Thai Cuisine

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  • Topic: Thailand, Thai cuisine, Isan
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  • Published : December 9, 2012
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1. What is Thai Cuisine? An Introduction
There is a degree of ambiguity attached to the understanding of Thai cuisine. Having lived half of my life outside of Thailand, it seems that food became Thai only in foreign settings, whereas Thai food in Thailand is rarely identified in such fashion. There must be, to borrow Roland Barthes’ terminology, ‘a system of communication’,1 and an established body of knowledge that enables Thais and foreigners alike to identify what food is and is not Thai. The making of this body of knowledge and its system of communication shall be explored in this thesis. In the popular understanding and representation, ‘Thai’ cuisine today can be divided into seven subsidiary variations. Six of these are distinguishable regional variations: Northern or Lanna, North-eastern or Isan, Eastern, Southern, Central Plain, and Bangkok. The seventh variation is the royal cuisine. A singular ‘Thai’ cuisine, as marketed throughout the world today, represents an encompassing culinary landscape that includes dishes from all of these subsidiary culinary cultures. The problem is not unlike the perception of an ‘Indian’ cuisine discussed by Arjun Appadurai, who argues that a singular ‘Indian’ cuisine materialized, and continues to do so, through the representation and articulation of varieties of culinary forms, a cultural process influenced by what he calls ‘the seductiveness of variety’.2 The invention of an ‘Indian’ cuisine, as argued by Appadurai, belongs to the larger cultural process of constructing a complex national public culture, spearheaded by the

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Roland Barthes, ‘Towards a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption’, in Food and Drink in History: Selections from the Annales, Economies, Sociétés, Civilisations, Vol. 5, edited by Robert Forster and Orest Ranum, Baltimore: Johns Hopkis University Press, 1979, p.168. 2

Arjun Appadurai, ‘How to Make a National Cuisine: Cookbooks in Contemporary India’, Comparative Studies of Society and History, 30:1 (1988), p.10.

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urban middle class in accordance to the spirit of nationalism, and also fueled by the new socio-economic dynamic of the post-colonial era.3
In the case of ‘Thai’ cuisine, the formulation of the culinary form came about in a landscape dominated by the culture of the Central Thais, and led by their aristocratic elites.4 Two factors played an important part in this formulation: first, the social dynamic of Thai settlement; and secondly, the emergence of Bangkok as the political and cultural center of Siam following the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. But before proceeding, scholarly approaches in understanding cuisine need to be explored.

1.1 Anthropological Approaches to Food
Food scholars have evaded the ambiguity of ‘cuisine’ by concentrating on the larger process of food production, often referred to as the ‘food system’. This system consists of ‘complex interdependent interrelationships associated with the production and distribution of food’ that can be divided into five different phases: growing or farming, distribution and storing of ingredients, cooking or preparing, eating and consumption, and disposing of leftovers.5

This concept of the ‘food system’ is

utilized by scholars from a variety of academic fields, but its initial usage was mainly by anthropologists. The cultural meaning of ‘cuisine’ is dealt with by two different anthropological approaches: the first concentrates on the cultural meanings of food from its preparation and production, while the second focuses on its consumption and consumer’s demand.

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Ibid.
Maurizio Peleggi, Thailand: The Worldly Kingdom, London: Reaktion Books, 2007, p.47. 5
Alan Beardsworth and Teresa Keil, Sociology on the Menu: An Invitation to the Study of Food and Society, London: Routledge, 1997, p.32-33.
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The first approach, inspired largely by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Mary Douglas, reduces the process of food production, preparation, and presentation to a system...
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