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Water Cooler: The surprising history of pad thai

UPDATED: Thu., May 13, 2021

Pad thai is a national dish in Thailand. After a military leader led the overthrow of the Siamese Royal Family and established a dictatorship in Thailand in 1932, the new regime issued 12 cultural mandates, including creating the national dish.  (Pixabay)
Pad thai is a national dish in Thailand. After a military leader led the overthrow of the Siamese Royal Family and established a dictatorship in Thailand in 1932, the new regime issued 12 cultural mandates, including creating the national dish. (Pixabay)

What does pad thai have in common with dictatorship? Certainly more than you would expect. Pad thai is such a popular and well-revered Thai dish that one would assume it must come from a long history of culinary tradition, with generations of Thai people growing up with it and making it their own. Nothing could be further from the surprising truth.

In the 1930s, Thailand was still called Siam, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. This was a period of transition not only for Thailand but for many Asian countries. Colonial powers had a stronghold over much of the Asian continent, with the exception of China, Japan and Siam. Siam had managed to avoid colonization, but the country certainly felt the pressure of the increasingly Westernized and globalized world as it was sandwiched between two prominent colonial territories. Burma, colonized by the British between 1885 to 1948, was at Siam’s western border and French Indochina, colonized by the French from 1887 to 1954, surrounded much of Siam’s northern and eastern borders.

At this time, the only other Asian countries that had not been formally colonized were Japan and China. To breeze over a lot of complex geopolitical history, China’s efforts to completely resist Westernization did not leave it as well off as Japan, which had embraced elements of Westernization in order to compete as a world power. Siam decided to take a note from Japan’s playbook and followed suit. The Siamese Royal Family began to employ European educators in order to provide its members with a Western education, which is the historical context behind the popular films, “The King and I” and “Anna and the King.”

These Westernization efforts went to a whole new level after the emergence of Plaek Phibunsongkhram, a Thai military leader who had been educated in Europe and found inspiration in Europe’s fascist dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He helped lead a coup d’état against the Siamese Royal Family, popularly referred to as the Siamese revolution, in 1932.

He led efforts to completely rebrand Siam, changing the country’s name to Thailand, creating a new anthem, and issuing 12 cultural mandates that essentially told Thai citizens how to live their lives from the way they dressed to the times they slept and the products they bought. One aspect of these efforts was to create a new national dish. Enter the pad thai we all know and love today.

Rice had always been a staple in Thai cuisine, but it wasn’t until this era that noodles came into the picture. Noodles had generally been considered a Chinese food, but the flat, wide rice noodle used in pad thai was invented not only as a signature ingredient for the new dish, but as a shelf-stable rice product to help protect against food insecurity caused by regular flooding. These noodles were promoted far and wide across Thailand through song, speeches and any other medium of communication.

The noodle propaganda worked, and pad thai became a popular dish across the nation, only to become further entrenched as the incoming Thai generation grew up on it.

Globally, the dish was not yet known except in areas with large Thai communities such as southern California. Then comes a strategic exercise in soft power – a Thai initiative to subsidize and standardize the popularity of Thai restaurants and pad thai across the world, called “Global Thai.” This resulted in a strong global network of Thai restaurant associations, a still-growing Thai food fad, and an exponential increase of tourism to Thailand.

Though it turns out that pad thai was something of a geopolitical ploy, but that doesn’t make it any less delicious.

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