Comfort Food with a Foreign Accent


Photo by Jarrett Wrisley

To try the dish described in this post, click here for a spaghetti with Thai anchovy recipe.

"Same-Same, But Different."

If you've visited Thailand, you've heard this expression before, probably chirped through a wide smile. Like bowls of sour tum yum soup and baggy fisherman pants, these four words seem to delight tourists. The Thai people know this.

"Same, same, but different" usually means, "Yes, that is what you'd thought it was, but then again it's not." I've heard "SSBD" used to describe Thai sausage, Thai transgenders, Thai democracy, Thai funerals, and my flip-flops (The latter when I mistakenly wandered off with someone else's shoes, during a bygone era when this country appeared to manufacture only one type of blue and white sandal.)

"Same-same, but different" is a particularly revealing phrase, and not just because of its exacting cuteness and convenient vagary. The Thais are open-minded sort of people in a very special location, sandwiched between two great, ancient civilizations (China and India).

Thai traditional culture borrows from both, but remains singular. And it doesn't stop there. Today's Bangkok is a subcultural sponge--soaking up art, music, fashion and food from America, Korea, Italy and Japan. But when you wring old Bangkok out, its contents are distinctly Thai.

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Eating here, one is constantly reminded of how Thailand has adopted other cooking styles. Particularly on the street. Thai street cuisine has been shaped by external forces--from the braised pork shank that is reminiscent of sweet and fatty coastal China, to the tumeric-laced biryani that very well might be sold beside it, and looks across the Bay of Bengal for inspiration. But in both dishes, Thai flavors dominate--in sauces with citrus, coriander, fish sauce, sugar and spice that are poured over the rice.

The Chinese and Indians may have had the greatest impact on Thai cooking, but there are faster forces at work. And when something--say, spaghetti--enters Bangkok's pop-culture lexicon (Paw-staah!) it is speedily transformed. Here, paw-staah remains something distinctly foreign, but with a certain Thai sensibility. Same-same, but different...

One example is this is a dish of spaghetti served with Thai anchovies and herbs. It isn't all that different from a feisty puttanesca, a dish with a lascivious mythology that certainly isn't alien to Bangkok. A great version is served at Bangkok's Greyhound Café, a restaurant chain owned by clothing designers that is equal measures style and substance. But there is a small shophouse in my neighborhood that cooks the very same thing, and countless iterations of fried spaghetti with seafood with Thai herbs exist here.

It's a relatively recent fusion, and one that works extremely well. Pre-cooked pasta is stir-fried with anchovy, garlic and chili, and then finished with Thai basil, and maybe some parmesan, for a salty, pungent spaghetti that tastes like a trip to Naples with a layover in Bangkok.

Recipe: Spaghetti With Thai Anchovy