Chef McDang: The myth of 'royal' Thai cuisine
Most people who frequent Thai restaurants, whether in Bangkok or elsewhere in the world, feel that the words “royal Thai cuisine” convey some mystical feeling of Thai food being cooked differently.
And that’s exactly how the restaurants want you to feel.
But in reality, royal Thai cuisine -- as it is advertised to unsuspecting Thais and foreigners alike -- is just a marketing tool that allows them to charge more. By saying they're cooking dishes that were once only served to royalty, they are attempting to set themselves apart from the thousands of street stalls that serve regular but often just as delicious Thai cuisine.
I can say with a fair bit of certainty that I know what “royal” Thai cuisine is, having been brought up eating it while growing up in the palace with my great aunt Queen Rambhi Barni.
Firstly, the dishes are no different from those that most Thais eat in their homes. Royal cuisine includes soups like tom yum goong, curries like green chicken and everything else that your average Thai Joe would eat.
That said, there are some differences –- few of which are on offer at restaurants purporting to sell royal Thai cuisine -- but they all relate to the way that the food is prepared and served.
Aesthetics and extremes
Only the best and freshest ingredients are used in making royal Thai food. Furthermore, there are no extremes in flavors which means not too hot, not too salty, not too sour and not too spicy. Everything is balanced.
One very noticeable feature that sets royal Thai cuisine apart is that all fruits and vegetables have no pits, stones or peel. Fruits are peeled, carved and pitted (seeded) with the peel sometimes carved and attached to the fruit as decoration.
Furthermore, fruits are never served whole if they are too big. Every detail is covered when it comes to the presentation and the appropriate size of each item that is used in royal Thai cookery --masticatory safety, very balanced flavors and aesthetics.
When it comes to serving meat, there are no bones in royal Thai cuisine. Not even in the fish. So when preparing fried mackerel, the royal kitchen staff would first fry the fish, take it out of the hot oil, and then use a small knife to debone it. They would then use a pair of tweezers to painstakingly pick out all the tiny bones from the two fillets.
Afterwards, the two pieces would be placed back together to form a whole fish and refried to make them stick together. Lastly, after the fish is taken out of the oil again, its head is attached back onto its body. Howʼs that for presentation?
Once, as a young boy, my father took me to eat outside the palace and I was served nam prick (chili shrimp paste dip) with a fried Thai mackerel. Being accustomed to the fact that I could eat the whole mackerel without having to debone it, I met with great disappointment on that day.
When the dish arrived I thought that someone had tampered with my food. Only later, to my surprise, did I discover that the Thai mackerel actually has bones, as well as fins, and a tail too. Who knew?
How the royals really eat
Even if an establishment were to replicate the sort of presentation required to make one forget that fish have bones, one would still be unable to have the true “royal” experience.
Though history, Thai kings and queens had their own set of dishes and dining areas. They donʼt eat family-style, which is the usual way to enjoy Thai food.
Therefore, when at the royal table, my great aunt would be served her sum rap along with her own rice, nam prik and the like. Everything was her own. The rest of us ate at a separate table and were served Russian style -- "service à la russe."
We all had our own plate of rice, brought to us by a butler from our left. Afterwards, the butler would present the rest of the dishes, still from the left, on a tray. We would take what we needed and place it on our side plates (which is the plate that looks like a half-moon).
Next, the soups and curries would be served separately on the top left hand corner of our place setting and we were ready. Then, once the queen had started her meal, we were allowed to start as well.
Attention to detail aside, I can say that there is only one dish that truly can be considered "royal Thai cuisine."
During the reign of King Rama II a culinary creation of royal origin was introduced to the people in the palace: “Khao chae,” a summer food, eaten with rice in cold jasmine and candle-scented water with an assortment of intricately made sides.
As the years went on, each palace of each of the princes and princesses has added to the repertoire of the dishes that they prefer with the cold rice. (I have further written about khao chae on my blog as its description and process is far too lengthy to describe here.)
Now that I've established that royal Thai cuisine is a royal pain to prepare, to be quite frank Iʼd rather stick to eating normal Thai food. Really, really spicy Thai food. But thatʼs just my temperament.
With all this in mind, I can guarantee that it's next to impossible for any restaurantʼs business model to support the service of an entire menu in this manner. So the next time a "royal Thai" restaurant tries to serve you something other than the above, call them out on it and ask for Russian service and a reconstructed fish.
A household name in Thailand, Chef McDang is a chef, TV personality and writer. Born into the Thai royal family, McDang completed his early education in the United Kingdom and United States and at the Culinary Institute of America, which led to a career as an executive chef, restaurant owner and manager that saw him travel from Washington D.C. to Florida and California.Upon returning to Thailand in 1993, McDang began writing about food and appearing on TV cooking shows. Almost two decades on, McDang is Thailand’s most famous food expert and a respected ambassador for Thai cuisine.