December 9, 2008 / 5:30 AM / in 9 years

Mee krob anyone? Thais try to revive ailing cuisine

BANGKOK (Reuters Life!) - Varisa Thongsripong spends much of her time at her Som Tum Bangkok restaurant, making sure the green papaya salad doesn’t get too spicy or the grilled chicken too tough. Just don’t ask her what she eats at home.

<p>A chef at Bangkok's Blue Elephant restaurant, which also conducts traditional Thai cooking classes, shows a creation featuring a giant shrimp in this September 6, 2002 file photo. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang/Files</p>

“I cook at home three or four times a week,” said Varisa.

“But sometimes I do buy the prepackaged Thai food in the supermarket, usually curries, even though they taste different from homemade. It’s easier, and it’s a lot cheaper.”

Convenience and cost are two reasons why Thai food is changing, spurring many locals to bemoan what they think of as the death of their renowned local cuisine.

They say the balance of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy flavors meant to underpin Thai dishes has been replaced by something saltier and a lot sweeter than it should be.

The reason? Changing tastes wrought by globalization and culinary shortcuts have ended up changing Thai flavors, and placing some dishes in danger of extinction altogether.

“Bangkok 30 years ago and today, totally different,” said Triphong Kohengkul, CEO of a group of restaurants that includes Bussaracum, which serves what it calls royal cuisine.

The change in food knowledge among Thais marks such a “big difference,” Triphong now finds it difficult to hire suitable chefs for his restaurant.

And while the emancipation of women from the shackles of the mortar and pestle may be a good thing, it also means traditional methods of cooking Thai food have altered accordingly.

“People in the old days had lots of time. They could spend all day making things, cooking,” said Varisa. “Before, women did not go out to work. They could spend all day in the kitchen.”

Palm sugar may be substituted for the more accessible granulated kind, something Thai cooks should never use. And mee krob, spicy, deep-fried noodles popularized by Carrie Bradshaw in an episode of “Sex and the City,” may lack the faint scent of the citrusy, hard-to-find som saa, if the dish is on the menu at all.

“Foreigners hear about ‘mee krob’ and associate it with Thai food,” she said. “But children in Thailand have never heard of it. They are more familiar with Japanese food, or hamburgers.”

BALANCING ACT

<p>Flames leap from a pan as a chef at Bangkok's Blue Elephant restaurant puts together a dish in this September 6, 2002 file photo. REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang/Files</p>

It may seem like culinary sacrilege that mee krob would be largely forgotten by the people who created it, but it is facing many more competitors from abroad.

The number of Japanese restaurants in Thailand alone rises on average 20-30 percent a year, according to restaurant industry data, mirroring a similar growth in the number of foreign residents -- 2 million this year from 1.3 million in 2000.

Western food, once a status symbol showing the diner’s embrace of modernity, has also become more firmly entrenched in Thai households, particularly in Bangkok.

“The taste has changed a little bit,” acknowledged Nooror Somany Steppe, who helped found Thai restaurant chain Blue Elephant. “People get used to pasta, hamburgers.”

This is part of the reason why Nooror has added a traditional Thai cuisine category to her Bangkok restaurant, including increasingly rare dishes originating from the royal palace such as sang wa gung pla duk fu (lemongrass-studded shrimp salad with deep-fried catfish) and tom jew (herbal beef and potato soup).

“We thought we would change the menu to make it more authentic,” said Nooror, who splits her time between Thailand and Belgium, where the first of Blue Elephant’s restaurants started.

Thai food has always been a fusion, reflecting the many cultures that have settled in Thailand over the centuries. The ubiquitous nam pla (fish sauce) is of Chinese origin, while many curries are based on interpretations of Indian food brought to 15th-century Ayutthaya by Khmer chefs.

Even chilies, long associated with Thai food, were introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Thai food could simply be going through another, more visible, revolution, chefs say.

“Me, I‘m very simple,” said Nooror. “I eat gaeng som (tamarind curry), nam prik (chili sauce), and platu tod (fried Thai mackerel). But I also like Caesar salad with French fries.”

Bussaracum, for its part, has been serving royal Thai food for 30 years, churning out finely made tung ngeun (deep-fried dumplings stuffed with pork) or chao muang (gelatinous “blooms” colored purple by a type of flower). But even Triphong acknowledges it is difficult to do.

“In the old days, the palace, the cooks, had time to create things,” he said. “Even overseas, where you have 10,000 to 11,000 restaurants -- they can’t afford to do this.”

As for mee krob, Varisa thinks it could be resuscitated -- if Thais re-learn how to eat it. “If you eat it alone, it could be too sweet,” explained Varisa, who says all Thai meals must include a curry, a soup, vegetables, and a chili sauce.

“It’s supposed to be eaten after something like a tamarind curry, just like green curry must be accompanied by salty fish. You must have something spicy before it, and it cuts the spiciness. It’s a balancing act.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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