Authentic is a word that gets thrown around a lot when discussing Thai food. I had been given the advice that the most authentic places to eat were on the streets in Thailand. I heeded that, and it's true that you can find every Thai dish imaginable on a roadside or in an alley somewhere in the country. It is often really tasty. But has anyone else noticed how much MSG some of those cute old women scoop into their soups?
I'm not really qualified to say that MSG is a bad thing from a scientific standpoint, but it is a chemical compound that was put together in a lab. It was synthesized for food use in the early 1900s. Thai food goes back thousands of years. It's really hard for me to call food that relies heavily on such relatively new technology authentic.
Tourist trap-type restaurants and overpriced, dubiously flavored organic restaurants loudly advertise that they don’t use MSG. But, no one visits Thailand to eat bad hamburgers and bland alfalfa sprout salads.
My hunt for authentic Thai cuisine led me to Nahm in Bangkok. The menu is packed with dishes I had tried in various locales in Thailand. I won't recount the details of the chef's background story, or all of the international acclaim the restaurant and its chefs have garnered. I will just say that Nahm was rated the 22nd best restaurant in the world, 2015.
Rather than simply dining there, I thought spending some time in the kitchen would give me greater insight into the cuisine. An arrangement like this is pretty common in the culinary field; chefs reach out to restaurants that they are interested in for a trail or "stage" (rhymes with raj; short for the French word stagiaire), similar to an internship, in hopes that they will be invited in. It's a way to learn and share ideas and techniques. The top restaurants in the world naturally have a long waiting list.
When I emailed Nahm's information account, it was a shot in the dark. To my surprise, I got a very quick response! After an unprecedentedly easy email correspondence with Executive Chef Chris Miller, I was set up with a five-day observation trail in the Nahm kitchen.
Walking into a foreign kitchen can be daunting. The seemingly chaotic action of a working restaurant is anything but disarray. Each movement is a carefully choreographed step. The kink in the works that a stranger can represent is often an annoyance. If I was a bother, it wasn't apparent. I immediately felt welcome.
"Come here and taste this." Chef Prin Polsuk, the Chef de Cuisine called to me, standing over a hot pot of seasonal mushroom soup he was working on. As we tasted together he explained the ingredients and the techniques involved. The mushrooms in English are "termite" mushrooms, only available just before the rainy season in Thailand. He was preserving as many of the rare mushrooms as possible before they disappeared for another year.
This open sharing was typical of my time there. The chefs were very forthcoming and proud of their techniques, recipes and ingredients. Line cooks would pull me aside to show me what they were working on — which seemed to me a very unusual behavior. In my experience, cooks are often too overworked and stressed out to take extra time to teach in a meaningful way.
Chef Prin explained to me, "...chefs in other cultures keep their secrets close. They don't want anyone to copy them. Thai chefs share so that future generations will be able to continue the traditions."
In the Thai language, all sentences are finished with an honorific, usually either krap (men) or khaa (ladies). It shows respect to the person who is being addressed and is used whether speaking to the king or to a rice vendor. In the same fashion, everyone in the kitchen at Nahm refers to each other as chef, a term usually reserved only for the cooks at the top of the kitchen hierarchy. The atmosphere in the kitchen reflects the general tone of Thai society in that way. What I observed was a mutual respect that translated into greater respect for their food and craft.
The flavor of MSG has a place in Thai culinary tradition. MSG on its own has a flavor not unlike salty roasted meat, or a rich chicken broth. For short, we call the flavor umami (related to the Japanese word for tasty). Umami is the bass line that the high notes of citrus and the sharp twangs of chile riff off of. But while the flavor of MSG is essential, the ingredient itself is not.
MSG was created by Japanese scientist Ikeda Kikunae. He wanted to figure out what made dashi, a broth made from bonito (flakes of dried skipjack tuna) and kelp, was so delicious. He found that when certain proteins bonded with sodium, they created a compound that contained the depth of flavor that he relished. So he set about isolating the chemical compound and eventually synthesized MSG. It was hailed as an amazing invention. Suddenly, it was cheap and easy for any cook to make tasty food. As its use increased, the use of the traditional kelp and bonito decreased.
What the use of MSG for umami leaves behind are the other properties that umami-rich ingredients offer. Thai cooks use preserved seafood and rich meat broths to create depth of flavor. The meat broth offers umami, but also mouth feel. After long cooking, the collagen in the bones dissolves into the broth, adding a slight viscosity. When cooks choose to use more MSG and less pork bones in their soup, the result is a somewhat tasty broth, with the texture of bath water. Traditional fish sauce, preserved shrimp paste and other preserved seafood products are very rich in calcium and protein. Skimping on those items and opting for MSG leaves food devoid of briny ocean flavor, as well as important nutrients.
Nahm does not skimp on the umami-rich ingredients. Dried prawn powder adorns salads. House-cured fish is roasted to a crisp and crushed into sauces. Fish sauce replaces salt for seasoning. Where authenticity in flavor is concerned, MSG powder has no place in food. Restaurants that use it are cheating diners of the real thing.
In the course of my time at Nahm, I tasted every dish, every sauce and condiment, almost every ingredient. It occurred to me that the food was really spicy, not the watered-down piquant that many Thai cooks offer to foreigners. For me, it was a delight, but Nahm is located in a hotel and very much caters to tourists, often from countries where spicy is not the norm. I asked Chef Chris about it. "Too spicy, too salty,” he said of complaints he got from guests. Days later, while Paige and I dined at Nahm, a guest berated the manager for how spicy the food was. He took it in stride — all in a day's work for him.
Still, they stay confident in their flavors and true to their cooking. It isn't arrogance, or not caring what the guest wants. It's honesty. This is Thai food, at its best, like it, love it or hate it. Servers do ask diners what their tolerance for heat is, however.
I did learn something about authenticity. It isn't a venue. It's not whether you eat with chopsticks, a fork or your hands. It's not necessarily the specific ingredients or techniques. Just because the locals are eating it doesn't make it the genuine article. It has nothing to do with the race, religion or creed of the cook.
Authenticity is a mindset. When cooks have a pure vision of their food, when they are proud of it, when they can feel it in their bones, authenticity is achieved.