The Evolution of Thai Food in the US. Back in 1981, Anajak Thai opened its doors in Los Angeles, introducing American diners to Thai cuisine. The restaurant’s original menu featured around 60 dishes, making Thai flavors accessible to the American palate.
The Rise of Thai Cuisine
Today, Thai food is incredibly popular in the US, with over 10,000 Thai restaurants, despite Thai people making up only 0.1% of the population. It has, however, often been associated with cheap takeout, a perception that’s slowly changing.
Thai Cuisine’s American Journey
To understand how Thai cuisine became widespread in the US, we need to delve into history. The US established ties with Thailand during the Cold War, allowing Americans to travel to Thailand and experience its food. This paved the way for the eventual popularity of Thai cuisine in the US.
Early Thai Immigrants
Thai people started arriving in the US in the late ’60s and ’70s, often on student visas. Many found work in restaurant kitchens due to limited employment options. Anajak Thai’s founder, Rick Pichetrungsi, was one such immigrant. He worked in various LA restaurants before opening his own, serving Central Thai dishes alongside Chinese options to attract cautious diners.
Creativity Amid Constraints
Thai chefs had to be creative as key Thai ingredients weren’t readily available. Substitutions were common, altering some dish flavors. For example, jalapenos replaced Thai chilis, and white sugar stood in for palm sugar.
Thai Food’s Evolution
Anajak Thai gradually became a neighborhood favorite, mirrored by other Thai immigrants opening similar restaurants across the nation.
Thailand’s Standardization Efforts
In the early 2000s, the Thai government initiated a program to train chefs and establish Thai restaurants worldwide, hoping to boost tourism. They aimed to make dishes like pad thai synonymous with Thai culture.
Beyond Pad Thai
Some Thai restaurateurs decided to step out of the familiar territory. Renowned chef Saipin Chutima introduced northern Thai recipes at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, while Andy Ricker at Pok Pok ventured into regional Thai cuisine.
The Impact of Racial Dynamics
Thai immigrants weren’t lacking in imagination; they had to consider how unfamiliar dishes might affect their business. Andy Ricker is credited with pushing regional Thai cuisine forward in the US, paving the way for a new generation of Thai American chefs.
Thai cuisine in the US is a testament to the cultural exchange between the two nations, showcasing how a cuisine can evolve and find its place in a foreign land.