The aesthetisist in me wants to understand just what is going on with Chiang Mai food.
It has never been great — traditionally Chiang Mai-ites have been gourmands (big eaters) rather than gourmets (epicures); but it has always been far better than almost anywhere else in Thailand. Foreign food in Chiang Mai — including Chinese — has always ranged from bad to indifferent — reflecting perhaps the ignorance of the public — you can sell anything to the ignorant in small quantities; but Thai food has always been at least adequate. Yet, in the last two years I have repeatedly had what I have never had here in the preceding eight years: bad Thai food. And what is far, far worse: all my favorite restaurants — all the places I used to eat in daily — are, one by one, going bad.
I really dread the approach of the lunch hour. Where can I go to eat and not be disappointed? I delay the decision and sometimes don’t dare make one at all: skip lunch, eat fruit instead (pomello and mango are still good though prices have risen dramatically), or eat nothing. More often than ever, if I do go out, I find myself poking at the animal feed I am presented instead of the food I ordered, and, unable to force myself to lift it to my lips, leave hungry and with the feeling of being undeservedly persecuted.
And one has begun to experience the heretofore unheard of: the — occasional, so far, and mild, so far, but all the same — food poisoning.
One explanation must clearly lie in the ingredients: there has been a marked decline in the quality and flavor of fruits, vegetables and meat, in a kind of variation of Gresham’s Law: Chinese imports and new hybrid crops developed for crop yields and long shelf-lives rather than flavor and texture are taking over the market (“Americanization”); the recent run up in food prices (between 50% and 100%) has probably only accelerated the process: unable to cope with the price hikes, people (and businesses) are going down the quality ladder.
But this does not explain the sudden prevalence of bad cooking: food that’s overcooked, or under-cooked, or over-spiced, or over-greasy. Sometimes the failures are shocking: how can one explain hard rice in a self-respecting (supposedly) restaurant in a nation of rice-eaters? Perhaps, in an environment of rapidly rising wages, restaurants are having hard time holding on to their kitchen staff and are forced to replace them with the ever-less skilled; but the consumers share large part of the guilt: they fail to drive home the market message that bad food is not acceptable: the quality-wise declining restaurants are as full as they were in their better-cooking days.
How is that possible?
The only explanation I can think of is that the current customers are not the old customers. In a city whose population has grown ten fold in ten years, this is not surprising: 90% of the eaters are people raised on the less-good food common in other parts of Thailand. Indeed, many immigrants are from the country-side where poor ingredients and total absence of fancy foods have been the norm — even in the villages near Mae Rim — a mere 30 minute drive out of town, only low quality ingredients can be had at the market, the farmers habitually selling all their “premium” products into the city. These immigrants are therefore, literally, food-wise speaking, know-nothings.
This no doubt accounts for the proliferation of “fancy restaurants”, with glass, black decor, halogen spot lights, pointy logos — and bad food. Their customers — and they have plenty of them — are not there to enjoy the food: they want to experience the atmosphere, the decor and the service — feel rich, modern, and fashionable — and could not anyhow tell a good dish (from a bad one) if it hit them in the face. It explains the rise in tipping, too: traditionally, one has not tipped in Thailand, as one does not generally throughout the Far East — Asia uses a different economic model for restaurants, one in which the boss pays his workers; but the hommes nouveaux only a few years out of the sticks, have never been served in their lives and, given their low self-esteem, being served makes them feel awkward; the only reason why anyone would ever serve them must surely be — money; and so they tip.
Come to think about it, one can clearly see the same phenomena — poorer ingredients, poorer cooking, less knowledgeable customers, decor-over-flavor, tipping — at work in the restaurant scene of New Delhi.