During my three years in New York City, Thai food was my default takeout and delivery order. This was a matter of both convenience and taste—there was a Thai spot on practically every block, and furthermore, I love the stuff. Like many Americans of my generation, I grew up with Thai cuisine, to the extent that Massaman curry and tom kha soup are among my comfort foods.
Thai restaurants are everywhere in America. Mexican and Chinese restaurants might be more plentiful, but there are demographic reasons that explain the proliferation of these cuisines. With over 36 million Mexican-Americans and around five million Chinese-Americans, it's no surprise that these populations' cuisines have become woven into America's cultural fabric. Comparatively, according to a representative from the Royal Thai Embassy in DC, there are just 300,000 Thai-Americans—less than 1 percent the size of the the Mexican-American population. Yet there are an estimated 5,342 Thai restaurants in the United States, compared to around 54,000 Mexican restaurants; that’s ten times the population-to-restaurant ratio. So, why are there so many Thai restaurants in the US?
I’m not the first to wonder about the ubiquity of Thai restaurants in American cities and suburbs, and most seemingly informed and lay analysts have suggested that it’s simply because Thai food tastes good, or happens to hit the American palate in just the right way.
But as it turns out, there is a much simpler answer: The Thai government paid for it.
Using a tactic now known as gastrodiplomacy or culinary diplomacy, the government of Thailand has intentionally bolstered the presence of Thai cuisine outside of Thailand to increase its export and tourism revenues, as well as its prominence on the cultural and diplomatic stages. In 2001, the Thai government established the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd., in an effort to establish at least 3,000 Thai restaurants worldwide. At the time, Thai deputy commerce minister Goanpot Asvinvichit told the Wall Street Journal that the government hoped the chain would be “like the McDonald’s of Thai food.” Apparently, the government had been training chefs at its culinary training facilities to send abroad for the previous decade, but this project formalized and enhanced these efforts significantly.
The McDonald’s of Thai food never quite materialized as a government-operated megachain, but the broader goal of a government-supported increase in the number of Thai restaurants abroad has. The Thai government has continued earmarking funds for the global proliferation of galangal root and fish sauce, and it’s paid off.
The strategies for achieving this increase were manifold, run in parallel by various departments of the government. The Ministry of Commerce’s Department of Export Promotion, most likely run by bureaucrats rather than restaurateurs, drew up prototypes for three different “master restaurants,” which investors could choose as a sort of prefabricated restaurant plan, from aesthetic to menu offerings. Elephant Jump would be the fast casual option, at $5 to $15 per person; Cool Basil would be the mid-priced option at $15 to $25 a head; and the Golden Leaf prototype would cost diners $25 to $30, with décor featuring “authentic Thai fabrics and objets d’art.” (Does your favorite Thai spot have objets d’art? The restaurant may have been built from a government prototype.)
The Department of Export Promotion also matched and set up meetings between Thai and foreign business people, conducted market research on local tastes around the world, and sent representatives from Thai cooking institutes abroad to train chefs at foreign restaurants.
Meanwhile, the Export-Import Bank of Thailand offered loans to Thai nationals hoping to open restaurants abroad, and the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Bank of Thailand set up an infrastructure for loans of up to $3 million for enterprise in the food industry, including foreign Thai restaurants.
The Public Health Ministry published a book in 2002 called A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad, which provided information about recruitment, training, and even the tastes of foreigners.
The Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Industry, the Thailand National Food Institute, the public Kasetsart University, and the Ministry of Agriculture were all involved in the push to bolster Thai food abroad, from training chefs to inspecting exports to researching new recipes to appeal to foreign tastes. A special visa was even established in New Zealand specifically for Thai chefs.
It worked. At the time of the Global Thai program’s launch, there were about 5,500 Thai restaurants beyond Thailand’s borders; today there are over 15,000. The number in the US increased from around 2,000 to over 5,000.
Now that the restaurants are opened, the government is concerned with maintaining their quality and their value as export channels. As of August 2017, 413 Thai restaurants in the US have been awarded “Thai Select” certificates by the Thai Ministry of Commerce to denote quality and authenticity. Thai restaurants in locales as far as Mexico and Nigeria have been recognized. (A list of Thai Select restaurants is available here, though it appears that it hasn’t been updated in years.)
“They have a Thai Commerce Ambassador who is located in Washington, DC, and he happened to be in my restaurant one night,” said Tao Wudhapitak, owner of Thai Ghang Waan in Springfield, Virginia. “And he asked to talk to either the manager or owner in charge that night, so my wife went over to the table and he started asking if we had heard about Thai Select. And he said as the ambassador, he wants us to receive it.”
In addition to doubling as taste testers, Thai diplomats in the US have been charged with supporting Thai restaurants in both logistics and strategy. “When we received the award, the Ministry of Thai Trade actually came to my restaurant and we discussed about how we can promote more and how they will support us in getting more products from Thailand,” said John Sungkamee of Emporium Thai in LA. “She suggested I should look into promoting the Thai rice berry. She also recommended the suppliers to obtain them from.” Sungkamee told me that he and other Thai restaurant owners across the country maintain a group chat, and the now-former Thai Consul General in LA has been an active member.
Now that large markets like the United States have been firmly established as lovers of coconut milk and peanut sauce, the Thai government has been making a push to increase the presence of Thai cuisine in new regions, especially the Middle East. Becoming one of the top five exporters of halal food by 2020 is a stated goal in its governmental five-year plan.
The story of Thai gastrodiplomacy seems to be a happy one, at least for me, since it’s meant more Thai food in my mouth. But to those concerned that their local food offerings might be the result of intentional and targeted infiltration by foreign governments: You may be more right than you know. Though Thailand’s efforts may have been the most extensive and successful, this initiative to gain soft power through food has been utilized by other governments as well. Inspired by Thailand’s success, South Korea, for example, has earmarked tens of millions of dollars beginning in 2009 for its Korean Cuisine to the World campaign. Taiwan has followed suit, as has Peru with its Cocina Peruana Para el Mundo (“Peruvian Cuisine for the World;” quite creative) initiative, as well as Malaysia (“Malaysia Kitchen for the World 2010”—clearly there’s a pattern here).
Even the North Korean government has recognized food’s diplomatic power, and has maintained an international chain of over 100 restaurants called Pyongyang, featuring North Korean staples as well as musical performances by a purportedly captive North Korean staff. The phenomenon of escaping and defecting waitresses may have put a damper on the North Koreans’ enthusiasm for this project.
Perhaps it’s time to submit to foreign governments’ influence over our local restaurant landscapes. If that’s what’s bolstered access to tom kha, lomo saltado, and bulgogi, then it’s not such a bad thing. That is, until Iceland initiates a Fermented Shark for the World campaign. Then it’s time for revolution.