I was talking with my dad the other day, and he claimed that the four great cuisines of the world are French, Italian, Mexican, and Chinese. I could not help but wonder where Thai food fits in.
When I first came to Thailand, I was not very familiar with Thai cuisine. I had eaten at Thai restaurants, but the food served there was nothing like the food found throughout Thailand. It was too sweet, repetitive, not spicy enough, and even somewhat boring. The food in Thailand itself is spicier and more varied than I could have expected.
No matter how mundane my day is, even if I spend my time watching television and checking quotidian emails, I know my meals will be an adventure in and of themselves. I cannot go a week without spicy somtam, laap, or pak boong. And I've lived here for two years.
Everyone in Thailand is a natural gourmet. It appears to be a natural right of every Thai citizen to eat delicious and nutritious food. Flavorful Thai meals can be bought for as little as 25 baht. I find that really uplifting. No matter how horrible someone's day is, that person at least knows that he or she will be able to have several delicious meals.
There's nothing better than sitting at a roadside stall eating a freshly-cooked meal. Who cares if the restaurant is next to a dumpster in a polluted area? It tastes good, and that's all that matters.
The mixture of flavors and seasonings makes western, and even Chinese food seem bland. Not a day goes by when my taste buds are not inundated with garlic, ginger, lemongrass, and chili. Thai cuisine perfectly blends sweet, spicy, salty, and sour flavors. If Japanese cuisine proves that simple, austere meals can be truly delicious, then Thai cuisine shows us that it is possible to mix strong flavors and still create a winning combination.
I am not sure what I consider to be the world's greatest cuisines, but I know that the list cannot be complete without Thai food.
Here's a supposition of mine: the Thai love of food derives from the country's emphasis on hospitality. A large number of Thai people I've met have gone above and beyond to be gracious hosts, and nothing is more inviting to a weary traveler than a good meal.
Despite many complaints about the Thai pace of life and incompetence (I have to say I agree with the detractors on this point), Thai hospitality is second to none. Most Thai people are more than willing to prepare a good meal for their guests. They take great pride in their cuisine, as they should.
There are times when I think that Thai pride borders on chauvinism. Few Thai people can bear to hear criticism of their country, even when said criticism is valid; the national anthem is played twice a day; and foreigners are constantly asked to leave the country on online message boards if they say something Thai people do not want to hear.
I sometimes wonder why Thai people are so proud. Their infrastructure leaves something to be desired and criminal anti-defamation penalties destroy any chance at freedom of speech. But then I remember the kindness and graciousness of the Thai people, and I can see why Thailand is called "the land of smiles." I will always remember Thai generosity, and I will certainly never forget Thai food.