Since coming to the United States from Thailand, one of the earliest things that I’ve realised is the prestige of Pad Thai in the eyes of Americans. I’ve never really cared about Pad Thai (it’s fine, I guess, but it is hardly the pinnacle of Thailand’s culinary achievement) and so I watched with amusement as friend after friend would order Pad Thai from Berkeley’s Thai restaurants. Efforts to re-direct their attention towards dishes that I feel better deserve their time are often met with reluctance; after all, “Pad Thai is so good!“
My efforts at persuasion failing, I sometimes switch to an attempt at entertainment, particularly of the type that is enjoyed by political science majors. My favourite story about Pad Thai concerns its origins. After telling this story a few times, I’ve decided that it’s something that deserves to be written up so that all can better understand how the rise in Thai fascism directly led to the birth of Americans’ favourite Thai dish.
Field Marshal Plaek Phibulsongkram, generally known in the west as Phibun, became prime minister of Thailand in 1938. One of the key members of the revolutionary People’s Party, which had imposed a constitution on Thailand’s absolute monarchy, Phibun admired Mussolini and was determined to rule as a fascist dictator. He instituted a cult of personality around himself, calling himself “The Leader” and promoting slogans such as “Trust in the leader and the country will be safe” (chuer phu num, chart pon pai). He desired the building of a strong, expansionist Thai state, the inspiration of a sense of nationalism and the westernisation of the country, bringing the nation into the modern era.
One way in which he aimed to accomplish his objectives was the transformation of Thai culture via dictatorial decree. In a series of edicts known as the Thai cultural mandates (rathaniyom), Phibun began attempting to shape the everyday life of Thai people, such as by requiring everyone to wear a hat in public, banning toplessness, and advising people to sleep at least 6-8 hours every night. Where many of his cultural mandates did not withstand the test of time, however, his gastronomical policies certainly did.
Legend has it that during a great flood in Bangkok, the prime minister, hungry and irritated, was stranded and unable to go anywhere. An enterprising noodle-seller rowed his boat to him and offered the prime minister a bowl of noodles, after which Phibun realised that noodles were a solution to Thailand’s woes. He declared, in a speech, his desire for everyone to begin eating noodles:
I want everyone to eat noodles. Noodles are healthy, and have a variety of tastes, from sour to salty to sweet. Noodles can be made in Thailand, are convenient to make, and have excellent taste. If every Thai person ate a bowl of noodles every day, then every day eighteen million bowls of noodles will be consumed, equal to ninety million satang or nine hundred thousand baht. That’s a lot of money cycling through the economy, which will then go to farmers and fishermen.
A song was even written in support of this campaign:
Noodles, noodles, noodles
Thai vegetables, our wealth in the ground, you can find it anywhere
Keep buying and selling, as Thai people always help each other
Can I try some? I’d like some dry noodles
Noodles, give me some, how about some wet?
Thai noodles, so clean, delicious and beautiful
Come try, and you’ll love it
Thais help Thais, and Thailand will develop, with ratthaniyom!
It was clear that Phibun had multiple objectives. Firstly, he was concerned with the nation’s productivity; noodles, he felt, were nutritious, and would make the population healthier and thus more productive. Secondly, whereas traditionally Thais were mostly subsistence farmers, buying more noodles, which combined meat, wheat and vegetables, would lead to greater demand and lead Thailand out of its economic depression. Another of Phibun’s slogans was “Thailand creates, Thailand uses, Thailand develops” (Thai tum, Thai chai, Thai jaroen).
Phibun had an issue, however. Noodles are a Chinese dish, but the prime minister himself was fiercely nationalist. How could he re-invent noodles into something that could exemplify Thai-ness? The solution was to give noodles a distinctively Thai twist. Instead of using Chinese-style noodles, jantaboon style Thai noodles would be used. Pork was viewed as a Chinese ingredient; shrimp would be the substitute. Tamarind, palm sugar and chilies were all Thai condiments that helped Thai-fy the dish. And finally, in order to reinforce that this new dish was Thai, not Chinese, it was named Pad Thai.
It’s unclear how Pad Thai really came to be. Some say that Phibun ordered a cooking competition to invent a new noodle dish that could replace Chinese noodles, with the winner being Pad Thai. Nitya Phibulsongkram, Phibun’s son, noted that Pad Thai was actually served in the Phibulsongkram household before it was popularised by the Thai government.
In any case, Pad Thai was a resounding success. Recipes were distributed and vendors were encouraged to use wheeled noodle carts to increase convenience and promote sanitary conditions (through the use of steaming hot pans). Pad Thai became the national dish of Phibun-era Thailand.
Modern Thailand is no longer run by Phibun, a Mussolini-inspired dictator who was bent on transforming the nation’s culture by decree. Its cuisine, predictably, has flourished, with Pad Thai relegated to merely one dish out of many competing for the attention of the Thai people. Americans and Thais who hear this story are all surprised, nonetheless, that Pad Thai should have such a remarkably dictatorial origin. It also represents, to an extent, the success of Phibun’s nation-building program. Who knew nationalism could be so tasty?
If you’d like to read more about Phibun and his role in the development of Thai democracy, please see ‘The Story of Thai Democracy‘, a series of articles on Thailand’s political history since the 1932 revolution.