Fire In The Belly
By Dunja Kovacevic
Somewhere in the second-story building of a bustling corner in Osborne Village, a wok is simmering. In it, morsels of salmon, squid, lemongrass and green peas are stewing in a fragrant green chile curry. Toui Savangsengouthay, makes quick work of the wok, and passes the dish off to her husband, Vileth Savangsengouthay, who carries it out to the dining room of Bangkok Thai, where the two have been serving culturally curious Winnipeggers for more than a decade.
Contained within the seemingly disparate elements of that one dish, lies the long history of colonization, immigration and foreign trade that make up modern Thai cuisine. To understand Thai food, it is necessary to first understand its history.
Nearly 95 per cent of all Thai people identify as Buddhists of the Theravada tradition. Many practicing Buddhists adhere to a vegetarian diet, as eating the meat of large animals, or eating large pieces of meat, was eschewed. Instead, if eaten, meat was minced or laden with spices. Then the Chinese settled the area known today as Thailand some 1,400 years ago, bringing with them stir-fry techniques, noodle recipes and the practice of eating meat more regularly and in larger quantities. Portuguese missionaries brought non-indigenous spices and ingredients, such as a variety of chiles and papayas, for which they developed a taste while exploring Latin America. Curries, now integral to Thai cuisine, were introduced through international trade with India. The contribution of these outside influences, from cooking methods to foreign ingredients, are at the heart of Thailand’s cuisine.
Vileth and Toui are building on the threads of this overseas narrative. In searching to stay true to flavour profiles of their native cuisine, they must look for readily available Canadian produce to mimic familiar textures or tastes. This translation accounts for shaved carrot in papaya salad and peas in curries. Inevitably, interpretation includes the added challenge of adapting their native cuisine to Canadian palates. In these instances, Vileth and Toui transcend their roles as business owner and chef, and bear the mantle of cultural ambassadors.
Most obviously, this can mean introducing a number scale to indicate the spice level of a dish, to ease Canadians into the extreme heat associated with Thai cuisine. Keen observations are imperative, such as replacing guylain with broccoli in most dishes. It is similar in texture but lacks the bitter component that many Canadians have an aversion to. At times, their role is to encourage returning patrons to expand their epicurean horizons, by challenging them to try new dishes or up the spice level.
Vileth reveals that would-be travellers will often visit Bangkok Thai before embarking on a journey through Southeast Asia, to seek counsel and a crash-course on Thai food. In this role, he is given occasion to exalt the virtues of his home country, and help others understand Thai culture.
He enthusiastically explains the guiding philosophy of Thai cuisine, harmony of taste. The interplay between sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty is the foundation for each dish. Furthermore, sauces play starring roles in Thai cuisine. This is why, despite adaptations that are made to recipes, the relationship between the components remains. Walking the line between retaining tradition, while engaging with a new culture, is all a part of the process of adaptation that comes with immigration. Making a business inhabiting that murky space between cultures, like Vileth and Toui do, is a remarkable and impressive feat. However, the ability to celebrate the vibrancy of your homeland with others, while simultaneously integrating with, and building upon, the community of your new country, is a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. Oddly, there are similarities between the evolution of Thai cuisine, with it’s many outside influences, and the ever-changing Canadian identity. Both are distinctly multicultural, something Thai-born Vileth and Chinese-born Toui, understand well.
Toui wields a wok Chinese-style at Bangkok Thai everyday, piling Canadian salmon and produce, alongside Asian lemongrass, in Indian-inspired curries laden with Latin-American chiles. These ingredients, from all the far-flung corners of the earth, simmer together to create one richly-bodied dish. Each component, rendered more distinct with the addition of the others.