I usually try to make time to read Suthon Sukphisit’s column at the weekend and, this time around, he discussed various types of freshwater fish and how they are customarily prepared. Khun Suthon seems to believe that the traditional way of preparing Thai food is the best and any variation from the time-honoured pattern is a mistake. It reminds me of the first real experience I had of East Asia when I was living in Korea – restaurants (same as in Japan) very often provide plastic models of what dishes will look like in the window. What struck me most is that a particular dish was prepared in exactly the same way all across the country – a dish of cold noodles, for example, always (always!) had half a boiled egg, four pieces of cooked pork and the same for the different vegetables. People had there and so too does Khun Suthon a platonic ideal of the perfect dish to which all dishes should aspire. This is good for perfectionists perhaps but not so good for innovation and a little strange to those of us from the west where change and variation is generally considered a good thing.
(My daughter pursues her own variation of this: the first time that she has a new dish which she enjoys, then that version of the dish becomes her platonic ideal and only when it is exactly repeated will she be able to enjoy later versions.)
Yet it seems to me that this vision of the ideal dish is in itself flawed, considering not just how tastes change but how the availability of ingredients changes. It is a commonplace to observe that the chili pepper was only brought to Asia after its discovery in the New World and that many Thai desserts have a Portuguese origin, for example. It is also inconsistent with the various Royal Projects which seek to promote new types of production and of food types (e.g. the introduction of the tabtim fish).
The example may appear trivial but when it is raised to a more emotive and societal level (e.g. the calls for ‘unity’), it might be advisable to remember that the platonic ideal evoked is not likely to be as authentic as it might be supposed.