Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > China & Southeast Asia >
Oct 20, 2012 03:18 AM

Bangkok - How far food-writing has progressed in 3 decades

Before we start criticizing some posters for not understanding food from other cultures, we should realise how far many of us had progressed. Take for example this article by the New York Times' Bangkok bureau chief (no less) published back in 2 January 1983 entitled "What's Doing in Bangkok":

Some excerpts read:

"Do not leave without tasting tom yam, Thailand's spicy soup. Its basic ingredients are lemon grass, hot peppers and, commonly, prawns: The prawns turn it into tom yam kung."

"Thai food seems a fiery version of Chinese, and is especially strong on seafood - though the best seafood is probably found in the southern peninsula. Many Chinese restaurants serve Thai dishes, and many Thai restaurants are run by ethnic Chinese."

"Shangrila, at 154/4-5 Silom Road (234-4603, 234-2045)is so untrendy that there seem to be people living in the dumbwaiter. Elaborate Shanghai-style Chinese dishes, such as Peking duck and barbecue pig, appear instantaneously and cost about $25 for two."

So you see, we're all not *that* bad these days after all :-)

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Clueless bureau chiefs are quite common. Many simply "hang" with expats and get their "insights" from them.

    During the protests, CNN's "Man-in-Bangkok" was describing a scene taking place in front of Centralworld, one of Bangkok's more famous shopping venues. He commented, that it "appeared" to be Centralworld, although he didn't seem sure. That would be like having Dick Clark say it "appeared" to be Times Square!

    Many of the "hidden gems" are places that they would never think of entering, but someone dragged them in. Stunned by their tasty find, they brand it as the best thing since ice cream!

    Then it gets written up in the NY Times, and tourists beat a path to the door. Next thing you know, the prices go up and the quality usually goes down.

    12 Replies
    1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

      Absolutely agree with you, Curt.

      Lonely Planet recs also have a similar effect on the previously "off-the-beaten-track" eateries they featured.

      1. re: klyeoh

        was it yogi berra who said something like "nobody goes there anymore 'cause its always too crowded"?
        Hole-in-the-wall-off-the-beaten-track joints often times become casualties of their own success.
        Theres a brasserie called Capri in a working class neighborhood in Montreal that I feel has the best Quebec-style pigs feet in the area. I mentioned it on these boards a few times. Thing is, its nothing fancy - its a working man's bar thats been there since the 30s or 40s. For me, that was part of the charm.
        Lo & behold, Martin Picard brought Anthony Bourdain there on a Mtl episode of No Reservations....
        Last time I was there, they were in the midst of a major reno - sheet rock walls, slick lighting, immitation hardwood flooring (covering 70 yr old terrazzo). They're ruining what made them great....

        Not only food writing, but food awareness, in general, has grown dramatically. Part of this transformation, I think, can be attributed to the internet. 1983 was pre-internet.

        1. re: porker

          You're right, porker, Internet did wonders indeed. I was in Beijing for 6 weeks back in 1999 - the dining scene was *very* different then, I didn't have any forum to turn to for tips, and much of my experience then was pretty much hit-and-miss.

          1. re: klyeoh

            Unfortunately, the internet has also created "one-week-wonders", people who visit a region on holiday and become instant experts.

            1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

              That's the catch with Internet, you need to sift thru the massive reams of info to get to the relevant ones. My experience in KL so far showed that many KL bloggers tended to 'cotton wool' the restaurants here - I'd lost count of times where I'd come across a run-of-the-meal eatery serving so-so food, but which was praised by more than one established food blogger. It boggles the mind sometimes.

              1. re: klyeoh

                Not surprising.... I lived in Toronto for a a total of around 15 - 20 years, and although Toronto has some excellent Chinese restaurants, it has very few (maybe one or two) reasonably good Thai restaurants (only 2,000 Thai natives live in all of the Toronto metro area). So someone coming from that background would have very low standards to measure against. And of course magazines have editors that may not have the background in every cuisine to understand when they are being snowed. In fact one of the best Thai restaurants that I went to regularly was a hole-in-the wall restaurant in San Diego (around 12 years ago) -- before ever visiting Thailand (9 years ago). Before moving, Thailand became a regular destination for me since I would meet up with my sister here during Christmas (5 out of 7 years), since visiting her postings was a little problematic (Iraq when taking a helicopter from the airport to the green zone meant coming under regular attack; Afghanistan; West Bank).

                I have lived here for most of the last 3 years and I still have lots to learn.... So someone coming here for 2 weeks, who does not read Thai (therefore cannot read what Thai people are saying), who does not speak Thai so cannot ask for good directions..... is likely to fail miserably when writing about Thai food.

                Food is the most cultural thing that you can do when visiting a place (at least that is what I tell my sister when she says we should do something cultural), and you cannot understand a culture until you have immersed yourself in that cultural for a long time (if ever -- since some of the reasons on why are lost over time -- and it becomes it is because it is).

                1. re: cacruden

                  Thanks for sharing, cacruden. Your sister sounds like a brave woman indeed.

                  Personally, I think the Thais & their culture are more accessible, as compared to other East Asian cultures like, say, the Chinese, Japanese & Koreans. The Thais are more likely to welcome you and accept you into their midst. At least, that is my perception - my maternal grandparents are ethnic Chinese from Bangkok who read, write & speak Thai. My mother's generation in our family only spoke Thai but don't read/write anymore since my grandparents settled in Singapore and all their children were Singapore-born. As for my generation, we only spoke very rudimentary Thai - and only when necessary - to communicate with old relatives who do not speak English during my visits to Bangkok. Oftentimes, we lapsed into Chinese Taechew (潮汕話) dialect - called Teochew in Singapore, Chiuchow in Hong Kong and Chaozhou in China/Taiwan. Bangkok's Taechew and Singapore's Teochew are mutually intelligible, except for small variances due to the local accents, and some Thai words adopted into Thai-Taechew which we can easily guess at.

                  Singapore's Teochew cuisine is very similar to Thai-Taechew - it's worth noting that the majority of Thai-Chinese are of Taechew extraction, although the Hakka, Hokkien & Hainanese are also present in small numbers in Bangkok.

                  Off-topic, I also didn't have any problems communicating with the Vietnamese-Chinese when I explored Ho Chi Minh City's Chinatown (Cholon) since they spoke Hokkien (90% similar to Teochew & is Singapore's largest dialect group). It's amazing how having a common language can open doors with complete strangers.

                  They even have Hokkien schools in Ho Chi Minh City (see pic)

                  1. re: klyeoh

                    Thais and their culture may be more accessible, but actually understanding it may not be as easy. What you know you know, but what you don't know you may never know that you don't know; but what you know you may know only until someone says it is incorrect :o No different than if an alien landed on another planet - we would learn about the inhabitants, but we would always be interpreting it within our own context.. we would think we know but would we?

                    1. re: cacruden

                      Or a second way of wording it is to compare cooking styles Thai cook and a person that grew up learning recipes. The Thai cook will not be able to tell you the recipe but they can walk you through it. They squirt so much off that spoon and into the mix, then the next ingredient - but without doing it they would not know how to explain to you. You learn from them using the same sauces, and you approach it through what you have learned growing up..... you have them cook it and at the same time you have them squirt the same amount into a bowl and weigh each of the ingredients (very accurately) - you write it down exactly. At the same time you cook using the same sauces, and it comes out exactly right. Then you leave and you replicate it at home.... and although you know what you know.... it is not the same. The reason why it is not the same is because the variance of salinity in the fish sauce, the sourness of the tamarind (how diluted it is) - the balance is out. You knew it, but you really did not understand.

                      1. re: cacruden

                        I know exactly what you mean. For example, when a Thai start cooking a curry - he/she will first heat some coconut creme in a hot wok and let it boil till the "oil comes thru". Then, the freshly-ground spice mix (onions, lemongrass, galangal, fresh turmeric) will be added to the heated coconut creme/oil and sauteed over low heat till fragrant, before meats, vegetables, and a more diluted coconut milk were added, with splashes of fish sauce, hand-torn bits of lime leaves added now & then. It's easier to have the cooking process demonstrated to us, rather than having to read/decipher from a recipe.

                        That said, we need to adjust our cooking times (based upon our individual cooking hobs or stoves) and ingredients used. For example, the different types of ginger roots have different pungency and taste, and the amounts used have to be adjusted accordingly.

                        1. re: klyeoh

                          Totally agree with the fly in fly out experts, which clearly I am as well, thus easy to fall into the trap. I also agree it is important to try and understand a posters perspective: some only like high end, some are completely the opposite and decry anything that I not cheap street food. Some, like classic food, some avant-garde. Luckily there are a few who have a broad range of tastes and appreciate quality in all its guises - the secret is finding like minded people to trust.

                          Also agree on Thai cooking methods, but I don't see why this is different to many styles of cooking. Baking is really the only cooking that relies on precision (apart from MG). All ingredients vary, and its important to taste, taste, taste even when making a classic French stock. As in Thailand in most cultures a lot of cooking is handed down from generation to generation with lots learned by example rather than through books. But isn't it traditional in Thai tradition to hand down written recipes in funeral books so they survive the generations?

      2. re: Curt the Soi Hound

        You have to hand it to WSJ for taking their Asian food writing seriously. Stan Sesser was their "Man-in-Bangkok" (perhaps still is), mature gentleman and long-term resident (his partner is Thai). Had a love of backstreet Ma & Pa food which dominated his writing.

        Rather than encourage people to seek out particular hidden gems, his tone was more to steer people to the real food of the city and avoid the fads and tourist traps.

        The Asian WSJ was full of high-end advertisers, luxury brands. I always thought the food writing showed good editorial independence as some other English publications I see in HK seem so obviously influenced.

        (I speak in past tense as I haven't been reading AWSJ for few years now)

      3. Just as there are those who decry anything that is not cheap street food, there are those who praise "avante-garde" cuisine in fear of appearing unsophisticated.

        " street food" vs "classic food" vs "avant-garde" Yes, they all have their following. I also believe that they have their place.

        Visiting Thailand, people have what may be their only opportunity to sample the basic foundations of Thai. Once they understand the basics, they may then judge how "creative" some chefs my be.

        IMHO, in the context of "Thai food", one of the world's most popular and misrepresented cuisines, when someone visits Bangkok, I recommend food that is more a true representation of the "Thai" dishes people might be eating in their home countries.

        In the States, it is extremely rare to find Thai that resembles anything found in Thailand. The "Thai" restaurant that is "Mecca" for Los Angeles foodies, is one of the worst Thai joints I have ever visited. Talking with the owner, we found that she thinks her clientele is nuts!

        Here is the key. As is often the case, her "regulars" have told her what they like and how they like it. She cooks their food, not hers. When she cooks her food, she cooks the typical Thai "variations" of Chinese, with a little pad thai and pad see ewe tossed in! She even sets the table with chopsticks.

        Unless someone has plenty of time, and/or a good foundation, I am going to avoid recommending "Thai" cuisine that can be found anywhere in the world. I'll stick to local eateries.

        There is an old expression here in Bangkok, "Same Same, but Different".

        8 Replies
        1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

          Curt - I think the other element of Thai cuisine that is often missed is how regional it is. In most western cities it is generally what I would call the Siam variant. Exploring the breadth of the countries food is truly a voyage of discovery that is very rewarding.....but equally perplexing to some as it isn't all green chicken curry an pad Thai.

          1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

            Trying to think in my mind the exact dishes that I would find in Thai restaurants.

            - Pad Thai - which tends to be more a fried noodles dish but without any of the common ingredients (basically just fried noodles called pad thai). Pad Thai here is usually a meal, not one dish of many (at least I have never had it served as such when out with Thais).
            - Tom Yum Gung - most times it would be out of balance - i.e. too sour or lacking in lime flavour - but rarely balanced. I did have it at one Thai restaurant in Montreal one time (after it first opened) that was good..... but that was the exception
            - Green Curry (Beef and Chicken mostly)
            - Red Curry (Chicken or Duck mostly)
            Note: The curries tend to be ok, but never great. Most often they would not have fresh coconut milk/cream (there is a big difference from fresh and boxed). A lot of times they would miss out the thai eggplants (which I have come to love in my curry). Thai cuisine in a lot of Thai restaurants in the west seems to revolve around curries (which I do love), but is not something that you would eat every day (you could but sooner or later it would catch up to you).
            - Spring Rolls - better chance of them being good ... as long as they don't use old oil.
            - Fresh Rolls
            - Usually some stir frys that are of Chinese origin
            - I have seen Papaya Salad or Mango Salad on the menu but never came close to what you would get here.
            - Chicken Satays

            That above tends to be the most common Thai restaurant menu that I see in western Thai restaurants.

            There is so much more to Thai cuisine than you can get in a standard western Thai restaurant. It is almost like an ugly joke is being played on most people in the west.

            1. re: cacruden

              Cac - looks like you haven't tried Sydney. The Thai food scene is really evolved and shows how western palettes will accept regional food. And yes, various Thai eggplants are common.

              1. re: PhilD

                I don't consider Sydney to be in the west, they are down under :o There are probably more Thai people there as well. I spent a lot of time learning to cook Thai food since it was necessary for self preservation and sanity. I could get excellent Chinese food, but not so much Thai. I could get a number of herbs at reasonable prices since there was a large Vietnamese population, but Thai eggplants were definitely a hit or mostly miss proposition (a little old - too long to market). I was able to find kaffir limes - but it would take around 1 hour and 15 minutes by transit towards the airport to get them .... a Lao grocery store. Toronto has many things, but Thai food..... is problematic in most cases (about half the population is foreign born - Chinese HK then Mainland, Vietnamese, Indian, Philippines, Eastern Europe, Lebanese, Caribbean.... but so few from Thailand. We must have a sizeable Bangladeshi population though, I was at a Holiday party in Bangladesh last year and a number of the higher end Bangladeshis had there kids back from University..... quite a number of them were going to University in Toronto.

            2. re: Curt the Soi Hound

              Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas seems to have a good reputation. :-)

              1. re: huiray

                The owner of Lotus of Siam is the original owner of the famed LA eatery I noted. I thought that, maybe, because Jonathan Gold had given the originals a big thumbs up, no one knew the difference when it changed hands - at least twice. But, Mr. Gold has visited since and is still deluded. Then again, he goes for wild pig lip curry and squid ear gaengsom!

                With Los Angeles' huge Thai population, over 100, 000 documented residents, there are a few Thai eateries true to the cuisine. They are, however, almost all off the foodie map.

                There are also a few khao gaeng shops that no westerners give a second look.

                A couple temples will have "pot lucks", sharing the excess offerings brought for the monks' breakfasts. This is home cooked stuff!

                Thai Nakorn, in Orange County, is about the closest thing we have found to what is available in "sit down" restaurants inThailand.

                1. re: Curt the Soi Hound

                  Did you eat at that "famed LA eatery" you noted while Saipin Chutima was cooking there, or after it changed hands?

                  1. re: huiray

                    Never ate there back in those days. Never made it to Lotus, either. Do plan on it, if ever in Vegas.