Born and raised in Bangkok, I thought I knew a great deal about Thailand and her ways. After all, my first language is Thai. My family are all Thai. Most of my friends are Thai. I grew up eating Thai food, reading Thai books, listening to Thai songs and never hesitate to enjoy (and exploit) every bit of the Thai life.
With the premise that I am as informed about my culture as any of my countrymen, I chose to study Liberal Arts with a major in British and American Studies, vaguely expecting to “learn more about other cultures.” When I decided to make a career change, I enrolled in a culinary course where I studied classic French cuisine. Thai food was a sure thing and French food just sounded much more enticing. Looking back, it was as if being Thai was a privilege I relished and ignored at the same time.
It wasn’t until I moved to London for a few years to study an M.A. in Creative Writing that my false sense of reality began to crumble.
When the programme director told us we needed to submit a 60,000-word manuscript in the form of narrative non-fiction in any topic we wanted, I didn’t hesitate to pick Thai food as my core subject. Before moving to London, I had worked in a modern Thai restaurant in downtown Bangkok where I delved into an array of traditional Thai flavours as much as acquiring techniques in modern gastronomy. I thought I had a solid ground to start with.
But after about 3 months into writing, I was at a loss to elaborate on the very subject I thought would be a piece of cake. Surely writing long-form non-fiction in English was a massive boulder to climb. But the real challenge was organizing my thoughts, narrowing down the topic and eventually coming to terms with the fact that I actually had very little to tell. The more I wrote (or trying to write), the more I realized I didn’t know. It was clear my knowledge about my cultural heritage was wanting.
At roughly the same time, I began working part-time in a Thai restaurant in Shoreditch, east London. Given the food’s bold flavours that were unmistakably and characteristically Thai, anyone from Thailand would have been surprised to find out that the entire restaurant was under the helm of westerners. The front-of-the-house staff was a diverse group of smart-looking, non-Thais. The kitchen had two head chefs: one was a British and the other was an Australian. The rest of the kitchen staff were mostly British, Australian and European. The entire menu was the brainchild of the two head chefs.
Essentially, I signed myself up for a strangely ironic experience. There I was… a Thai learning how to cook Thai food from Farang (a colloquial Thai word for Caucasians) who apparently had a better knack for my national cuisine than I did. Grinding in that kitchen was a humbling experience in a good way – one of the best things that happened to me in London. Among other things, these Farang were attempting Thai food the hard way: the chili-paste-pounding, coconut-squeezing, prepping-things-from-scratch kind of approach that was the norm in Thailand for centuries before the arrivals of store-bought chili pastes, canned coconuts and the fast food/convenience store phenomenon. Residing in a cold, drenched island 6,000 miles from home where you could throw some chilies, a few coriander sprigs and a dash of Sriracha in a plate and call it Thai food, I never thought cooking traditional Thai cuisine would be possible.
I was grateful to be able to practice and learn the gruesome glory of traditional Thai cuisine. But every time I was told how to prep properly (“Let me show you how to julienne kaffir lime leaves.”), use the right utensils (“You should put coconut cream in a plastic container. Metal creates a chemical reaction that changes the taste of the cream.), or adjust seasonings (“Can you add more tamarind juice and palm sugar in that relish?), it felt like a gentle smack in the face. A benign but firm push that left me wondering how the heck did I get here? And since most Thais, especially those below the age of 40, are by no means any more informed than I am, it only added up to another painful hit in the head: how did we – as a people – get to this point?
I returned to Thailand in 2018 with a manuscript that earned me a degree honour and a clearer grasp of my culinary heritage. I now recognize that “being as informed about my culture as any Thai” isn’t good enough because we’re not that knowledgeable after all.
Being away from home made me look back at what I had left behind with more appreciation. I realized that what we have as a culture is a blessing. As such, I’ll continue to explore different aspects of the Thai life, hoping more than ever to soak up as much as I can and share my journey with anyone – Thais or non-Thais – who want to explore Thai culture in all its quirky charms, eclectic sentiment and hidden wisdom.
We’ve all been told not to take things for granted. That we should celebrate every single thing we have in life. This blog is meant to do just that.