September 2008

The Nation Reviewed

Operation tom yum

By Ashley Hay
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Perhaps it was because I'd just seen the trailer for the new James Bond movie, but I was hoping for trench coats or disguises when I sat down to lunch with a group of secret Thai-food tasters. Perched at one of the broad, high tables at Jarun Pompanya's Capital Thai, in Sydney, I was with three of the people best placed in Australia to confirm, in a Royal-Thai-Government-Approved kind of way, that what I was consuming was some of the best Thai food I had ever eaten and possibly would ever eat.

Under the watchful gaze of an enormous herd of elephants, carved frolicking in a massive slab of wood, I was dining with Saowanit Pongsai, the director of the Thai Trade Centre for Australia and New Zealand; Kwanapa Phivnil, her deputy; and Silachai Surai, the director of the Tourism Authority of Thailand for Australia and New Zealand - all of them seasoned undercover operatives in an ongoing and official covert mission to identify, ratify and promote authentic Thai food outside Thailand. I was close to the heart of what I'd come to think of as Operation Tom Yum - the lack of trench coats and disguises perhaps explained by this meal's status as an off-duty dining experience.

For more than two years, the Thai government has been sending designated diners into Thai restaurants around the world to sample menus, evaluate decor, assess preparation, cooking and presentation, and rate hospitality and service. And it's these secret diners who award - or withhold - the Thai Select tick of approval, Thailand's highest endorsement of any eating establishment. So far, judges have eaten in countries including China, Bangladesh, America, Brazil, Egypt, Turkey, France and Luxembourg, anointing more than 1000 Thai Select restaurants worldwide. Of these, about 50 are in Australia and New Zealand, including Capital Thai, which gained its tick of approval more than a year ago.

Under the system, restaurants that think they meet the Thai government's criteria can apply for consideration, after which a table of three or four people will appear unannounced - perhaps from the government's tourism or trade entities; perhaps from the Thai consulate or from Thai Airways - and place their orders. "We have specific dishes that we use," Saowanit Pongsai says, "like tom yum goong, the clear soup, and pad thai, the noodles - something that every restaurant should have, so we know that they're cooking it the way it's supposed to be." Rather than undergoing specific training, judges are required to have an innate familiarity with these standard dishes.

"Most of the judges are Thai, so they know exactly how the pad thai should be," Kwanapa Phivnil says - "you know, it shouldn't be too wet, too dry ..." Too sweet? The quantity of palm sugar in some Australian versions often makes noodles glisten. "In fact, no," Silachai Surai says. "But Australians do love sweet - when we try many Thai dishes here, they're often much sweeter than in Thailand. I don't know why this is. I've asked some chefs, and they say the customers love that taste." Maybe, he suggests, people think it will it reduce some spiciness. He shrugs: at least Australians are getting better at eating hot food - "spicy, but not too hot: that's how it should be."

Surai's time here as director of the tourism authority has corresponded with a 20% growth in Australian visits to Thailand; such holidays, he suspects, feed the world's growing penchant for Thai food. In excess of 13,000 restaurants worldwide now designate themselves as Thai, and Phivnil quotes research that rates the cuisine as the third-most popular globally, behind Chinese and French. "In India, Thai restaurants are becoming popular, and in Tokyo and other parts of Asia," she says. "If you go to Thailand and experience the food, you come home and look for it." Which is only logical: "After all, if you had to live 365 days in a year without any spice, that would be terrible ..."

Our dishes begin their elegant procession: scallops in a red sauce; fresh spring rolls; lamb yang, its cutlets marinated in rice whisky. "A lot of Thai people don't like lamb, because of the smell," Phivnil confesses, "but this one: this one is good." As is the coconut chicken soup, tom kha gai, which proves perfectly creamy, salty and smoothly sweet - although not, the three judges concede, entirely authentic. "At home, we come from a culture of sharing, so a lot of our dishes are put in the middle of the table," Phivnil says, eyeing her individual bowl. "We don't have our soup separate like this," Surai says. "And we eat rice with it," adds Pongsai, spooning soup onto rice, rather than rice into soup as I've always done. "Like this." I follow, authenticity at least partially regained. Really, this must be one of the nicest jobs in the world. The three nod - but there's not much time for cooking, only eating, they say: if she's lucky, Pongsai might make a Thai omelette. "My husband is very good at cooking," Phivnil says, "but he loves to go the difficult way. In making larb I would use instant spice, but he takes the rice and grinds it up with all the spices." She laughs. "Our curry, it's quite difficult to cook if you start from scratch. You can spend whole days ..."

Still, all find it easy to get Thai ingredients here. Surai's wife takes care of most of that during the week; at the weekend, they might head out for a Thai speciality like som tum, a delicately layered salad built around garlic, papaya, lime juice and fish sauce that originates from Thailand's north-east but is now popular, and available, from one end of the country to the other, and beyond. Behind us, at a large central table, our own som tum is coming into being, the garlic disintegrating under the rhythmic pounding of a great pestle. Dropping into Thai, the three laugh. "We're talking about the mortar and pestle," Phivnil explains. "In Thailand, in the past, we believed that in order to choose a wife, we should listen to that sound. If it was fast, this was good -"

"- it had to be fast and strong, which meant the woman wasn't lazy; she was paying attention to her work," Pongsai says. Was this how Phivnil chose her larb-cooking husband? "No, no," she says, laughing. "I knew that he could cook; that was enough."

Replete with the exquisite salad, with a whole snapper in a three-flavoured sauce - "sweet, sour and chilli all together" - and with the rich thickness of a Panang chicken curry, we lean back. Thai Select may want to acknowledge certain standards of cuisine and what Phivnil calls Thainess - "not just the food, but the environment, the ambience, the hospitality of the Thai style" - but that doesn't mean there's no room for innovation. Thailand's coffee drinkers used to take their beverages more like thick, sweet Vietnamese drinks. Now, with new crops of coffee being grown in their country, they're turning towards the Italian way of doing things. And the durian, that Thai fruit whose odour is so infamous that it's banned on planes and buses and in some hotels, is also undergoing a rebirth. "You must try the Thai-grown coffee," says Pongsai as our table is cleared. "And the durian gelato," Surai says - a recent addition to the Capital menu, but he's already been in to try it. The dessert - creamy, with a soft dustiness to it - is not only not stinky; it's delicious. At the moment, Thailand is the only country that runs a program like this to certify its offshore food, but who knows what an Italian Select might make of these after-dinner developments?

And other culinary exchanges? Pongsai and Phivnil pause politely to consider if Australia has offered them anything exciting in the way of cuisine. "Barbecue," Phivnil says at last. "Barbecue is very nice." When she heard about her posting here, she contacted a friend in Sydney, "And she said, ‘Do you know Vegemite?' I said, ‘No'. ‘Then you have to learn it,' said my friend. My daughter, she's seven, and she loves it: you know, when your kids like something, you try it, but oh ..." Phivnil shakes her head, the friendly smile scrunched entirely out of her face for the first time. "No," she says. "Oh, no."

Ashley Hay

Ashley Hay won last year’s Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing. Her last novel, The Railwayman’s Wife, won the Foundation for Australian Literary Studies’ Colin Roderick Award and the People’s Choice category in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Her new novel, A Hundred Small Lessons, will be published this April. She lives in Brisbane.

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