L.A.'s Idea of Thai Food vs. What Thais Really Eat
Our Venn Food Diagram series so far has hopscotched all over the globe, exploring Indian, Midwest American, and, most recently, Korean foods. As you probably can tell, this series is an organized chaos; our destinations are chosen in no particular order. Today, we randomly focus on Thailand to see what Los Angeles residents know about the country's cuisine, versus what foods Thais actually eat.
Moral of the story: Thai food is a staple in most Angelenos' monthly, if not weekly, diets. And while Angelenos generally know an impressive array of Thai dishes, many, by their own admission, actually only order an overly familiar routine of the same curries and noodle dishes. Sure, Los Angeles has many, many excellent bowls of yellow curry and exceptional plates of pad Thai, but there are plenty of eateries that showcase distinctly regional foods that are well worth exploring. Given that this vast culinary resource is literally right in our backyard, it would be a shame not to fully explore this richly flavored, deeply complex cuisine.
Methodology: A completely unscientific and less-than-rigorous survey was taken amongst friends, Facebook friends, acquaintances, and whomever was willing to answer our incessant questioning about their knowledge, or lack thereof, of Thai food.
Conclusion: Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Thais outside of Thailand. As Wanda Pathomrit, Six Taste's culinary guide to Thai Town, points out, "Los Angeles is considered the 77th province of Thailand and anyone living in LA can taste the diversity of Thai food without ever visiting Thailand." This means that your everyday green curry is just the cusp of what this city's Thai restaurants have to offer: unique regional specialties, otherwise difficult to find outside of Thailand, are just a freeway away.
Most Thais explain that the cuisine generally may be summarized as a delicate balance between all five flavors of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy. And while that last flavor - spiciness - is perhaps the one that sears its mark most distinctively, Quincy Surasmith explains that it is not always the most dominant flavor. And while Thai food in general is not always spicy, he continues, "It is very intensely flavored. Rice is what reigns in the flavors from being too strong."
To really understand Thai food, we are told, look at a map: the country's neighbors play play an enormous role in the development of distinctive regional cuisines. Pathomrit and others helpfully summarize these influences on the four major areas of Thailand, starting with the central region.
Known as the "rice bowl of Asia", Central Thailand historically has been the epicenter of country's trade and economy. Appropriately, then, a confluence of cultures have influenced the region's foods. Many of the dishes most associated with Thailand, including red curry and tom yum soup, come from here. Central Thai food is so ubiquitous that all but the most niche Thai restaurants will have at least a handful of Central dishes on their menus.
The Northern region is heavily influenced by nearby India, Laos, and China. Sausages (sai oua) and khoa soi (curry dish with noodles) are popular. Spicy BBQ in Thai Town, Sri Siam in North Hollywood, and Renu Nakorn in Norwalk are popular recommendations.
Cambodia and Laos influence Northeast (Isaan) Thai cuisine. This is the home to the ever popular papaya salad, as well as grilled chicken (kai yang). Many Thais point us to Krua Siri at Hollywood and Normandie for its excellent Isaan dishes.
And, finally, Southern Thailand sits on the Malay Peninsula, north of Malaysia, and is home to a large Muslim population. The region is known for its seafood and its incredibly spicy dishes. Jitlada is easily the most recommended Southern Thai restaurant.
- More than one Thai resident in Los Angeles points out that, save for the noodle dishes, Thais do not typically eat with chopsticks. Spoons and forks are more common.
- Surasmith notes that while Thais do indeed eat curry, pad thai, and pad see ew, they do not do so nearly as often as Americans seem to do. Pathomrit agrees: "Rarely, does one order pad Thai, yellow curry, and chicken satay."
- Many Thais surveyed explain that meals are eaten family-style, with a combination of meat-, vegetable-, and soup-based dishes, tied together with a generous platter of white rice and condiments.
- For an excellent introduction to the varied world of Thai cuisine, Chef McDang's Thai food primer, The Principles of Thai Cookery, is highly recommended. Surasmith additionally points us to LAX-C in Downtown, the "Thai Costco", for hard-to-find Thai ingredients and produce.