Friday, 9 September 2016

Cooking up a storm - or a storm in a teacup for Thai and UK cuisine?

Surely The Bangkok Post is being a little unfair in its criticism of the new initiative by Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce, MOFA and Agriculture Ministry to provide 12 core dishes of Thai cuisine for promotion abroad?


In setting the table with Somtam and Pad Thai and 10 other dishes surely the three Ministries are not being dictatorial but merely providing a firm base for Thailand’s Cuisine Culture?

Egg tofu may be off the menu in Surin schools but the icing on the cake for Cuisines Culture must be in cherry-picking its key dishes to promote?
As a minimum the set of 12 dishes would be an easy menu for all Thai restaurants and farangs to know and understand?

From my experience as a galley slave and chief bottle-washer in Surin Thai restaurant (try the sea bass!) in Ramsgate in East Kent, it’s astonishing how many Great British farang-in-a-vest like myself are wary of Thai food as too spicy or its flavours and spices in general.

The most popular dish by far is still Green curry but from there, a sampling of red curry or Thai dumplings or Pad Thai and the seabass and lime juice, eventually prove mind-blowing. There’s even a strong demand for spaces on the rare as hen’s teeth Surin cookery classes.

There is still a strong education job to do in many Thai restaurants abroad – rather than eggplant I’ve seen corners cut with – whisper it quietly – Great British Captain Birdseye frozen garden peas. Or sticky rice not provided with Lao dishes and even, horror of horrors, American rice used not even Thai or Cambodian rice.
And before I was indoctrinated in the ways of Somtam or Takatairn I thought Thai food was largely made up if peanuts.

A completely nuts view.

In my MP role, shouldn’t a UK-Thai joint tourism programme include the promotion of cuisine for returning tourists? As well as research into superfoods and healthy eating? Pomegranates and Coconut Water are just two of such fads currently sweeping the UK that would be ripe for Thailand’s farmers and crop policies.

While the UN-FAO food programmes have developed exciting projects in Camabodia on insect protein to ensure food shortages and malnutrition are prevented.

Now with the sterling work of the 3 Ministries (hopefully rolling out the promotion in UK) Thai Cuisine have a delicious dozen dishes to get under their belt.

And PM Prayut, following in the tradition of PM Samak, and donning his apron and retreating to the kitchen to promote Thai cuisine, and no doubt to avoid army food and junk food, provides a polished performance in serving up somtam.

Britain’s popular Bakeoff and Masterchef television cookery programmes are providing a rich source of Great British Toilet Humour, DoubleTake and Innuendo of soggy bottoms, jugs grasped and buns squeezed. Puns to rival any local news programme with a Skateboarding Duck and egg-based jokes at Easter.


Watch out for a serving of Eton Mess and Spotted Dick or a juggling of plums too.

It’s enough to warm the cockles of your heart, but there’s a serious Thailand Cuisine Culture point.

With just 12,000 Thai restaurants in UK down from 17,000, yet the pent-up demand of 1M UK citizens visiting Thailand each year, there is the potential for Thailand to launch an occupying army of taste and flavour throughout Britain.

And Surin restaurant, as one of UK’s top ten Thai restaurants and best Thai restaurant in Kent, still treasures its Ministry of Agriculture certificate for authentic cuisine and Thai Select European restaurant designation.

Surely too the 12 dishes will form an advance party of Michelin designations in Thailand and UK as with Japan’s sushi cuisine? Cold fish versus Somtam is no real choice is it?

Certainly no Thai Michelin restaurant as yet is a weakness for Thailand’s Food Economy. Rather, Japan is cooking up a storm with 29 Michelin restaurants followed by France with 25, and USA and Germany distant 3rd with 13 and 4th with 11. I think few even the most ardent Berliner, would place German cuisine higher than Thai cuisine?

And the Singapore Michelin Guide this year introduced stars for street food. As with the Bib Gourmand value rating from 1997 a neat way to broaden Thai influences in Michelin?

Research has even shown that a nation's Michelin Guide increases sales of its tyres by 3% - a useful point for Thailand's rubber and auto industries to lend a hand.

And – as with a good jazz record – the 12 dishes would provide the basis for greater experimentation of the dishes and flavours? The initial designations of dishes would serve only as guitar, piano and drums to allow Thailand’s chefs and suppliers to weave a food concerto of their own?

A musical rhythm of bass rather than the piscatorial kind.

Just as Britain’s national dishes of Indian curry and Italian Bolognese and even Fish and Chips have their variants. Fish and Chips may have a steady backbeat of, well, fish and chips, but then the full orchestra of tastes are deployed.

Will there be mushy peas? A portion of baked beans? Ketchup? Mayonnaise if you’re feeling a little Belgian. Salt and vinegar or just one or the other? A dusting of scraps? Fat or thin-cut chips? A fishcake? Building to a crescendo of a pickled gherkin or boiled egg?

And a smorgasbord of different fish for the North Sea, Atlantic and English Channel being battered and fried.

Surely Thailand’s chefs from the humblest street stall to a five star hotel to a home kitchen would brook no interference in the range of flavours and tastes they prepare anyway?

And couldn’t the 3 Ministries go further:

• recipe books and celebrity chefs
• a menu of Thai vegetables and use
• a directory of all Thai restaurants and supermarkets such as in Cardiff or Dunstable’s ThiaFoodOnline or Kent’s Veetee rice harbour
• UK research on the 50,000 strong Thai community and in other European nations?
• even a standard dictionary of names and terms for Thai cuisine

And I make no bones in flagging up the Surin restaurant cookbook, Surin Comic, and KORA Kent Oriental Restaurant group: sponsors welcome.

None of the above points would be over-egging the pudding of this cuisine and yield greater benefits for UK and Thailand.

Tim Garbutt is director of Sincerity advertising and PR agency opening offices in Bangkok and ASEAN and director of Surin Village School Charity, with the first school built in Isaan and plans to build 1,000 per year. He likes somtam.

Misc points:

* July Updates:

* Working on a misc issues: Magellan Anniversary - Spain and LatAm, Almeria Universities links and Kent-Thai orchids

* Also Solomon Islands cruise ships

* Benelux strategy: Panasonic and Phillips - DNA bathroom mirror

* One Essex court and Inns fraud: Grabiner, Glick, Hollingworth, Leavor etc

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