Thai Restaurant Bangkok Station
Thai TakeAway Imbiss und Restaurant am Bahnhof Tullnerbach Pressbaum.
The plan to increase the number of Thai restaurants around the world from the current 11,477 to 20,000 next year is a fairy tale. Given the current reputation and political circumstances of Thailand, it will be impossible to double these numbers within 16 months. It took over a decade to double the 1995 figure of 5,000 restaurants to the present level.
The mad rush to augment the number of restaurants overseas is the direct outcome of the previous government's policy to promote Thai food through the "Thai kitchen to the world" campaign. Such quantitative approaches can backfire and have disastrous consequences because they go for numbers and ignore the overall quality. Food safety and effective monitoring and evaluating take a backseat.
Since 2003, billions of baht have been spent to publicise Thai food in an attempt to increase restaurant outlets, agricultural products and related products from the Otop (one tambon one product) project such as tableware, furniture, wallpaper and fabrics. Special campaigns have also been initiated to promote Thailand as a centre of halal food. Furthermore, the previous government wanted to boost the country's food industry from its current 14th spot in the world rankings and move it into the top five in three years.
In order to promote the country's cuisine in sustainable ways, the concerned authorities must now contemplate new approaches that focus on "software". In other words, Thailand needs a long-term strategy to educate the Thai people and foreigners about the genuine Thai culinary arts and the training of professional chefs as well as Thai restaurant managers. After all, Thai cuisine is more than tom yum, pad Thai, chicken satay and green curry. A variety of regional cuisines including traditional family recipes have yet to be fully explored and appreciated. The country needs to develop a comprehensive curriculum on Thai cuisine with standards as high as those in well-established culinary schools overseas such as Le Cordon Bleu or the New York Institute of Culinary Art.
So far the "Thai kitchen to the world" campaign has been carried out in a hush-hush manner. During the Thaksin government, several grand schemes were hatched - including a multi-million dollar plan to rent a huge office space in downtown Manhattan - to promote Thai food, restaurants and products overseas. For instance, Thai Select - a Thai version of the Michelin star ratings - has been awarded to over 200 restaurants overseas in the past three years. Ratings were given without proper criteria and standards of evaluation. The selection was done by Thai embassy officials or people assigned from Bangkok. Restaurants with imported Thai d?cor pieces or related materials were given the honour despite substandard dishes.
Despite the growing violence in the South, the authorities are still confident the country will be a big player in the world's multi-billion dollar halal food industry. But the worsening conflict and increased human rights violations in the southern provinces has done much to dampen this noble objective. The chance to compete with Indonesian and Malaysian halal food becomes more and more remote. Interestingly, the government today still continues to create the illusion that Thailand is moving along to becoming a halal food centre.
After years of following the growing popularity of Thai cuisine in more than two dozen countries, it could be said that despite the good taste of the national cuisine and its heavy promotion, the feel-good factors are equally pivotal. Thai cuisine has benefited from democratisation and an expanding tourism industry. The prolonged "Amazing Thailand" campaign has pushed up incoming tourist numbers to the 15 million mark. Foreign visitors, who experience Thai dishes during their stay, tend to try them again at home. The coup last year, heavy online censorship and extra-judicial killings have damaged the feel-good factors that affect the popularity of Thai cuisine.
Thailand still does not have effective systems to monitor and check the standard of cuisine either at home or overseas. With growing concerns about food safety around the world, the Thai food industry must not rest on its laurels. To ensure that Thai cuisine is of the highest standard, it is time the government contemplated a systematic evaluation of Thai food establishments. The experiences of France, Italy and Japan showed that proper monitoring of their national cuisines helped to maintain the standard of their food and its popularity overseas. Last year, Japan even discussed a plan to dispatch "sushi police" to snoop on Japanese restaurants overseas following numerous reports of so-called corrupted Japanese cuisine being served outside the country. But the plan was aborted. In Beijing, a local Japanese restaurant went so far as to serve rolls of sushi stuffed with chocolate bars. In a coffee shop in Moscow, miso latte is served. Miso, which comes from mash-fermented soybean, is used as a soup base, not as coffee flavouring. In the case of pad Thai, ketchup has been used in place of tamarind sauce. In Malaysia, tom yum increasingly tastes like laksa soup with a sourness and overuse of tomatoes.
With so much abuse inflicted on national cuisines, countries with popular dishes must help educate foreigners about the true nature of their foods, and the proper ways to prepare and enjoy them. Thai cuisine is no exception. In some Thai restaurants, local ones included, different dishes with different names can show up at the table tasting exactly the same. Of late, several local supermarkets have began selling ready-to-eat Thai dishes primarily for export markets. Local buyers believe they are buying superior quality products even though they might not taste as good as freshly prepared meals.