Thai Food in a Global Market

Stir fried pak boong and shrimp, with some mushrooms. Aroy Maak! (Very delicious Thai food!)

[Page updated 23 September 2023]

Thai Food Globally!

Though most people believe in the uniqueness of traditional Thai cooking, and in the idea of authentic Thai cuisine, in reality, Thai food is the product of the interaction between nations for centuries. What is widely regarded as Thai food is a combination of foods and influences of German, Chinese, Laos, Cambodian, and Burmese culinary traditions.

In the 15th century, Khmer (Cambodian) cooks gave curries and boiled red and white sweets which originated in India to the King’s court in Ayuddhya, then the capital of Thailand.

My field research reveals that Thai restaurants in a North American city highlight the authenticity of the Thai taste while at the same time adapting to local food customs.

Fish sauce, an ingredient in nearly every Thai food dish originated in China. Believe it or not, Chilies which also play a major role in Thai cuisine were introduced not by the Indians or Chinese, but by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

The combination of chilis, fish sauce, galangal (an aromatic root), and lime gives Thai dishes their distinctive flavor today. These are the major ingredients for adding flavor to Thai foods.

The Rising Popularity of Thai Food Globally

Before the 1960s Thai food was not widely made outside Thailand’s borders. The change occurred when a large number of foreigners came to Thailand during the Vietnam War and were first exposed to Thai food and culture.

Baked fish in lemongrass and lemon, basil herbs. Awesome Thai food!

Small Thai restaurants began opening up in London, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles to accommodate the local Thai immigrants who needed their daily dose of heavenly Thai food.

In the decade of the 1970s, there were just four Thai restaurants open in London, England. By 2005 London hosts over 300 Thai restaurants!

Likewise, in the USA the Thai food restaurant industry exploded over a very short period of time. By the early 1990s, there were more than 200 Thai restaurants in just Los Angeles, California alone!

Taking into account that Thai food has only recently expanded across the globe it has enjoyed a very high popularity trans-nationally. The Kellogg School of Management and Sasin Institute developed a survey to test the popularity of international foods across nations. Thai food ranked #6.

International Food Popularity

Question: What is your favorite cuisine?

  • Italian
  • French
  • Japanese
  • Chinese
  • Indian
  • Thai

In the year 2003, there were 6,875 Thai restaurants outside of Thailand. About half were in the USA and Canada. Thai food attracts a Western audience in part because it is perceived as a healthy, low-fat alternative to the indigenous foods of that nation.

Though most Thai food restaurants internationally may have started to accommodate Thais missing their home country’s meals, it appears now that most customers are non-Thai. The Westerners of Europe and North America have embraced Thai food and consume it on a regular basis

Thai Cuisine Changes to Accommodate Foreign Tastes, Preferences

Thai food changes as it goes into transnational space. Most cities in the USA have a 0-1% Thai populace. Many Thais in America eat at home in the interest of saving money and just because they know how to make Thai food themselves.

Spending large amounts of money to eat at the usually more expensive Thai restaurants is something that isn’t done often in most Thai households in the USA unless of course, they own a Thai restaurant.

Although Thai restaurants in the USA emphasize authentic Thai tastes, for the most part, they adapt to the dining customs. For instance, in higher-end Thai restaurants, you might see the staff following Western style in that they serve the meal in courses.

Dinner starts with an appetizer like a soup or salad. Dinner is followed by the main dishes which might be brought out at different times. In Thailand, the usual way is that all food is brought out at once. The entire table is covered with food and you eat as you wish, in any order.

Soup and salad might be eaten with rice and considered as a main dish. A typical Thai meal might consist of two or three dishes of soup or curry and some stir-fried dishes with rice.

Thai restaurants in the USA need to be careful in serving spicy food. The American diet does not usually have anything spicy in the meal. A piece of red bell pepper or a strong red onion might be all the spice Americans are accustomed to!

Thai restaurants usually serve their food according to a spicy scale, and they knock that down a couple of levels to make sure they are not serving it too spicy. If you order your Thai food ped-ped, very spicy, in Thailand in Bangkok you might be able to eat it.

However, if you order it ped-ped in Isaan (Northeast Thailand) you will likely stop before finishing your meal because the number of chilies they use in the meal is staggering! I have eaten som tam with a big handful of large chilies in Isaan and thought I would pass out from the heat!

Thai restaurants serve the most popular Thai foods as a rule. It just makes sense to serve those Thai foods that customers are going to order and enjoy the most.

Top 10 Most Popular Thai Foods Among Foreigners

1. Pad Thai

2. Roast Duck Curry

3. Tom Kha Gai

4. Moo Satay – Barbeque pork with curry.

5. Tom Yum Goong (Tom Yam Kung) – Spicy and sour shrimp & vegetable soup.

6. Cashew Nut Chicken

7. Chicken & Green Curry (Gang Kiow Wan Gai)

8. Kang Panang – Penang curry

9. Pad Krapow (Grapow, Gapow) – Stir fried basil & Egg

10. Tod Mun – Fried fish cakes

11. Yum Nua – Beef salad

12. Gai Haw Bai Teuy

13. Gai Yang – Barbecued chicken

14. Som Tam – Spicy & sour unripened papaya salad.

These Thai food dishes are on almost every overseas menu, so if you are wondering what to order – just become familiar with these dishes and you will have fourteen of the best Thai foods that most people like to eat.

Some Thai restaurants have invented new variations of the original Thai foods seen above. Sometimes you’ll see Tom Yum Pak (vegetable tom yum). This is unheard of in Thailand as all tom yum soup there has the main staples like squid, shrimp, chicken, or pork. There is no such thing as spicy soup with just vegetables. Americans like it though, as many are vegetarian customers.

Similarly, some restaurants serve vegetarian spring rolls. In Thailand spring rolls always contain ground pork. Some restaurants even go so far as to suggest that all meat dishes can be substituted with Tofu or vegetables.

Substitutions are common and sometimes necessary due to the availability of authentic Thai ingredients like Kra Pao  which is Thai Basil, the North American basil is substituted, but not authentic.

Something people should realize when eating food at Thai restaurants outside of Thailand is that many things may have been substituted during the creation of their Thai food dish. Thai-owned restaurants come closest to authentic Thai cuisine, but they too have to Americanize the food a bit to get Americans to eat it. Same in Europe and Australia.

The authentic Thai dish of laab, originating in Isaan has pork skin pieces all through it. Rarely will you find that in restaurants overseas because it is not something Americans would find to be a pleasant texture. There may be a substitution of ingredients for the pork skin or it may be left out completely.

One of the biggest challenges to the national image Thailand has overseas in Thai food restaurants is non-Thai-owned restaurants that proclaim to be authentic Thai food.

When visitors to these restaurants eat at a true Thai food restaurant they don’t understand why the food is so different. They are disappointed because the dishes they enjoy at the restaurants taste quite different.

Standardization of Thai food spellings and ingredients is something aspired to, but something that, of course, can never come about as a whole.

The Thai government encourages Thai restaurant owners overseas to use standard spellings to make it easier for foreigners to understand what they are eating and enable them to order the same thing at different Thai restaurants, but I have yet to see two menus that look anything alike.

Here in Thailand, there are attempts at English menus which are all unique and sometimes impossible to decipher. If one doesn’t speak Thai here, getting the right meal can be difficult, to say the least!

3 thoughts on “Thai Food in a Global Market”

  1. It has been a while since I’ve been home. Btw, Joy, you’re reminding me a lot of things. Well, the recipe I miss the most is steamed fish–lemony taste. I don’t know that you’ve those recipes. One more thing, Girl, your site is really informative.

    Keep up the good work,

    • Hi Yulee,

      Thank you for the compliment. I want to start blogging here again in the next few days/weeks. I’ll start doing some videos and recipes of Thai food I make her for our meals. Where are you now? Are you Thai? 🙂 Joy

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