There are plenty of Chinese restaurants in the US— understandable given the 5 million strong Chinese-American population. But with only 300,000 Thai in America, why are there so many Thai restaurants?
Some of you will simply say Thai food tastes better. The truth: because the Thai government paid for it.
In the 1990s, the Thai government set up culinary training facilities to train chefs to send abroad. In 2001, it created the Global Thai Restaurant Company, hoping the chain would be “like the McDonald’s of Thai food.” That didn’t quite work out, but other things did.
They mass produced galangal root and fish sauce. They offered restaurants loans up to $3 million. They published a book in 2002 called A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad, with information about recruitment, training, and even the tastes of foreigners.
They even drew up prototypes for three different “master restaurants”, a free-for-all prefabricated restaurant plan from aesthetic to menu offerings. (Elephant Jump as the fast casual option at $5–15/person; Cool Basil as the mid option at $15-25; Golden Leaf prototype at $25-30 with décor featuring “authentic Thai fabrics and objets d’art”.)
Yes, that’s why all Thai restaurants look and taste the same.
Gastrodiplomacy worked. The number of Thai restaurants abroad grew from 5,000 to 15,000, one third of them in the US. A special visa was even established in New Zealand specifically for Thai chefs.
Inspired, other countries followed suit. South Korea earmarked tens of millions of dollars in 2009 for its Korean Cuisine to the World campaign. So have Taiwan, Peru with Cocina Peruana Para el Mundo (Peruvian Cuisine for the World), and Malaysia with Malaysia Kitchen for the World 2010. Even North Korea jumped in for a while, with a chain of 100 restaurants called Pyongyang.
One small problem for North Korea: escaping and defecting waitresses.