Like the cuisine, like the country


Thailand’s gastro-diplomacy

THE Thai government has discovered that foreigners quite like Thai food. There are about 5,500 Thai restaurants around the world. In a plan ambitiously called Global Thai, the government aims to boost the number to 8,000 by 2003. This, it is argued, will not only introduce deliciously spicy Thai food to thousands of new tummies and persuade more people to visit Thailand, but it could subtly help to deepen relations with other countries.

In the United States at least, where the number of Thai restaurants has grown from 500 in 1990 to more than 2,000 now, such ambitions may not come as a surprise. Diplomats in Washington point out that restaurants are often the only contact that most Americans have with foreign cultures. Patrons of the Helmand restaurant in Baltimore, which is run by a brother of Hamid Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan’s interim government, are likely to take at least a passing interest in the country as they tuck into Afghan food. North Korea’s Workers’ Party has also opened several restaurants abroad, intent perhaps to show that at least its cuisine is not evil (no dog dishes, please).

More modestly, the Thai government aims to make it easier for foreign restaurants to import Thai foods, to help them to hire Thai cooks and sometimes to benefit from soft loans. It has been much encouraged that Tommy Tang, a Thai chef working in the United States, has said that he plans to open 200-300 Thai restaurants there during the next five years. Mechai Viravaidya, a Thai senator, has opened a branch in Bucharest of Cabbages and Condoms, a restaurant he runs in Bangkok. The senator’s noble aim is to promote birth control and fight the spread of AIDS. Romanian gourmets can only be intrigued.