Thai food is not a birthright

A woman learns about the cuisine of her motherland, one cookbook, recipe, TV show, and video clip at a time

By Francis Lam
Published January 29, 2010 2:01AM (EST)
Ganda Suthivarakom
Ganda Suthivarakom

We'd eaten dinner, five friends in Ganda Suthivarakom's apartment, and as good guests of a better host, we pretended to start cleaning up while she insisted we stop. The food was lovely, a home-style spread of ground pork sparked with fish sauce and lime juice, mellow cucumber soup and shredded carrot salad: dishes she learned to cook growing up a family of Thai immigrants.

I cleared some ramekins off the table, which had until recently held the evening's greatest hit: tender salmon, its rich flesh heightened by aromatic red curry, steamed in a soft custard and covered with a thin cream of coconut and slivers of hot chilies. Trying to make room for them in the overfilled sink, I caught a glimpse of the curry recipe lying on the counter, in, of all things, a Swedish food magazine.

"Um, so…" I started, not knowing how to be delicate about this dish's provenance. I pointed at the ramekins. "Was that the food of your people?" Delicacy is not really my thing, I guess.

"Nope," she said quickly, as if singing staccato. "My mother is from the northeast of Thailand; they don't eat much curry there and I didn't grow up with it. I learned to make that from watching Yan Can Cook."

I laughed. She didn't, and she's usually quick to share a laugh. "Wait, you're serious?"

"Well, it's not like..." She started, drawing in her breath ponderously. "In myyyyy family, we've made this for generations... It's a funny thing. I meet people and often the first thing they say is, 'Oh, Ganda, what kind of a name is that?' And then it's, 'Oh, I love Thai food! Do you know how to make pad Thai?'"

I wanted to say there's something lovely about that, about an attempt to connect with a stranger over their culture, as hamfisted as it might be. But then again, I don't know if it's any better than when I was in grade school and the first thing kids asked me was if I knew how to break boards with my kung fu.

"I never saw pad Thai until I was a senior in high school," Ganda said. "That's not something we made at home, so it's not like being born into a Thai family means the world of Thai food is yours. All those different foods weren't my birthright. In some ways I learned about Thai food along my non-Thai peers."

"So what's the story with the fish curry?" I asked.

"Well, there was one show when Martin Yan was in Thailand. My Dad gets so excited whenever he sees Thailand on TV. He'd always call us all into the room and he'd be like, 'Look! I can't believe people are paying attention to us!' So Martin Yan was at this famous market, he ate this steamed curry wrapped in banana leaves and his facejust  lit up. 'That looks very good.' I thought. 'We don't have that in my house. I would like to eat it.'"

"So I did a bunch of research, made the curry paste and looked online for videos to make the boat shape with the banana leaves. Traditionally you pound everything together and the whole thing is a custard, but I liked the idea of using slices of fish so there's a different texture. The thing is, when I learned to cook this, I might as well have been making boeuf bourguignon; it wasn't like I had some insight into it. When I was younger, the idea of authenticity was something I romanticized, like 'Phhht, that's not real Thai food.' But what the fuck do I know from real Thai food? I know what I know from my family. Now that I'm not some 20-year old know-it-all, I know my family made food from what they could find in the States, and maybe it's not exactly what people grew up with in my Mom's dirt road village. My Mom makes her own version of papaya salad with cucumbers, because she couldn't get good green papaya when she first moved here. Is that Thai? I don't know. But does it matter when it tastes so good?"

Just then, something occurred to me, recalling the lushness of dinner. Salmon is a cold water fish. "Hey, do salmon even exist in Thailand?" I asked.

"I don't think so," Ganda said. "I just use it because I love how the pink color blends into the curry."

Check back tomorrow for Ganda's steamed salmon curry recipe


Francis Lam

Francis Lam is Features Editor at Gilt Taste, provides color commentary for the Cooking Channel show Food(ography), and tweets at @francis_lam.

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Eating And Talking Food Immigrant Cuisine International Cuisine