by Chit Tharnthong
Few would argue that the singlemost important event in the history of food is the discovery of America. What followed that has come to be known as the Columbian Exchange (CE). Prior to CE, there was no tomato in Spanish or Italian cuisine, no beef or banana in the New World, no pineapple in Hawaii, and no chili pepper in the Thai cuisine. Since spiciness is a point of pride among many Thai food aficionados, we asked Chit Tharnthong,, co-owner of the popular new South Maui hotspot, Maui Thai Bistro, to provide the context for the growing popularity of Thai cuisine.
Of all major cuisines, none is harder to pin down than the Thai. Perhaps the best starting point for understanding Thai cuisine is the recognition that Pad Thai, generally regarded by non-Thais as the national dish of Thailand, is quintessentially Chinese (in fact, many believe that the best Pad Thai in Thailand is to be found in Bangkok’s Chinatown). Thai cuisine is, at its core, a skillfully wrought mélange of borrowings from other cuisines, particularly the Indian and Chinese. But, rather than fuse them (a few noodle dishes excepted), each borrowed cuisine would develop its own strain so that each dish would clearly retain its roots and derivation. This bifurcation leads some people to term Thai cuisine as an “unfusion” cuisine!
Thai cuisine is in a constant process of reinvention; in contrast, at least two other great cuisines have erected huge barriers against innovation and cultural impurity: the French, where an innovator like Paul Bocuse (nouvelle cuisine), for years, had to tilt hard against the orthodoxy of Mssrs. Carême & Escoffier; and the Japanese, where the likes of Jiro Ono (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”) still insist on a 10-year apprenticeship before a person is allowed to even cook an egg!
In Thailand, what mitigates the innovation chaos is the de facto curator’s role played by a food-obsessed public, where almost everyone eats out several times a week. Every Thai person seems to feel a keen sense of stewardship for his cuisine and, for that reason, it is virtually impossible to find bad food in Thailand.
Co-owner and chef Prakong’s emphasis is on authenticity, innovativeness and quality (she still cooks in small batches). It’s been a long road for Prakong who came to this country courtesy of the diplomatic corps in Washington DC. “When I was growing up, we were so poor, that we rarely had fresh meat or fish, so everything that came out of my mother’s kitchen would be drowned out in spice”, but not any more. Today her brand of cooking is what is known in Thailand as chaowang food – or food for more sophisticated palates, where each flavor (sour, sweet, & spicy) remains subtly distinct, rather than become lost in an undifferentiated ragoût. A loud collective cheer went up in Kihei when she upped her stakes after two years in distant Hana, and moved to open Maui Thai Bistro.
It seems characteristic of Thais abroad to embrace, and even to co-opt, local food and culture, so that a Thai restaurant in St Andrews, Scotland, makes its own version of haggis; in Spain (as in New York City) Thai tapas bars are proliferating; and in Copenhagen, a Thai restaurant is reinventing gravlax, substituting Thai herbs & spices for dill, and palm sugar for the traditional brown sugar. At Maui Thai Bistro, we combine our Thai food with island flair; after all, Maui is half our name.
We are adding several new bucket list candidates for our second year (items may appear as Specials until supply stabilizes): Spicy Thai Soft Shell Crab, Lamb Chops with Thai Green Peppercorn Sauce, Mussels in Thai Basil Sauce, Duck Breast Padcha, Yum Raw Ahi with Green Mango, Homemade Kalua Pork and Black Olives Fried Rice, Roast Duck Curry, Thai Oxtail Soup, plus vegetarian selections! We’re also adding exciting new items to the lunch menu, specially targeting the active lifestyle of Mauians!
Please ask about our new tastings as well as wine pairing dinners (featuring superb wines). You can sign up at our website http://www.mauithaibistro.com or Facebook page www.facebook.com/mauisbestthaifood to stay informed of these as well as other promotional events. www.MauiThaiBistro.com