Thai food as fusion food?
Today, there is apparent confusion among some western chefs who are borrowing ingredients commonly used in Southeast Asian cooking to create their own blend of East-West cuisine, frequently referred to as “fusion” food. Little do they realize that many of the ingredients are not native to that region of the world, but have come from some place else, including the Americas.
I am amused whenever I see a bottled sauce, or item on a western menu, being described as “Thai” just because it contains peanuts or a peanut sauce, but yet does not reflect the flavor balance that makes Thai cuisine what it is. Peanuts really are American, not Thai.
The ubiquitous peanut really has had an interesting history: Native of South America, it traveled to Africa, later returning across the Atlantic when Africans were brought over to work the southern plantations. Peanut was first cultivated as a crop in the southern states, and only in fairly recent history did it make its way to the Far East, where it was favored in China and Indonesia; China and India are now the world’s largest producers of peanuts. In everywhere but America, the vast majority of peanuts are used to produce oil. As most people who have spent sufficient time in Thailand would inform you, few dishes in Thai cuisine use peanuts, and spicy peanut sauces really have their origin in the Indonesian archipelago. (See Kasma’s article, Peanuts & Thai Cuisine.)
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Although chillies are a beloved Thai ingredient and used intensively, they, too, are not native to the region, but are introduced from the Americas. Thai cuisine cannot even lay claim on its most essential flavoring ingredient – fish sauce, which really has roots in Mediterranean cuisine. The ancient Romans cherished this salty extract of anchovies and doused a wide variety of dishes with its flavor and aroma. Aside from these notable examples, there are numerous other foreign ingredients, as well as styles of cooking, which have been absorbed into the cuisines of Southeast Asia. Thai food is already “fusion food” and is what it is not because of the individual ingredients, but because of the particular flavor balances that set the cuisine apart from others.
Owing to the country’s auspicious location and her people’s openness, Thai cuisine has seen tremendous changes over the past few centuries. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, booming international maritime trade brought a host of flavor ingredients and cooking styles from around the world, many of which made their way into Thai cooking via the nobility.
On their long, circuitous journey, merchant ships sailing between India, the Spice Islands of the Indonesian archipelago and China would stop by the fabled ports of Ayuthaya in the kingdom then known as Siam. Ayuthaya was an amphibious city, situated on an island formed by the confluence of three rivers, and in its heyday supported a population of over a million, most of whom lived on houseboats along the rivers and their many tributaries. It was a glittering, very cosmopolitan and international city, described by some awed travelers as even more glorious than London and Paris of its day.
More than forty nationalities at one time or another resided here, many occupying their own quarters in the city with their own docks. They brought with them ways of cooking from their homeland. Those involved in international commerce traded the spices and foodstuffs they carried on their ships. There was a great exchange of culinary delights and many new and unusual ingredients found their way into Siamese kitchens to be given a distinctly new identity.
It was during this period when chillies were introduced into Asia, brought from the New World by the Portuguese. It took no time for them to become adopted and their extensive use continued through the centuries until now they are inseparable from Thai cuisine. Prior to their arrival, the spiciest ingredient used in Thai cooking was pepper, in the form of white, black and green peppercorns, introduced by Indian immigrants in earlier times. Ironically, it was black pepper which led to the discovery of chillies, as Christopher Columbus sailed west in search for a shorter route to India to obtain this treasured spice in European cooking of his day. On that voyage, Columbus did not land in India, though he called the people there “Indians,” and did not find black pepper, though he called the fiery chillies there “pepper.” The rest is history.
Aside from the lucrative international maritime trade, spices and flavor ingredients came in through age-old overland trade routes between the Far and Near East. Migration of diverse ethnic cultures at different times in history brought lasting culinary contributions as these peoples settled and became assimilated into the kingdom’s populace. Despite numerous foreign influences, Thai cooking developed on a course that firmly established itself as a distinct cuisine with its own unique combinations and balance of flavors. This development closely reflects the nature of the Thai people themselves, whose easy-going ways and adaptability to outside ideas combine with their resilient independent identity. Since the birth of the nation, Thai people have retained a special ability to hold on to their own unique, independent identity even as they accept and integrate foreign elements into their culture.
Thai cuisine continues to evolve today as the Thai love for variety challenges innovative chefs to experiment with ever-new ingredients from around the world, blending them with native herbs and spices to create dishes that still retain a quintessential Thainess. The cooking of ethnic minorities and of neighboring countries continues to exert tremendous influences. A large number of the ingredients used in Thai cooking have roots outside Southeast Asia, but have become fully assimilated into Thai cuisine and are indispensable in creating the flavor balances uniquely Thai.
A version of this article originally appeared in Kasma’s second book, Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood.
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2009.