Phad Thai, a Small Taste of a Large Cultural Heritage
Whenever Americans think of oriental cuisine it seems they automatically visualize Chinese food, but the Orient has many other cultures each with their own distinctive styles of cooking. Of course it is only natural for people to automatically equate Chinese food as synonymous with oriental cuisine since it has been the dominant type of oriental cooking readily available to Americans ever since the first Chinese immigrants started to arrive in droves on the west coast in the 1800 s. There is much more depth and variety to oriental food than just the Chinese food that we are familiar with, however. One of my personal favorites is Thai food, and in particular, a dish called phad Thai. Phad Thai is a traditional Thai dish that exemplifies Thailand s resilient culture and the distinctive style of cooking which is inherent to their people.
In order to gain an understanding of Thai cuisine, it is necessary to first have a rudimentary understanding of the strong cultural identity that inspired their unique style of cooking. Geographically Thailand is wedged between two cultural powerhouses, China, and India. These two countries managed to have a large impact on Thai society, but the Thai peoples have demonstrated an outstanding ability to assimilate select aspects of these outside customs and integrate them into their traditional way of life while still holding firmly to their own cultural identity. Thailand s culture, like the Chinese and Indian cultures, has developed over the span of thousands of years; however, Thailand s jungle terrain deterred the formation of a strong centralized government. Instead the Thai people lived in many isolated self-governed villages scattered throughout the jungle. Thailand s isolated village communities served as a cultural buffer dam that prevented outside influences from sweeping over them like a tidal wave. New thoughts and ideas seeped into their society slowly and subtly. This slow integration diluted the outside influences, and allowed the Thai people to maintain their own cultural identity. Thai cuisine is a fine example of the way Thailand has subtly integrated outside influences while still maintaining its own unique style and flair.
The marriage of a few Chinese and Indian ingredients and techniques with foods that thrive in Thailand s jungle habitat has created a cuisine that is as distinctively Thai as their culture. Thailand s geography has probably been the largest factor in the development of their distinctive cuisine. Thailand is a sea-bound tropical country with much of the land covered by thick jungle, and it was only natural for the natives to use ingredients that thrived in their tropical climate in their foods. Some of the mainstay ingredients in Thai cooking native to tropical climates include coconut milk, lemon grass, basil, curry, chili peppers, mango, lime, and of course, rice. Many of the other ingredients for their diet are derived from the sea: shrimp, fish of all sorts and variety, and shellfish make up a major source of proteins in their diets. Thousands of years of using these unique indigenous ingredients in their cooking have culminated with one of the most distinctive and uniquely flavorful cuisines in the world. Phad Thai exemplifies the Thai peoples ability to combine these ingredients into extremely flavorful dishes that are as distinctively Thai as their culture.
Phad Thai is a favorite among the Thai people, and there are almost as many variations on the dish as there are people who know how to make it, but despite subtle changes from one recipe to another it still has the same basic ingredients in it. The staple ingredients of Phad Thai are rice noodles, fish sauce (nam pla), and egg. These ingredients are the backbone of the dish, and without these ingredients the dish would not be phad Thai. At this point the diversity of the recipes for the dish manifests itself, and the ingredients can vary from person to person, but the result is almost always the same, an extremely tasty dish from innocuous ingredients. Some of the other things commonly used in the recipe include, but are not limited to: chili powder, chili sauce, curry, bean sprouts, tofu, lime, basil, garlic, cilantro, vinegar, peanut oil, peanut butter, scallions, lemon grass, and a meat such as shrimp, or chicken. These ingredients are then combined in a wok, and through some synergistic magic become one homogenously flavored dish that is tastier by far than the sum of its parts. This delicate, and unique dish is just one of many incredible dishes that Thai cuisine has to offer, but it is a favorite among Thai people for a reason; it is one of the tastiest dishes that a cuisine laden with sumptuous flavors has to offer.
Thai cuisine has only recently started to gain acceptance here in America, but it is taking hold quickly, and there is an abundance of Thai restaurants in almost every major city in the country. Hopefully, as Thai food gets exposure to the general American public, it will be able to differentiate itself from Chinese cuisine, and many Americans will be able to shed the ignorant belief that Chinese food is the only cuisine the Orient has to offer. There is much more to the Orient than just China. Phad Thai is a prime example of the cultural diversity of the Far East. This traditional Thai dish, not only is extremely tasty, but also can give us a small sampling of the unique cuisine that is a cross section of Thailand s resilient and distinctive culture.