(Travel + Leisure) – If you’ve eaten at a neighborhood Thai restaurant, you’re likely familiar with pick-your-protein Technicolor curries. Odds are you’ve tried papaya salad, spring rolls, and pad thai improbably made with ketchup and maybe even peanut butter.
While many ethnic cuisines are domesticated to Western palates, Thai food may be the most bastardized in America. “We have the same basic Thai dishes over and over again, many of which have nothing to do with Thailand,” says Andy Ricker, the James Beard Award–winning chef behind the bicoastal restaurant empire Pok Pok, known for authentic dishes like charcoal-roasted hen with lemongrass and tamarind.
But for as many sugarcoated Thai restaurants operating in the U.S., there’s an appreciable number of spots doing it right—especially in immigrant-heavy cities like Houston, where Asia Market encourages diners to personally adjust their dishes with condiments like pickled peppers, fish sauce, and chili sauce (nam prik). L.A., meanwhile, supports both NIGHT + MARKET, which puts a hipster spin on Thai street food, and Thai Town’s Jitlada, where chef Tui Sungkamee makes traditional fiery southern dishes.
“Thai is not a monolithic culture and, as such, not a monolithic cuisine,” explains Ricker. “It varies vastly from region to region and even from house to house.”
World-renowned chef, author and Emmy-winning television personality Anthony Bourdain visits Thailand in the next episode of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," airing Sunday, June 1, at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook.
In Thailand, a person might greet a friend with the phrase "kin khao reu yang?" to simply ask how things are going.
The more literal translation, however, is: "Have you eaten rice yet?"
"In this part of the world you live and die by the harvest," Anthony Bourdain says of Chiang Mai province's fertile fields and sticky-rice-filled tables.
In this week's episode of "Parts Unknown," Bourdain travels to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai to eat, drink and sweat his way through every night market, roadside restaurant and karaoke bar he can handle in the country's second largest city.
"It was like discovering a color I never knew existed before," Bourdain recalls of his first trip to Thailand more than a decade ago.
The region's multi-dimensional flavor profile (simultaneously sweet, salty, spicy, bitter and herbaceous) is hard to replicate outside Northern Thailand due to the availability and hyper-locality of some ingredients, but one chef, Andy Ricker, has made it his mission to recreate the food stateside. He specializes in "the good stuff," Bourdain says - like the region's ubiquitous dish of khao soi, a coconut milk and curry paste noodle soup topped with a nest of fried noodles, lime wedges and cilantro.
Ricker is the chef and owner of the acclaimed Pok Pok family of restaurants in Portland, Oregon, and New York City. The name of the restaurant is an onomatopoeic ode to the sound the pestle makes when it pounds ingredients into pastes in a mortar.
Test out your own mortar and pestle skills with a variation of the chile paste naam phrik, preferably the Chiang Mai way, with motorbikes whizzing by and a ice-filled glass of beer close at hand.
Once known only among the inner-circle regulars of a few Thai restaurants in the United States, it's become apparent that America's so-called “secret Thai menus” are no longer all that secret.
Not only have Thai food enthusiasts become aware of an unadvertised list of dishes, deemed edible only to those weaned on regional Thai cuisines, they have also come to expect it. What was once accessible through a secret handshake or a knowing wink now proudly graces the restaurant menus, in English, for all to see.
Most of the these once off-limit items feature ingredients that the average non-Thai palate considers to be strange or downright intolerable.
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