Can Thailand's Electric Tongue Banish Bad Curries?

Some of Thailand's brightest minds have just gone and invented an electric tongue, with the sole function of telling you whether or not you’ve made a shitty green Thai curry. It's the Robocop of the authentic food police.

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29 September 2014, 4:11pm

Photo via Flickr user prawncrackers

Thailand is no stranger to bad news lately. After the military coup in May, the shocking murder of tourists David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, and the continuing case of the south of Thailand—an area plagued by violence and local tension for the past decade, which is only exacerbated by an endless conveyer belt of tourism that has filled the Land of Smiles with sweet foreign cash—the country is due for a taste of good news.

Now, a robot can do just that for them. According to the New York Times, some of Thailand's brightest minds have just gone and invented an electric tongue, with the sole function of telling you whether or not you've made a shitty green Thai curry.

In an effort to quality-control its national cuisine around the world, the Thai government has created something called the Thai Delicious Committee, which developed this robot organ to test the authenticity of Thai foods. The project was led by Sirapat Pratontep, a nanotechnology specialist, who has managed to devise a way for the tongue to evaluate how traditional a curry is by recording its chemical signature. Restaurants in Thailand are being urged to have their signature dish checked for its e-delicious rating in order to receive a sticker—similar to Britain's Food Hygiene Rating system—to place in their front window. You even get a score out 100 for the purity of your dish, which means we're one-step closer to the Gustavo Fring spin-off Breaking Eggs.

Quite why the Thai government thought it beneficial to put close to $1 million toward this venture, and splash almost $100,000 on this contraption alone, is still unanswered. It becomes especially odd when considered alongside the rice scheme (a plan devised to withhold export stock of rice in order to increase demand and, therefore, price), which lost the country nearly $15 million.

It goes without saying that Thai food is essentially the Led Zeppelin of the world's culinary key players—beloved by almost everyone for good reason. Even a merely average green curry could, if distributed correctly, unite even the most discombobulated Slavic nation, so the invention smacks of insanity.

An idiopathic mania appears to have descended upon Bangkok's elite, spread by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, who was so incensed by the crappy curries she had eaten abroad that she mentioned the need for a cure in cabinet meetings (news that was presumably plat du jour to General Prayuth Chan-ocha).

In theory, it's marvellous that such a fundamentally useless contraption exists, but it raises a series of political and conceptual questions.

How does Yingluck expect restaurants outside of Thailand to afford one of these machines? Will they be sold to restaurants directly by the government? Given as gifts to diplomats to provide to their significant others? A single machine costs around $18,000, or the equivalent of 5,575 cans of coconut milk.

What is the tongue's actual purpose? To regulate flavour or restrict experimentation? More to the point, though, why in the fuck does anyone even care?

It's frankly horrifying to think that so much money has gone on this thing, when a human being is sufficiently capable to tell whether something sucks or not. Which is, it turns out, exactly what the robot tongue does. For the tom yum soup, for example, 120 students at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok basically voted which dish out of ten tasted the best. While the machine can hide behind the shield of mechanised objectivity, in reality all it's doing is asking a few undergraduates if your tom yum tastes anything like a good hangover cure.

No doubt, the invention has potential. Perhaps, like Listerine (a gonorrhoea-cure-turned-beloved-mouthwash), its best function will only be revealed with time. Already, there are plans afoot to use similar things for wine and coffee. But right now, the robo-tongue feels at best like a curious novelty and at worst an act of culinary jingoism that will linger on the edges of every bowl of Thai green curry that we eat, each sub-par mouthful a reminder of our imperfections.