July 25, 2011
Monday postscript: Thai food, street food and what we're missing

IMG_1770.jpg"It's all about the food. Even a fleeting visit to Thailand can leave you no doubt of this. Walking down the street - almost any street in Thailand - you can only be struck by the variety of stalls (sometimes literally) and amazed at the variety of food. Thais are obsessed by food, talking and thinking about it, then ordering and eating it. Markets brim with produce and snacks. Streets often seem more like busy restaurant corridors than major thoroughfares for traffic."

So begins the beautiful and inspiring coffee table-sized book, "Thai Street Food: Authentic Recipes, Vibrant Traditions," by David Thompson.

This book not only offers 371 pages of vivid photographs of meals and inspiring stories about the daily Thai quest for a great meal, it offers a blueprint, perhaps, of what is missing with regard to Thai cuisine in the Sacramento area. As I noted in my review Sunday of the impressive and consistent cooking at Thai Cottage, we rarely seem to encounter Thai restaurants offering a menu that reflects the amazing regional variety of food in Thailand. Obsession with food? It doesn't really translate to what we see in America.

Reading "Thai Street Food" has me pining away for a new kind of Sacramento, one that is alive with foot and bike traffic, with folks seeking out a spontaneous food experience the way they often do in Thailand. Food carts or stalls could be one answer to the homogeneous menus we see at most American Thai restaurants. These little stalls could focus on a few dishes or specialties and do them really well. They would be cheap to start up for an aspiring entrepreneur and, if they could be grouped with other similar ventures, they could become a new culinary destination.

On a modest scale, this kind of food excitement is already happening in places like Portland and Austin, Texas. Why not Sacramento? And why not go one better by creating a designated site, perhaps with some infrastructure already built out, to encourage these kinds of exciting start-ups? They would bring more life to the streets, be a tourist attraction and, for locals, a new addition to our food scene.

In the excellent book "Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels," by Heather Shouse, there is a passage about Nong's Khao Man Gai in Portland.

Shouse writes about Nong Poonsukwattana: "The process of making khao man gai the right way is intense. Nong's way is beyond intense, partly because she's intent on doing everything from prep to service in an eight by eight-foot cart, and partly because she's intent on being 'kick-ass.'"

The chef and entrepreneur followed her husband from Thailand to Portland and, after they divorced, she stayed and worked as a server at Thai restaurants. She was dismayed to see that the food served in some American Thai restaurants was not necessarily the food she remembered in her home country. In other words, many Thai people who open restaurants in the United States tend to prepare food they think Americans will like. That's the story with many ethic cuisines, especially Chinese food.

Nong only makes one dish at her little stall. That's the idea - do one thing really well and, if others do their thing, create a new food scene for Sacramento. Is it possible we can have streets, as David Thompson wrote, that seem like busy restaurant corridors? Is multi-cultural Sacramento food-obsessed enough to support such a thing?

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