Here's an exercise: Think of a Thai dish. First one that comes to mind. Ready? Was it pad thai? I'm betting it was, unless you happen to be of Thai descent (and can name a much more relatable favorite dish), have Thai friends, or only really started eating Thai food in the past couple of years (when a myriad of styles, chefs, and restaurants have started to popularize other dishes and even regional Thai cuisine!)
It is a quintessential Thai food. I think it's even the official national food of Thailand. But y'know what? I'm all Pad(Thai)ded out.
It came to me yesterday at work. All the new staff members and interns were attending an orientation lunch where our Executive Director and some senior staff got to tell us a bit more about the organization and their history and accomplishments, all fine and dandy. The lunch served, however, was your average sub-par trays of takeout Thai food.
I had plenty of warning, mind you. The executive assistant knew of my Thai descent (though not of my culinary experience nor gourmet penchant) and let me know beforehand that we'd be having "Thai" for lunch, asking me if that was okay. Of course it was, I told her! I've had mediocre Thai before, I'm really not that picky, and who am I to refuse a free meal on the company dime?
So I head down to the conference room, where I find some rice, ambiguous tofu-and-translucent-vegetables-in-brownish-liquid, some much-too-soupy curry, and, of course, pad thai. I quickly assess my situation, and decide to go for a couple serving-spoonfuls of pad thai, and just a bit of curry over rice.
So I eat while I listen and watch. And honestly, the food's alright. It's perfectly adequate. And therein lies the problem:
Thai food should never settle for "alright" and "adequate." Thai food is one of the greatest cuisines in the world, dammit! The cuisine comes from glorious Southeast Asia, the crossroads of great Asian cultures: Indian, Chinese, and the Indo-Malay islands! Not to mention a diverse set of native cultures in the region! When spices, tea, noodles, and rice moved over land, they came through Southeast Asia, and I'm sure left more than their fair share of influence behind. And though western imperialists unfairly took and conquered the land, the silver lining included tomatoes, potatoes, and chiles. The only reason Thai cuisine is not held aloft like French and Chinese cuisines is that we never bothered to create a grand culinary institution. You still learn from the apprentice system, but your Chefs are instead referred to as: "Grandma," "Auntie," and "Mom."
And pad thai is supposed to exemplify the basics of Thai cuisine: Chinese noodles cooked with local ingredients, stir fried streetside, and put together with the balance of flavor. Sweet palm sugar, sour tamarind pulp, firey chile sauce, and oh-so-savory salty fish sauce melt together to form that sweet brown sauce (Yes, brown. Overly red, yellow, or orange pad thai either has food coloring in it, or not nearly enough tamarind. Yes, my pad thai above didn't have nearly enough tamarind. It's hard to find the pulp in my local Ralphs). Pad thai is supposed to be this brilliant orchestra of flavor, all the different tastes acting as notes to hit an amazing chord.
The pad thai I had was yellowy, greasy, clumped together, sitting in my paper plate, staring up at me as if to say, "...yup."
Who is to blame for this? I don't know. Maybe it's the fact that pad thai is by far the most popular Thai food out here. My proof:
The second most popular Thai food, the hot and sour soup known as Tom Yum (of any variety), pales in Google searches compared to pad thai. (That spike in 2005 is due to the release of a Thai martial arts action film where the main character goes to Australia, beating up people in search of his elephant). So every Thai restaurant is obligated to make it, whether they have decent ingredients or not, whether they're good at it or not. And I'm not trying to be classist about this. Pad thai is best made with fresh ingredients in a blazing hot wok in a streetside stall, or at the Thai equivalents of greasy spoons in road stop food courts. But there are plenty of cooks in Thailand that don't make pad thai. They don't have to if they're not gonna invest in being good at it. Thai restaurants here, however, seem to be bound by some sort of cuisine oblige.
Though, after the lunch was over, I still took another plate's worth of pad thai to get me through my day. Because despite what it lacked in quality, I was determined to have it make up for it in glorious free quantity.
But it doesn't mean I have to like it.
Currently Eating: Arugula/Spinach/Lettuce Salad with Chicken and Goat Cheese, seasoned with salt and pepper, dressed with Trader Joe's Cilantro Dressing Currently Craving: Chili Cheese Fries. With Onions.