7 biggest misconceptions about Thai food

7 biggest misconceptions about Thai food

Peanuts on pizza? Delicious, but not Thai. And don't even think about trying to substitute lemons for lemongrass

A doctoral thesis could be written on the misconceptions people have about Thai cuisine. These seven are the most common. 

1. You can make any food Thai by adding peanuts

PeanutsA sprinkling of chopped peanuts does not magically make a dish "Thai."Laugh not at this. Countless recipes claim to be “Thai” based solely on the inclusion of peanuts.

A “Thai” pizza featuring chopped peanuts and fresh bean sprouts, a Thai cream soup containing red pepper flakes and peanuts, a Thai salad with bean sprouts and peanuts -- the list goes on, ad nauseam.  

Sure, peanuts are used in Thai cuisine. But Thai cuisine is not defined by peanuts.

2. Thai ingredients can be easily substituted 

Green curryThis bowl of green curry looks as it should. Green. Thai dishes subjected to substitution don't usually fare so well. It's bad enough that there are people who believe a Thai curry base is made by adding Madras curry powder to coconut milk.

Even more ridiculous are all the recipes that endorse illegitimate substitutes. 

Green chilies for red ones in red curry paste? Knock yourself out. Though your red curry will turn strangely green. 

Ginger instead of galangal (kha) or fingerroots (kra-chai)? Why not. They’re all rhizomes. They must taste the same.

Lemon for lemongrass? Sure. Substitute any type of nut for coconut while you’re at it and see how tasty that dish ends up.

Good intentions notwithstanding, these misguided recipes show a serious lack of understanding of the role of each herb and spice in Thai recipes. Thai cooking newbies fall prey to them all the time. 

3. It’s not 'authentic' unless it’s fiery hot

Red chillisJust because a dish is loaded with chilies, doesn't mean it's any good. Some Thai dishes are supposed to be hot. Some are not.

Anyone with the manual dexterity of a primate can throw chilies and hot spices into a pot. Only a good cook can discern when and how to use them properly.
Writer and restaurateur Jarrett Wrisley, owner of acclaimed Soul Food Mahanakorn, has also noticed the belief among foreign foodies that Thai food that isn’t extremely spicy isn’t real Thai food.

“Spice is merely a component of the cuisine, not a signifier of good cooking,” he says. “In fact, it's easy to conceal a lack of complexity with a blast of heat.”  

Incidentally, it’s also not uncommon for amateur food critics to attempt to conceal their lack of understanding of Thai cuisine by singling out the bold and lavish use of spice as the basis of their praise for certain chefs’ food.  

4. Pad Thai is Thailand’s ‘signature’ dish

Pad ThaiPad Thai is delicious. But it's not the country's national dish. True, pad Thai, one of the most popular menu items in Thai restaurants around the world, was invented in Thailand and carries a very Thai flavor profile.

Some consider this stir-fried, noodle dish strictly Thai. Some aren’t so comfortable calling a dish with so much Chinese influence "Thai."

Regardless, saying that pad Thai is a representation or epitome of Thai cuisine, deserving of national delicacy status, is a stretch. 

Kasma Loha-unchit, award-winning author and Thai cooking instructor, is amused when restaurant reviewers appraise a Thai restaurant based on the quality of its pad Thai.

“Noodles can hardly take claim as lying at the heart of my country's cuisine,” she writes. “Its name literally means ‘Thai-style stir-fried noodles,’ and for a dish to be so named in its own country clearly suggests an origin that isn't Thai.” 

5. Thai food is eaten with chopsticks

chop sticksChopsticks are fine for noodles. And that's about it. While many Chinese-influenced noodle dishes that have entered the Thai culinary repertoire are eaten with chopsticks, traditional Thai dishes -– almost always eaten with long-grain rice -– require a spoon and a fork.

The spoon is used to transport the food to the mouth, and the fork is there is help push food into the spoon. 

“The fork and spoon are well-suited to Thai food,” says ML. Sirichalerm “Chef McDang” Svasti in his latest book, "The Principles of Thai Cookery."

To partake in a traditional Thai meal properly, the chef explains, one needs to learn how to kluk, i.e. to mix different dishes into the rice.

This was done by hand in the old days; a fork and spoon represent the modern day tools used to achieve the same result. 

One can only speculate why chopsticks are made available to diners at some Thai restaurants overseas. This is where the chicken or egg analogy applies. 

6. Thai cuisine is vegetarian-friendly

Meat on a stickMeat on a stick? No problem for Thailand's Theravada Buddhists.Those who mistakenly assume Thai cuisine is vegetarian based because Thailand is a Buddhist country, or that ordering a vegetable-only stir-fry off the street guarantees no meat or seafood in the food, are in for a surprise.

While consumption of animal flesh is either prohibited or discouraged in certain schools of Buddhism, it's perfectly OK within the main sect of Buddhism in Thailand -- Theravada.

In fact, the only time when vegetarianism is widely practiced for religious reasons is during the Nine Emperor God Festival (tetsakan kin je).

Even so, such practice is mostly limited to Thais of Chinese descent.  

More on CNNGo: Shocking rituals of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Loha-unchit, who has led groups of Americans to Thailand since 1986, has seen people struggle with the nearly impossible act of avoiding meat in Thai food.

“I once had a woman on my trip who wouldn't eat red meat and chicken and that presented a big problem,” she says.  

7. Thai food should be cheap

Sra BuaA serving of tom ka cornettes, one of Sra Bua's inventive takes on Thai cuisine, doesn't cost 30 baht. Nor should it. The notion of "fine Thai cuisine" being an oxymoron is tragic, not to mention a perpetual thorn in the side of restaurants such as Nahm and Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, which serve Thai food in an elegant setting. 

It’s one thing to opine that the food served at such establishments is subpar and doesn't justify the price. It’s another to say that Thai food should never be pricey. 

“The single most frustrating misconception that exists is that all Thai food is inexpensive and should always be so,” says Soul Food's Wrisley, who points out that Thai is a very complicated cuisine that not only requires a head-spinning array of ingredients, but also a lot of labor to produce.

“People eat a bowl of noodles on the street that costs a buck, and they are led to think a buck is a pretty good indicator of what a dish should cost.” 

As long as the misconception of Thai food being pedestrian and undeserving of fine-dining treatment exists, we won’t soon see a generation of young, talented Thai chefs who master their own traditional cuisine and valiantly take it to the world stage in the form of fine-dining Thai. And thrive financially doing so.   

After having spent years studying ancient inscriptions, Leela recently came to realize that she would rather write about food than decipher old chicken scratch.
Read more about Leela Punyaratabandhu