A Secret History of Thai Food in Southern California

By now, any true Southern Californian eats Thai food as part of their regular diet, whether at Thai Nakorn, Bangkok Taste, Siam Taste of Asia, or any of the dozens of Thai restaurants in OC and the hundreds in Southern California. But ever wonder how we became the beneficiary of so much great food, or how local  Thais cooked their food in the days before easy imports made bringing in necessary ingredients nigh-impossible? All of those answers–and much, much more–can be found in a fascinating article in the spring issue of Radical History Review. Authored by USC doctoral candidate Tanachai Mark Padoongpatt, “Too Hot to Handle Food, Empire, and Race in Thai Los Angeles” is the first-ever comprehensive history of Thai food in the United States.

You'll need a subscription to the Radical History Review, unfortunately, to read the piece and it's a damn shame because there are many great anecdotes about the early days of Thai food in Southern California. For instance, Padoongpatt discovered that in the 1960s and 1970s, when importing citrus from Asia was still illegal, Thais discovered that the University of California, Riverside, had in its legendary citrus variety collection a makrut–a Kaffir lime tree whose leaves are one of the backbone of Thai cuisine. “To get Kaffir- lime leaves, Thais drove in small groups to Riverside and picked an abundance of bai makrut and also gathered lemon grass shoots,” Padoongpatt wrote. “As soon as they returned home, they froze the leaves in plastic bags to preserve them for later use in making nahm prik pao, or chili paste–an indispensable ingredient for Thai dishes such as Tom Yum soup.”

That anecdote was shared by celebrity chef Jet Tila, whose father Pramorte opened the first-ever Thai market in the United States back in 1971. There are many other such great stories in the paper (including a Balboa Bay Club cameo), which is an easy read once you get past the academic gobbledegook that pseudo-Marxist academics like myself lap up like so much coconut soup (“Restaurant encounters were significant in that they were unequal, racialized encounters based on service and perhaps one of the few physical spaces where Thai bodies interacted with whites and whites with people of color in general” is a typical sentence, which I get and love but unfortunately will put most foodies, God bless their apolitical souls, to sleep). Congrats to Padoongpatt for the great, necessary history, and put the paper up on Scribd, already!

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