalism and fascism, a prime minister with military background called Phibun works to transform the Kingdom of Siam into westernized and modernized Thailand. The word Thai is actually also kind of his invention (he specifically chooses this word for the new country).
Siam is a rice-eating country, and in the times of shortage, Phibun tries to establish a noodle dish to preserve rice stocks. So Chinese wheat noodles become Thai rice noodles (rice noodles can use broken grains unlike just cooked rice). The development of Thai-ness is highly propagated by funding food carts selling Pad Thai, advertized with slogans tailored to get people to eat noodles. Adding more Thai-ness with palm sugar, chilis, tamarind paste, the “first Thai fast food” is born.
But Pad Thai does not only have the goal of helping feed citizens, it is a tool for making Thailand more Thai and eradicataing all other cultures and influences, especially – how ironic – Chinese influence. So this little plate of Pad Thai is not as innocent as one would think.
I doubt the backpackers on Khaosan Rd particularly care about this ambiguous history of Pad Thai, but I find it important to dive in a bit deeper into the history and politics of food. They play a bigger role then expected! There are other examples of politics forcing people to adapt certain foods that are now unseperable from their culture: Ireland’s potatoes, Italy’s tomatoes..just to name a few.
The next time you try a delicious plate of Pad Thai, think of the political impact on Pad Thai and also the impact of Pad Thai on politics. Amazing how far such a simple dish can go, isn’t it!
May 6th – 14th 2017