‘Secret’ Thai menus no longer so secret

‘Secret’ Thai menus no longer so secret

As proof of the evolving global palate, we look at how Thai food in the United States is starting to mirror much of what you'd find in Bangkok's back streets
Thai food in the U.S.
A bowl of phat phet sato (spicy stir-fry of petai "stink beans" with shrimp), a dish native to Southern Thailand. Dishes like this are becoming more common on Thai menus in the United States.

Once known only among the inner-circle regulars of a few Thai restaurants in the United States, it's become apparent that America's so-called “secret Thai menus” are no longer all that secret.

Not only have Thai food enthusiasts become aware of an unadvertised list of dishes, deemed edible only to those weaned on regional Thai cuisines, they have also come to expect it. What was once accessible through a secret handshake or a knowing wink now proudly graces the restaurant menus, in English, for all to see. 

Most of the these once off-limit items feature ingredients that the average non-Thai palate considers to be strange or downright intolerable.

Unless the restaurant caters primarily to Thai patrons, rarely would one find anything on the menu that contains pla khem (salted fish), pla raa (Isaan-style fermented fish), cha-om (acacia pennata), sato (parkia speciosa), pickled crabs, pickled bamboo shoot, obscure animal parts, insects, animal blood and even the world's stinkiest fruit -- durian.

And then we have another set of hard-to-eat items, such as bone-in hunks of meat, whole fish, assorted table chili pastes and multi-component dishes like khao chae. Since it’s mostly the native Thais who appreciate these dishes, relegating them to a secret menu seemed an obvious solution. 

Pla tuuNamphrik pla tu (fried short-bodied mackerel and shrimp paste-based dip) with cha-om omelet, a popular side dish.Changing palates and adventurous eaters

Much has changed. Even the most detached observers have already noticed what a fairly recent U.S.-wide survey suggests: Generation X and Y diners are exponentially more adventurous than their predecessors.

The level of tolerance for “exotic” tastes among American diners has steadily increased along with their knowledge of the various ethnic cuisines.

The frustratingly ambiguous and culturally sweeping “Oriental noodles” or “Asian spicy stir fry” of times not long past have dropped off the culinary vernacular; the more specific and enlightened “yen ta fo” or “phat khi mao” are now household words.

As expected, Thai restaurants this side of the Chao Phraya River have welcomed the trend with open arms. More adventurous diners means that Thai restaurateurs outside of the areas dense in Thai immigrants can expand their cookie-cutter menus far beyond the tame and amiable phat thai or tom yam without fear.

Even in the Midwest, with the Thai population more sparse than that along the two coasts, the trend began almost a decade ago. Sticky Rice, a restaurant in Chicago that focuses on northern Thai cuisine, unabashedly serves up fried bamboo “express train” caterpillars to throngs of adoring fans.

“Customers can’t get enough of the fresh herbs and spices,” says owner Kritsana Moungkeow. “They can handle pretty much anything on the menu.”

This means no holds barred when it comes to spicing up their house-made sai-ua, northern-style sausage or loading up their laarb with all manner of offal.
Tac Quick Thai Kitchen, another Chicago favorite, is also known for its more obscure Thai dishes.

“An American friend insisted that we translate it so more people could enjoy what he had enjoyed, so we did,” says owner Andy Aroon.

It was a wise move. Nearly two-thirds of their diners now order exclusively from the translated menu. Their spicy fish maw salad and chicken green curry over a Thai omelet are the locals’ favorites.

Even Grant Achatz, chef of the world-renowned Alinea, is a fan of their boat noodles, which features aromatic, beefy broth traditionally thickened ever so slightly with, of course, cow blood. 

Catering to demand

The trend is not limited to major metropolitan areas. Kanchon Moonkul, chef of One Thong Chai, a small Thai restaurant in the quiet town of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, has been getting frequent requests for off-menu items and increased amounts of spicy ingredients in various dishes.

“The other day a woman showed up with a bunch of fresh holy basil,” Moonkul said. “She asked that we make extra spicy phat kaprao with it.”

This change does not seem faddish as it has all the hallmarks of an enduring trend. The question now is how the Thai food industry will respond.

Will cooking schools in Bangkok modify their curricula to cover more than just the very basic?

Will Thai food manufacturers push harder to expand their exported product lines to include items never before expected to sell?

Questions like these inevitably come to mind as one flips through a Thai restaurant menu in Chicago, debating between som tam with pickled crabs and phat kaprao with century eggs.

Got something to say? Speak up! CNNGo is looking to reward one smart reader with a free night's stay at Raffles Tianjin, China. Leave your thoughts and we'll pick the best comment posted before 11:59:59pm, September 16, 2010, Hong Kong time. Full details here
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