When the first Thai restaurants opened in the US in the 1960’s it was considered to be no different from Chinese food. Now, 40 years later it is one of the most popular cuisines in the US, but it has gained a reputation of cheap takeout food.
The history between Thailand and the US
The relationship between Thailand and the US goes all the way back to the late 1940’s during the Cold War. The US intervened in South East Asian countries to slow the spread of communism in the region. The US specifically crafted and strategic relationship with Thailand in the 1960’s. This relationship meant that American tourism in Thailand boomed during this time, and led to an increased interest in Thai cuisine in the US.
When Thai people began immigrating to the US in the late 1960’s and 70’s many of them were on student visa’s and this meant that their employment options were restricted. These students would primarily work in kitchens to support themselves, which led to many Thai immigrants working in the culinary industry.
Thai cuisine today
The Thai food that is primarily known in the US today has some differences from the native cuisine. One example of this is when Thai restaurants were first opening in the US it was very difficult to source many ingredients that are key to Thai cuisine, so substitutions would be made. Thai chilies would be replaced with jalapeños and palm sugar with white white sugar. Improved transportation has lessened this issue.
The Thai government took notice of how popular Thai food was in the US, and created a program to train chefs and export them to the US. This program was created to encourage American tourism to Thailand. The Thai government wanted to standardize restaurant fair and make “pad thai as synonymous with Thai culture as say, the Big Mac is with McDonald’s.“
Currently many Thai restaurant owners are taking steps to diversify Thai cuisine in the US and are taking steps to expand the American palate to trying more traditional and authentic Thai dishes.
It’s important to remember how important cuisine is to cultural exchange, the popular opinions that people have about a cuisine will typically reflect the opinions people hold on that culture or country.
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