In Berkeley, California, one of the most popular Thai restaurants is a little place called Thai Basil. It is popular probably not because of the taste — with my admittedly picky Thai taste buds, most of the dishes are decidedly mediocre, except they do cook a glorious Pad See Ew — but because it sits at the center of bustling student-populated Southside.
Yet despite my lack of enthusiasm for their food itself, I wholeheartedly endorse the restaurant’s name. Holy basil — known in Thai as kaprao — is after all the cornerstone of Thailand’s most frequently eaten staple dish, the pad kaprao. To have this name telegraphed on what may be Berkeley’s most frequented Thai eatery is a hint at authentic roots. A reminder that they, at the very least, do get it.
But this dish, it seems, is largely ignored in the West. Favored instead is Pad Thai — a noodle dish with strangely authoritarian origins that is now widely thought of as Thailand’s national dish. Indeed, no lesser an authority than Gordon Ramsay visited Bangkok and asked celebrity chef McDang whether the most popular dish in Thailand is Pad Thai. “No!” McDang replied. “You’re crazy.”
Indeed, McDang proceeded to cook for Ramsay the real most common Thai dish. (He referred to it as the ‘Thai hamburger.’) Except he, stunningly, did it wrong. He added carrots and baby corn. When Thai restaurants in America do have kaprao on their menu, this is usually how they do it. But most Thais would howl in indignation: Pad Kaprao should be simply some meat (most usually minced pork), stir-fried with an assortment of chili and sauces and Thai basil. Definitely no other vegetables needed!
Minced pork and basil. It seems almost deceptively simple. So why is such a simple dish deserving of the accolade of Thailand’s real national dish?
For one, it is a genuine staple food. It may not be flashy, and its ingredients are not particularly expensive. But simplicity is delightful in its own way. It is a lifesaver for whenever the tedious question of “what should I have for lunch?” comes up. Many Thais can consume it several times a week; few will eat Pad Thai with anything resembling a similar frequency. Almost any general street food stall will have Pad Kaprao. You can even get it at 7-11. What did the boys from Thailand’s world-famous cave rescue ask to eat when they escaped? You guessed it — Pad Kaprao!
It also happens to be delicious. Several of my international friends in high school ended up becoming utterly hooked to Pad Kaprao. I know of few other dishes that would inspire similar devotion. Indeed, I take great joy at the pictures of kaprao that expats living in Thailand post on Twitter. (Check out this account!) Although, as previously mentioned, it most commonly comes with minced pork, kaprao can also be adjusted to cater to a variety of tastes: crispy pork (moo krob), chicken, shrimp, you name it. Topped with a crispy fried egg, Pad Kaprao is hard to beat.
Pad Kaprao, in addition, is a spicy dish. That’s not necessarily mandatory; ask for mai ped (not spicy), and the cook will usually oblige. And of course, you don’t need Mark Wiens level of spicy. But some spiciness is the hallmark of Thai cuisine, and the fact that Pad Kaprao is normally spicy makes it a great representative of Thai food.
And so I beseech those in charge of promoting Thai culture: the Pheu Thai Party is calling for Pad Thai to be a key plank of Thai soft power, but I disagree. Just because something has Thai in the name doesn’t make it the national dish. Besides, it’s already plenty famous. Pad Kaprao, on the other hand, may be easy to overlook because it is such a straightforward dish. But if there is a Thai dish worthy of greater promotion, this would be it.