The story of Thai food in the United States begins when the immigration ban on Thais, among other Asian groups, was lifted under the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, and Thai immigrants made their way to America.
It seems a reasonable assumption to make, anyway. And Mark Padoongpatt, Thai American scholar and author of Flavors of Empire, thought that would be the case when he first set out to piece together the history of the Los Angeles Thai American community he grew up in.
“I expected to tell a story about the importance of Thai food to Thai Americans—how it helped them affirm their identity, reminded them of home, and gave them a sense of community in L.A.,” Padoongpatt said. “I did not expect this to be a story about U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia. Or that America had already created a Thai food culture and context before we arrived in the States.”
The UNLV interdisciplinary studies professor and director of Asian and Asian American Studies stumbled on this truth while combing through old Los Angeles Times articles in search of what little information existed on the city’s Thai community. There he found an article on Marie Wilson, a white woman who penned Siamese Cookery, the first Thai cookbook published in America.
The book’s existence—and what its existence symbolized—expanded and transformed Padoongpatt’s research.
“Flavors of Empire became a story of how Thai food’s presence in America prior to our immigration here affected our relationship to American society,” Padoongpatt said. “When American society has viewed you through a lens of food and food culture they created, that impacts your sense of identity, your experience.”
The Truth of Thai Food in America
While Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to dodge formal U.S. colonization after World War II, it wasn’t spared the accoutrements that went along with America’s general conquests, Padoongpatt said. Thailand’s location with respect to communist China made it an ideal military base for the United States. America subsequently poured both money and military aid into the country, which in turn paved the way for the American public to visit.
Wilson's husband was one such visitor. He headed to Thailand as part of the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program, wife in tow. And when they returned, she published the recipes she’d collected abroad.
“We should question how we have certain cuisines in America and recognize that it’s not just immigrants bringing their food cultures here,” Padoongpatt said. “In this particular case, America’s global power and influence on Thailand made our food available here.”
So by the time Thai immigrants began migrating to the States, there was already a sense in the American hivemind of who these newcomers were—and that perspective was based almost entirely on Thai food.
“An underlying aspect of the Thai American experience is having to see oneself in relationship to food culture,” Padoongpatt said. “‘Thai American,’ to me, is not a cultural identity. There aren’t things that Thai American people do, like speak Thai or go to the temple. To me, Thai American identity is how society views us, and we then have to navigate that.”
That wouldn’t mean that Thai immigrants would avoid opening their own restaurants in the U.S. They did start and run their own businesses, often cooking their native dishes for Thais and Americans alike—a practice that continues to this day.
But the Thai would come to receive much the same treatment that other immigrant communities in America did, the underlying message dished out in relationship to Thai cuisine.
“‘We like your food, but we don’t want you here’ is a sentiment many minority groups have felt in America,” Padoongpatt said. “A simple thing like food ends up encompassing so many other issues: immigration, adjustment, borders, policy, prejudice. It goes back to who can belong here, and food becomes a way to mark who can be included and who should be excluded.”
The Many Meanings of Food
In Thailand, food is more than a cultural marker, Padoongpatt said. It’s a tool for economic development and tourism to benefit the country. It embodies Thai people’s regional diversity—identities that are always evolving.
For Thai Americans, he said, food can help preserve cultural practices. But it also reflects a continuing power struggle, and those dynamics play a role in defining the Thai American identity.
For American society, he said, food symbolizes larger social, political, and cultural transformations. The very fact that non-native cuisines are available here implies that certain groups have been conquered, thereby making their food available. And the consuming of the “food of the other,” like Thai food, can be seen as an act of domination reflecting America’s desire to seem cultured and cosmopolitan.
“One could argue that the eating of these cuisines makes the same statement as when a colonist would take an elephant tusk from Africa after they colonized it,” Padoongpatt said. “It doesn’t mean those colonists respected Africa. The tusk was a symbol of their conquest, and the collection of those things gave a person social and class status.”
Food allows us to shine a light on trends in contemporary American society like foodie culture and “cuisine-driven multiculturalism,” a term Padoongpatt uses to capture the misguided idea that eating the cuisine of other ethnic groups somehow makes the eater less racist or not racist at all.
“Even if you ate all the world’s cuisine, it wouldn’t solve racism in America,” he said. “Consuming isn’t going to get us out of this.”
So, what does this mean in terms of how Americans can more responsibly engage in food culture?
“It’s a messy issue,” Padoongpatt said. “There is no prescription on how to do this correctly.”
Those who want more just eating practices sometimes call for people to be more aware of the history and labor struggles associated with a particular food culture. Others think people need to show more respect for the food and the culture it comes from. Both of these approaches, Padoongpatt said, reflect good intentions but are hard to define and measure.
“My own personal approach to anticolonial, just eating is decentering myself as a consumer,” he said. “If someone brings out a plate of food that doesn’t taste good to me, I understand that there are actual people who are making this food, and my $20 isn’t more important than those people’s human dignity. To eat ‘better’ is to recognize the people making the food and the humanity in them.”