Considering the Bangkok rainy season, it was a relatively bearable morning. Tee, a chef in training and a friend of Gai, a former student of mine, picked me up at my hotel with his girlfriend Sand. Tucked far away from the tourist attractions, my temporary residence was conveniently located near the Dusit Thani College, one of the most prestigious institutions for culinary education in Thailand, where I was lecturing on Italian food history and culture.
A short stroll by the swimming pool and I'd transition from the Asian style comfort of my room to buildings teeming with youngsters in various attires, from the freshmen in shorts like in a Japanese manga to the seniors in navy blue suits and, conspicuously sprinkled among them, many students in chef uniform.
Tee, who will graduate soon, had graciously invited me to explore a couple of food markets. His passion for food is infectious. After a couple of years in business school, he realized that his true call was cooking, and he has been at it since. I could not have asked for a more enthusiastic guide.
We first visited the market of Suan Luang, not far from the college. Located near a park, it is way out of the beaten path for most foreigners. The market is well laid out with large aisles and is very clean. With its high roof, it never gets too stuffy. Some people were shopping for groceries, while others were buying prepared food to take home or to eat at some of the tables available at the market, which also doubles as food court. The sensory overload was exhilarating.
I was immediately reminded of how complex and refined Thai cooking is. Nothing is straightforward. Beyond the spiciness, which for some can be overpowering, sauces, condiments, relishes, spices, and herbs provide layers and layers of flavors that complement the abundance of fresh and dried products to create surprising combinations. Not only the characteristic fruits and vegetables, but also distinctive techniques, gestures and tools make this culinary tradition rich and unique well beyond the curries, lemongrass, chilies, and lime that define Thai cuisine for foreigners.
My sense of wonder did not diminish when we drove to the Or Tor Kor market, next door to the Chatuchak clothing and souvenir bazaar. While the latter is among the favorite tourist destinations, few foreigners bother to cross the road to wander among the stalls of the nearby gastronomic paradise.
The vendors certainly do well, even without tourists, for the place is packed with Thai clients. For both buyers and sellers, traditional food is part of their daily routine--they thoroughly appreciate it, always happy to discuss it and to share it, but at the same time take it for granted. In the countless shopping malls that now pepper the city, it may be hard to find Thai food. When they go out to have fun, locals seem to prefer Western, Chinese, and Japanese restaurant chains that offer everything from shabu shabu to hamburgers, from fish balls to ice cream. Often of mediocre quality, these foreign specialties are sold at higher prices than Thai fare.
Nevertheless, things are changing. Thai cooking classes are now trendy among tourists. Thai chefs in training are educated not only in international styles, but also in the subtleties of their own culinary traditions. The Ministry of Commerce is spearheading initiatives to stimulate food producers to apply for Geographical Indications recognition in order to protect their products from counterfeiting.
Especially in the case of popular items like jasmine rice or famous varieties of pineapples and coconuts, these measures may increase the revenue of farmers as well as the global renown of Thai specialties. However, these efforts are mainly directed to distributors, exporters, and foreign markets. Thai chefs, especially those working abroad who could become ambassadors for their traditional cuisine, are not targeted. On their end, local consumers are usually not aware of these labels, mostly basing their judgment of quality on freshness, familiarity, and their personal connections to the producers and vendors. Which, in fact, is not a bad starting point...
The coming years will tell how Thais will negotiate the growing international visibility of their culinary traditions, which is quickly becoming one of the most appreciated worldwide in the context of globalization processes marked by the rising popularity and accessibility of Western foods and other Asian cuisines. As young chefs like Tee will act as protagonists of these transformations, the future looks promising.
For more of Fabio Parasecoli's work, visit The New School food blog The Inquisitive Eater.