Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pad thai was invented by the decree of a dictator

The year was 1938. Six years earlier, Phibunsongkhram, better known as Phibun in Western historical accounts, had played a prominent role as a military officer in a coup that stripped Thailand’s monarchy of its absolute powers. A year later, he became the equivalent of the Minister of Defense after crushing a rebellion launched by royalists, and in 1938, he became prime minister. ...

Worried about his country’s independence, disintegration, and, most of all, support for his rule, Phibun decided to transform the country’s culture and identity. ...

As part of his campaign, Phibun ordered the creation of a new national dish: pad Thai. ...

The exact origins of pad Thai remain contested. According to some accounts, Phibun announced a competition to create a new, national dish. Phibun’s son, however, told Gastronomica that his family cooked the dish before Phibun made it government policy, although he does not remember who invented it. ...

By releasing a pad Thai recipe and promoting it, Phibun turned one potential take on stir-fried noodles into a national dish. He believed that pad Thai would improve the diet of people who ate mostly rice, and that cooking pad Thai in clean pans would improve national hygiene.

Most of all, Phibun wanted to unify the country by promoting a uniquely Thai dish. ...

Within several years, vendors selling pad Thai filled Thailand’s streets. Phibun’s son called it “Thailand’s first fast food.” ...

The Public Welfare Department distributed recipes and a great number of carts for selling pad Thai, while Phibun banned Chinese and other foreign food vendors as part of his “Buy Thai” campaign. Propagandists launched a campaign with the slogan “Noodle is your lunch.” ...

As for food, history is full of examples of seemingly quintessential dishes with short histories. When we think of Italian food, we think of pizza and spaghetti. Yet tomatoes are not native to Italy and only reached Europe after conquistadors brought them back from South America.

No food is more Irish than potatoes. Except that when potatoes first reached Britain, people thought that they, like all roots, were only fit for animals. “The poor of Europe,” Rachel Laudan, author of Cuisine and Empire, has said, “had to be bludgeoned into adopting the potato in the 17th and 18th century.”

“How long does it take to create a cuisine?” writes Laudan. “Not long: less than fifty years, judging by past experience.”
--Alex Mayyasi, Priceonomics, on manufactured culinary identity. HT: Marginal Revolution