Pad Thai Diplomacy
Have you noticed that there are many Thai restaurants compared to the population of Thai immigrants in Western countries? In the US alone, there are 5,342 Thai restaurants for around 300,000 Thai-Americans. In contrast, there are 54,000 Mexican restaurants for around 36,000,000 Mexican-Americans. Why is Thai food so over-represented in the American restaurant space?
It turns out that the rise of Thai food is not a natural phenomenon. Since 2002, the Thai government has funded and supported thousands of restaurants around the world that make “authentic” Thai food through the Global Thai program. Although Westerners are becoming more adventurous eaters (i.e. more willing to try non-European food), Thailand was the first country to pioneer the concept of gastrodiplomacy. Gastrodiplomacy is a strategy countries use to promote their traditional foods to foreign audiences. It often helps countries improve their global reputation and increase tourism. You can learn more about gastrodiplomacy in the Quartz video below.
Thai food wasn’t always universally loved. For decades in the West, Asian cuisine (except for Japanese food) was considered “cheap” compared to other ethnic cuisines (e.g. Italian or Greek). Thai food abroad was also considered inauthentic by Thais because many restaurant owners were not ethnically Thai.
Thai people have always been proud of their culinary heritage. People vigorously debate how to make traditional dishes like green curry or pad Thai. Food is also an important component of Thai culture, and you will often find tens of stands and carts along busy downtown corridors in Thai cities where vendors sell street food. So the Thai government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, made the obvious decision to market its cuisine overseas. As a nation that relies heavily on tourism to further its economic development, Thailand decided to use its gastrodiplomacy campaign to induce more foreigners to visit its famous beaches and islands. In addition, the promotion of Thai cuisine would help the country become the cultural powerhouse of Southeast Asia, differentiating itself from its neighbors.
However, Thailand has not let the foreign restaurants it sponsors exercise creativity over how dishes are made. The Thai government primarily looks for existing restaurants owned by immigrants who are ethnically Thai that are already making authentic dishes. The Thai Foreign Ministry will then honor these restaurants with the “Thai Select” award. These eateries will continue to receive financial support from the Thai government while also being able to advertise itself using the “Thai Select” trademarks on its menu and promotional materials. But these restaurants must conform to a “theme” set by the Thai Ministry of Commerce (the current themes are “Elephant Jump” for fast casual restaurants, “Cool Basil” for mid-priced locations, and “Golden Leaf” for gourmet eateries). They also must have six permanent menu items that follow official recipes for dishes as endorsed by the Ministry of Commerce. This allows the Thai government to exert some control over how foreigners view Thai culture.
The “Thai Select” program is the central focus of the Global Thai strategy, but Thailand promotes its cuisine in several other ways. In 2003, it tried setting up an international chain of Thai fast-food restaurants, but this effort was unsuccessful. During this period, it started training and sending Thai citizen chefs to work in these restaurants, and this practice continues to this day, although these chefs are now sent to mid-priced and gourmet restaurants abroad. These chefs try to help foreign restaurant owners receive “Thai Select” status.
Thailand also became the first country to create a machine to test the authenticity of its food. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the state-owned Thai Delicious Committee spent $100,000 to create a machine that certifies if dishes have the right consistency to be considered “authentically Thai.” The Committee is selling this contraption to Thai Embassies around the world, where diplomats will showcase the machine to visitors.
The Global Thai campaign has been a massive success. In a couple decades, the number of overseas Thai restaurants has increased from 5,500 in 2001 to 15,000 in 2018. The US alone has 1/3 of these Thai restaurants, with about 500 eateries receiving the “Thai Select” award. Thailand has not only improved the cultural associations foreigners have about the country, but it has increased tourism. Thailand is now the most visited country in Southeast Asia, and tourism spending makes up 10% of its national GDP.
But a closer look at the campaign exposes some negative problems Thailand deals with domestically and internationally. Thailand is a well-known hub for international sex tourism and prostitution. Global Thai marked an effort to rebrand the country’s image so the government could avoid addressing sex tourism in its relations with other countries. Global Thai exerts a lot of control over restaurant owners’ choices, and this reflects the political situation that faces Thai citizens. Thailand has been ruled by a military leader, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, since the military took over the government in a 2014 coup. During Chan-ocha’s time in power, he has restricted Thai citizens’ freedoms of speech, press, and demonstration.
Ultimately, Global Thai is an outstanding example of food’s power to bridge cultures. Food can also help countries tell and reshape their national narratives, even when nations are experiencing political turmoil. But food can also be a medium for experimentation and interpretation. The Thai government should let “Thai Select” chefs experiment more with their dishes. This move will help showcase Thailand’s open and vibrant culture to the world.