April 8, 2007

Spicy Thai

This is actually a re-post from my entry at Thai-Blogs.com. After I think about it a while, I guess it's qualified for Hmm...Food...Good as well. It is partly food review and partly cultural lesson of Thai food.

So, here you go.

Oh look. Spicy ThaiS!

Get it? The chips...and me...spicy...Thais...?

*sigh* Okay. I'll keep my day job.

This is going to start out sounding like a food review, but bare with me as you have always done here. You KNOW there's a cultural lesson to be learned from this offbeat piece somewhere.

Read on. You know you want to. :)

Anyways. Kettle Chips came out with the "Spicy Thai" potato chips. Obviously, that caught my eyes.

First thought that came to mind was that, "Oh great. There goes another peanut sauce flavored something something." So, exasperatedly I picked up the bag to look at the ingredients. To my surprise, it actually isn't peanut anything.

[Potatoes and other ingredients]...honey powder (evaporated cane syrup, honey), salt, garlic powder, jalapeƱo pepper, ground ginger, onion powder, habanero pepper, dried parsley, cilantro extract, ginger oil, cayenne pepper, white pepper, lime oil.

That's very Thai. Look at that! Ginger. Onion. Cilantro. Lime! Even some honey flavoring to get the sweet in there. They tried very hard to go for that traditional well rounded flavors of Thai food of sweet, savory and spicy all at the same time.

Well, their little description explains it:

As true chip innovators, we love a challenge. So when a fan suggested that we take Thai cuisine's complex balance of flavors - sweetness, spice and salt - and balance it on a chip, we reached for our passports. We've incorporated the refreshing sweetness and snap of ginger and the red peppery pop of Thai spice to create a collision of East and West in the crunch of the world's most worldly chip. Have Kettle(TM) brand - will travel. No passport required.

Fine. I thought I'd go along with this. I bought a bag and tried a few chips.

The thing is, personally, that combination of east and west doesn't quite work for this Thai native.

First of all, the sweet and savory "Western potatoes" just doesn't fly with me.

"Western potatoes". That's right. I'm referring to Solanum tuberosum, the potatoes YOU know.

Potatoes is called Mann Farang in Thai which literally means, yep, Westerner's potatoes. The word "Mann" seems to categorize all starchy root vegetables. The only time I see Mann Farang in anything it's always been in western and Indian dishes. I don't recall anything Thai that uses Mann Farang.

With that experience, potatoes = savory/salty or curry flavor to me. Okay, I've incorporated the potatoes = spicy as well.

Now, the "potatoes" that are more common to Thais are really not potatoes.

They're Mann Sampalang in Thai and known the world in many different names but most commonly as Cassava. Cassava is a root vegetable native to South America that later assimilated by the Portuguese and Spanish. With those world travelers, this crop root made its way to the tropical Asia and Africa.

The flour cultivated from these roots is called tapioca flour or tapioca starch. It is made into something you'd recognize such as, of course, tapioca, and let's not forget an essentially Asian delicacy that is boba AKA "pearls" or "bubbles" in the pearl/bubble tea. Paeng Mann, tapioca flour, is used to make many other Thai dishes and it is the main source as thickening agent. (In Western cooking, they look to regular flour or cornstarch.)

As a full root itself for Thais it cooks up as desserts most of the time. You've seen them with the dessert vendors, yellowish sticky "potatoes" in syrup. Sometimes served in small cubes with ice and coconut cream. Sometimes served atop the coconut ice cream on the buns. Sometimes served hot in with chunks, again, topped with coconut cream.

As you can see. The sweet + potato to me triggers the memory of Cassava roots slow cooked in syrupy goodness, first thing. But then the salt AND spicy hit my tongue, I'm starting to think Western potatoes...but why is it sweet?

My palettes and my brain were very much confused. And not in a good way. Needless to say, I didn't finish the bag.

And it seems folks don't really like that sweet in their potato chips either as that bag of chips got passed around the office a few times and more than half of it ended up in the trash can.

Fusion food, if I dare call the chips that, is the blending of cultures. Certain things work well and certain things don't. Certain things leave the natives with a bad taste in their mouths, and certain things work out so well you just can't get enough of.

Hmm. Gee. That sounds a lot like bi-cultural folks like myself. Just one more thing that Spicy Thai chips and me have in common, huh? :)

ETA: If this Spicy Thai wasn't quite "Thai" enough as potato chips, and peanut sauce flavor is just too darn stereotypical, do share with us what kind of spices or flavor YOU would put in your Thai potato chips!

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