Home   Blog   Classes   Trips   More   back

Faux Thai Recipes

Michael Babcock, November 15th, 2009

One of the things I like to do is to collect recipes that I think of as “faux Thai.” They are called Thai but when I read them, it is unclear what it is that actually makes them Thai. In my opinion, they should not be labelled as Thai.

Here are my credentials: I’ve known Kasma since 1991 and we’ve been married since 1994. In that time I’ve taken many of her Thai cooking classes, shared countless Thai meals with her both in this country and in Thailand, where I’ve gone on 14 different occasions. I’ve had the great benefit of living and eating with a master Thai chef with a gift for teaching.

It is unavoidable to realize that food is an important part of Thai culture. In some ways, Thailand is like an open-air food market; there seems to be food everywhere. Their cuisine is complex involves many different ingredients, many of which are shared in common with other Southeast Asian cuisines. When I think of Thai food I think of the burst of flavors that explode in my mouth when I eat a good Thai meal: all of the various flavor groups are stimulated and the taste buds light up in the mouth. If I had to characterize Thai food in a few words I probably use flavorful, complex, bright, fresh.

In a faux Thai recipe, there often is the addition of one or two ingredients that are also used in Thai cooking. Never mind that nearly any ingredient found in Thai cuisine is found in other Southeast Asian cuisines as well!

Unfortunately, the most popular “Thai ingredient” in the minds of many people seems to be peanuts. Peanuts originally come from the Americas, from Brazil. They travelled to Africa, then to North America and then to the rest of the world. Peanut sauce originated in Indonesia. They are not used very often in Thai food.

Adding peanuts to a dish does not make it Thai. An even greater mistake is to use peanut butter and call it Thai. Peanut butter is American; you add peanut butter to a dish, you should call it American, not Thai. Thais always start with fresh roasted peanuts, which, when ground, will taste lighter and blend better with the other flavors. (See Kasma’s article Peanuts & Thai Cuisine.)

Now I’m not against fusion food. After all, Thai is pretty much the ultimate fusion food: they’ve incorporated so many ingredients into their cuisine while not losing their own flavors. One example would be the spicy, hot red chillies that so many associate with Thai cuisine; they were introduced by the Portuguese. The Thai’s, however, didn’t then go call a dish “Portuguese” because they added red chillies – they incorporated them into their own cuisine.

In 1996 Kasma gave a talk at a conference called “Pacific Influences on the 21st Century Table.” Here’s one thing she said:

A good chef should also know, too, that ingredients by themselves do not make a cuisine. It is the way of cooking that produces the unique flavor combinations that characterize the cuisine, be it French or Italian, Indian or Thai. Thai cuisine is a unique style of cooking that makes use of a wide range of ingredients, combining them in a way that produces flavor harmonies. A lot of these things are wildly conflicting and contrasting, chaotic flavors, these sharp, pungent flavors, and the Thai creativity is how to pull them together and create flavor harmonies that reflect the taste preferences of the people of our country, the people of Thailand. That’s what makes the food Thai.

I think that we should remember that the word Thai is the name of a people, and a very proud people. Personally, I think that we should be very careful about what we label as Thai and to err on the side of caution.

Without further ado, here are a few examples of what I call faux thai.

One of the best examples of faux Thai is a dish called “Thai Crockpot Chicken.” Although there are many variations out there, the first Thai Crockpot Chicken recipe (opens in new window, archived recipe may load slowly) I came across had these ingredients: skinless chicken thighs, salsa, peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce, ginger root, white pepper, chopped roasted peanuts. Salsa? Nothing remotely Thai about this recipe. Peanut butter is in most of the recipes, although it seems equally divided about whether creamy or crunchy is best; many other variations use salsa (hmm, I could have sworn that was Mexican) while one recipe uses Sambal Oelek, which is (of course) Indonesian. No one seems to have thought of using Sriracha sauce, which has the advantage of having originated in Thailand; perhaps they think it’s Vietnamese since the best known brand is manufactured by a Vietnamese. Regardless of the variation, every one of these recipes I looked at (and even with Sriracha sauce) could be served to a Thai person and he or she would never guess that they were allegedly eating “Thai food.”

One of the things that mystifies me about many faux Thai recipes is the inclusion of ingredients that are not remotely Thai; in fact, their inclusion means that pretty much by definition the dish can not be Thai (I would include peanut butter here). Kraft Foods is a company that has pretty much mastered the art of using non-Thai ingredients in a dish that they call “Thai.” Here are some of the ingredients found in their 20 so-called “Thai Dishes”: A-1 Thick & Hearty Steak Sauce, zesty, Italian dressing, Kraft Light Catalina Dressing, Asian Sesame Dressing, cream cheese (??), teriyaki sauce, hoisin sauce, mayonnaise, coleslaw dressing. In the words of Dave Barry, “I am not making this up.”

I once sent an email to Kraft asking what is it that made their “Thai Pepper Salad” Thai (Offsite, opens in new window, archived recipe may load slowly). The ingredients are grilled boneless beef steak, cooked rice, “1 small red pepper,” carrots, Miracle Whip dressing (it really does boggle the mind), soy sauce and Bull’s-Eye Original Barbecue Sauce.”

The recipe is called Thai Pepper Beef simply because we have tried to incorporate some of the aspects of Thai cooking into it.

Bordering on the ocean, Thai food generally includes a lot of fish. However, beef and pork are the main meats used. Rice is also widely used in Thai cooking. In addition, there is a wide array of stir-fry, spices and herbs used in Thai cooking.

We have tried to incorporate a few of these ideas into the recipe you are asking about.

Thank you for contacting us with your question.

In my opinion, the fact Thai people eat beef and rice does not make a recipe that includes those ingredients Thai.

Presumably including the word “Thai” in a recipe is good marketing for them.

What is discouraging is that people will make and eat these dishes and think that they like “Thai” food. They will end up being like the guy who went on one of Kasma’s trips in the early years; he complained that the food in Thailand was not what he ate at restaurants in Berkeley.

I’ll provide just one more example, one that a friend recently sent to me. It is Thai-Style Pork Stew (offsite, opens in new window). In addition to the ubiquitous peanut butter (creamy!), there’s pork, red bell pepper, teriyaki sauce, vinegar, crushed red pepper, cloves, basmati rice, green onions, peanuts and lime wedges. Just one thought here: Thailand has one of the tastiest rices in the world in jasmine rice; basmati rice comes from, well, India. Sigh.

[I’ve not added any images to this post. I thought about adding some but don’t want people to get confused about whether or not they are faux Thai.]

If you want to learn more about Thai cuisine, you could do worse than starting with some of  Kasma’s articles on Thai cuisine. Here are two to get you started:

Written by Michael Babcock, November 2009.

Return to top