Thai Food Grows in Popularity

What is there to not attract people to Thai? The typical Thai dish balances all flavor elements; sweet, astringent, salty, piquant, tart and uomi (meaty); with a surprising lightness and delicacy that makes for a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

By David Feder, R.D., Managing Editor

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My love affair with Thai food began a quarter-century ago in Dallas. A small Thai restaurant opened in a converted mobile home on a little side street. At the time, Vietnamese cuisine had settled in as the new wave and I expected pretty much the same flavors from Thai. I was a little bit right and a lot wrong.

The lemongrass and peanuts were there, along with bean sprouts and other fresh vegetables. But instead of cilantro and mint, basil predominated on the herb front. Coconut milk - virtually non-existent in the Vietnamese fare I knew - was there in luscious profusion and the green curry and lime burst open entire new worlds of bliss.

Thai food was an apotheosis for me, a perfectly poised cuisine for someone who lives for the next sensation of the palate. Yet it was a long time taking hold in this country, lingering at the level of cult status for a decade.

Thai has finally leaped ahead of the pack in this country: Driving from the Midwest to Texas several times each year, I noticed Thai restaurants were proliferating. In nearly every town, small and large, down Interstate 35 I suddenly found a Thai restaurant.

Then, in 2001 in Des Moines, Iowa, a medium-size town which already had several struggling Thai places, Wiput "Liam" Anivattanapong and his father Manop (with cousin Vora-Anong "Bua" Lerdpraiwan managing) opened two restaurants, Thai Flavors and Cool Basil, that redefined Thai cuisine, most especially by its freshness. Liam's pad thai, the national noodle dish of Thailand, is astounding. His tom ka kai - coconut soup - is nonpareil; absolute blissful magic in a brimming bowl.

Liam is only 25 but he's a star on the Iowa restaurant scene, his fare an unqualified hit in this once sleepy town. He says he knew Grant Wood's America was ready for Thai because "this generation is open to try something new, to be adventurous; plus it's a generation concerned with health."

Research taught him that Americans were more knowledgeable about Thai cuisine and Thailand than one would think. "They know Thai very well," he says. "Some have even visited Thailand, or moved to the heartland from larger cities where Thai food was familiar." Adds Liam, "I love to serve Thai food to American people - they have such open minds." The key to his success, he says, is keeping true to the integrity of the ingredients and recipes.

Anivattanapong notes that people who make processed foods should be aware, when working with ingredients needed for Thai food, that quality and intensity of spices such as ginger, lemongrass and especially chili peppers, depend on each batch of those ingredients and so recipes need to be adjusted accordingly.

And that's the biggest challenge for processors as they latch on to the mainstreaming of America's new pad thai-induced passion. With a cuisine defined by its devotion to fresh ingredients, how much room remains for processing?

Maa gin khaao!

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