Fifty percent of Thai restaurants are in the US and Canada

Thai cuisine has been winning plaudits from gourmets around the globe for decades, but the foreign country where Thai food is most popular is none other than the United States with over 50 percent of Thai restaurants overseas located in the U.S. and Canada, according to a report by the Bangkok Post newspaper.

There are some 20,000 Thai restaurants overseas, an impressive increase from the 6,875 recorded in 2003. Even then, about half were in the United States and Canada. “The rising popularity of Thai food at the global level boosts national pride among Thais who often take national image seriously,’’ wrote Sirijit Sunanta in a paper entitled The Globalization of Thai Cuisine for the University of British Columbia in Canada.

The popularity of Thai food and the steady expansion of Thai restaurants in North America reflect Thai talent and creativity in the realm of cuisine, while also supporting Thailand’s strength as a food producer and exporter. The Kingdom is the only net food exporter in Asia and its distinctive jasmine fragrant rice is considered among the finest strains of the grain in the world.

“It’s a golden age for Thai food. Restaurants serving good Thai food, as they do now, didn’t exist two decades ago because there wasn’t the community to support it, besides our own community,” James Syhabout, a Thailand-born restaurant owner in San Francisco, told the New York Times recently.

Estimates are that there are over 300,000 Thais living and working in the United States. The sheer volume of Thai restaurants in the U.S., and the relentless pursuit of new tastes by American diners, has created opportunities for some restaurants to branch out into regional Thai dishes and styles of cooking, such as Isan cuisine, in order to grab a distinctive niche in the market.

“Eight years ago all restaurants were serving central Thai food,” said Supanee ‘Nui’ Kitmahawong, owner of Michelin-starred Somtum Der in New York City.

The relative uniformity in what was being served frustrated Nui. To Thai tongues, many of the dishes had been watered down in order to please Western palettes, with hot spices muted and sweetness added. She believed American diners would be receptive to the authentic and sometimes fiery flavors of regional Thai cuisines such as the Isan dishes her restaurants serves.

Mark Padoongpatt, an assistant professor in Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Las Vegas in Nevada, and author of the book Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America,said that the new range of regional Thai cuisines found in the United States has pushed Americans “towards an understanding of the richness and diversity of Thai cuisine, talent and identity.”