When someone has an aversion to certain foods, I am always amused when someone else asks, “Why?” Why not? Granted, when someone doesn’t like a food because of ethical, religious, or political reasons, then obviously there is a reason. Someone may not like meat, and when asked why not, she can answer that she is vegan (and that usually means there is an ethical, religious or health reason).
But when someone doesn’t like the way something tastes, well, there you go. It’s a matter of taste. No one can really explain why something does or does not appeal to their tastebuds. Someone may not like the taste of meat, and when asked why, she could, I guess, answer that the the flavor molecues in beef trigger a physiological response in the nerve endings in her tongue that send a chemically induced impulse to the brain and and and...you get the idea.
So when someone asks me why I don’t like Thai food, I just don’t know what to say. There is no ethical, religious, political, or lifestyle reason why; I just don’t like the way it tastes, that’s all. Responses to my answer range from an apathetic accepting “Oh, okay” to a slightly incredulous “You don’t like Thai?” all the way to a quite negatively vehement “Whaddya mean you don’t like Thai? What’s wrong with Thai?!?!” As if I had been offensive in some way.
Why would someone be offended by someone else’s not liking a certain type cuisine? I am never offended when someone tells me he or she doesn’t like Korean food. I love it, some friends of mine love it, but some other friends of mine despise it. They don’t like that pungent, garlicky, sometimes strongly salty fishy, overly spicy sour rotting-to-the-point-of-putrid cabbage and fermented soybean paste called Korean cuisine. That’s okay. I don’t hold it against them. I’m not personally offended. Now, it would most certainly unravel into a K-club catfight if they had said they didn’t like Korean people. Well, that’s okay too, since apparently, I’m Jewish. ;)
It’s not like I’m saying I don’t like the country of Thailand – I’ve never been, but as soon as I get over my flying problem, I’d love to make a trip. It’s not like I’m saying I don’t like Thai people. And it’s not like I think there is something inherently wrong with Thai food, the ingredients, the preparation techniques, or anything like that. I have just found that in general, Thai flavors don’t tickle my tastebuds. I’ve never cared for the taste of cilantro (not even in Mexican food), sweet basil, or lemongrass. Individually or in other combinations, I do like citrus juice, peanuts, and coconut milk, but in general, coconut milk tastes odd to me in savory dishes like Thai curries, as do peanuts. Peanuts are for ice cream sundaes and Snickers bars.
Just because I don’t love Thai food though, doesn’t mean I don’t eat it at all. It’s not like I fold my arms in front of my chest, pout and refuse to go to a Thai restaurant like a 5-year-old. For fox ache, I stopped doing that two years ago. Given a choice, I’d just pick something else. Oddly enough, for someone as vocal as I am about not loving Thai food, somehow I end up eating it quite often. It’s not always authentic Thai Town Thai food, but it’s still Thai. Oh, okay, both California Vegan and Chan Dara don’t count. California Vegan is more of an experiment in vegan over Thai and Chan Dara is all about Asian eye-candy – kind of like going to Hooters for “authentic” bar food. LOL!
But something is happening. Maybe my sensibilities have been beaten down. Maybe my tastes are changing. Maybe I’ve gone to Thai restaurants enough times now for me to finally identify the things on the menu that are still undisputedly Thai (not like wuss-out springrolls that even Cheesecake Factory serves), and yet appeal to my particularly peculiar tastes. Could I...? No. Might I...? Wait. Do I actually...? Stop it now, you’re scaring me, Sarah. I think I might like Thai food!!! Oh, what a fickle fickle female I am.
Okay, that’s taking it a little too far, a little too soon (for Thai food ;) ). But really, on a recent visit to Tong Dang Thai, I very much enjoyed my entire meal. Some might argue that Tong Dang is in the same category as Chan Dara because their two locations are in ooh-la-la Brentwood and San Marino and are interior decorated as if by Wolfgang Puck’s designer wife on a double dose of valium. I will ignore that for now, and let myself find the colorful decor and abstract artwork strangely attractive.
We started wi
th vegetable hand rolls. I know I just said that egg/spring/summer-rolls are the equivalent of, oh I don’t know, California maki at a sushi bar, but we don’t all go from eating Gerber to Gorgonzola in one day, right? The hand rolls were made of rice paper tightly wrapped around fresh green leaf lettuce and julienned vegetables – nothing extraordinary, not even the sweet, peanut-y soy sauce, which I tasted but ended up ignoring for an embarrassingly generous squirt of hot chile sauce (sambal?) mixed with chile powder.
Tom yum soup was what usually saved me (along with the eggrolls) when we went for Thai food, so I have comfort-food-like memories attached to it. Tong Dang’s soup, like the eggrolls, is nothing special. It’s a simple spicy broth with mixed vegetables to which, again, I added the chile powder. I am not sure what all the condiments on a Thai table are for. There is likely some traditional method of seasoning certain foods, but since I have not yet learned them, I hope I didn’t offend any of the servers watching me blaspheme their food with hot sauce.
Tong Dang’s menu seems a little misleading at first because the section headings are “Vegetable Dishes,” “Curries,” and “Specialties.” It is set up so that there is a base sauce or curry and various vegetables, to which you add your choice of nothing (which means it is all vegetables) beef, chicken, shrimp, and in my case, tofu. I stayed away from the curries and ordered a spicy mixed vegetable dish with chicken and tofu. They’re flexible like that at Tong Dang ;)
The tofu, chicken, and vegetables were all cooked just fine, but the base sauce was not the least bit spicy. In fact, it was almost a little overly sweet, and given the bright reddish orange glaze color, I had to wonder if I had somehow gotten a Panda Express sweet and sour stir fry. I ate less then a quarter of it before it just hurt my teeth too much. When I come back to Tong Dang Thai, not because it’s wildly delicious, but because it’s about three blocks from my house, I won’t be ordering this.
I’m still learning to appreciate and understand the complexity Thai food – it’s not just lime juice, lemongrass, and coconuts. I am breaking myself in. But I’m pretty sure I’ll never convert to cilantro.
Tong Dang Thai
11677 San Vicente Boulevard
Brentwood, CA 90049