Culinary Voyage: Why Are There So Many Thai Restaurants in the US?

Culinary Voyage: Why Are There So Many Thai Restaurants in the US?
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Thai food has gained popularity and a special place in the hearts of many Americans. From tantalizing curry dishes to fresh salads, Thai cuisine has become a favorite in homes across the country.

Although only 2% of the US population is of Thai descent, Thai restaurants account for 11% of all Asian restaurants in US, making it one of the most popular cuisines after Chinese and Japanese. By 2022, there will be approximately 300,000 Thai Americans, yet there are more than 5,000 Thai restaurants in US.

The Thai government has long supported efforts to increase the number of Thai restaurants around the world, seeing it as an effective form of diplomacy. In this way, the delicacy of Thai cuisine becomes a culinary ambassador that successfully captivates the palates of people around the world.

The Success of Gastrodiplomacy

Thai food has been popular in US since the mid 1900s, when immigrants from Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia introduced it to this country. Its unique flavors that combine sweet, sour, and spicy, as well as the use of fresh ingredients such as coconut milk, chili, and lemongrass, are the main reasons for its popularity.

"The Bangkok Restaurant" was the name of the first Thai restaurant to open in US in 1962 in Los Angeles, California. The founders were a married couple who migrated from Thailand to the United States. They wanted to introduce the amazing flavors and aromas of Thai cuisine to the US public, and their restaurant soon became popular among locals and tourists alike.

The popularity of Thai food was further enhanced when the Thai Government launched an innovative campaign called "Global Thai" in 2002 to develop Thai restaurants around the world and introduce iconic dishes such as Pad Thai and Pad See Ew to the international community. As part of the effort, the government established the Global Thai Restaurant Company, Ltd. in 2001 with the target of establishing at least 3,000 Thai restaurants in various countries.

The Export Promotion Department also facilitates meetings between Thai and foreign businesspeople, while the Export-Import Bank of Thailand provides loans of up to $3 million for Thai nationals who want to open restaurants. In addition, the government conducted global market research, sent representatives of Thai cooking institutes to train chefs in foreign restaurants, and published guidelines for Thai chefs going abroad.

The program has been a huge success with a 200% increase in the number of tourists visiting Thailand since 2002, with more than a third of those tourists listing Thai food as their main reason for visiting the country.

Program Sustainability

In addition to opening restaurants abroad, the Thai government is committed to maintaining the quality and values of Thai cuisine as a successful export channel. Thai diplomats in the United States not only serve as taste evaluators, but also play an important role in supporting Thai restaurants through logistics and strategy.

Having successfully established a strong market share in a major country like the United States, the Thai government is now looking to expand the presence of Thai cuisine to new regions, especially in the Middle East. This has also become the Thai government's five-year plan, one of which is to become one of the largest halal food exporters in the world.

Thailand has successfully led the way in extending its cultural influence through food, and similar initiatives have been adopted by other governments. South Korea, for example, was inspired by Thailand's success and has committed tens of millions of dollars to its "Korean Cuisine for the World" campaign since 2009. Taiwan followed suit, while Peru launched a creative initiative called "Cocina Peruana Para el Mundo" (Peruvian Cuisine for the World). Malaysia also joined in with its "Malaysia Kitchen for the World 2010" program. This pattern seems to demonstrate the strength and global appeal of a country's culinary treasures.

Popularity of Thai Food in the USA

Thai cuisine is very popular in the United States because each dish has a unique and balanced flavor. In addition, they use a lot of spices, which is in line with the market demand of health-conscious consumers.

In addition, Thai restaurants in the US have also developed interesting variations of classic dishes such as som tam, larb, nam tok, nam prik ong, and kaeng tai pla to expand the market. Meanwhile, in 2022, the export value of Thai food products to the US reached US$3.09 billion (111.86 billion baht) in the first nine months of 2022. This figure increased by 8.65% compared to the previous year.

Later in the year, 125 Thai restaurants in the US were certified as "Thai Select" by the Thai Trade Center, indicating quality and authenticity.

The role of the government is inevitable in the expansion of Thai food, especially in the US. However, it is also undeniable that Thai food has great taste. Thai food is more appealing to those who care about their health because it is rich in vegetables and spices. This popularity opens up opportunities for Thai restaurateurs to introduce plant-based foods produced in Thailand and attract more attention.

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