Photo Of The Day: Some Som Tom Salad

Photo of the day - Som Tam salad
I don’t mind food photos, even when they clog up my Instagram feed or distract me from my dinner companion. As long as they are interesting and tell me something I don’t know or might not have experienced otherwise, I think they are a great expression of social networking. I spotted today’s Photo of the Day in the Gadling Flickr pool taken by Ladyexpat of a Som Tom Salad. This turns out to be the Thai version of a green papaya salad. Not sure how she grated those amazing shapes that look like waffle fries, but the dish is a combination of the four local flavors: hot chili, tart lime, sweet sugar and savory fish sauce. The photo is full of color, texture, and the brightly painted nails and jewelry give it character. I’ll have what she’s having!

Share your favorite travel food discoveries for the Photo of the Day by adding to Gadling Flickr pool.

[Photo credit: Nancie (Ladyexpat)]

Gastro-diplomacy and the politics of food

Food has been a trending topic in travel circles for some time now. But though a good meal can tell a traveler much about the local culture, it’s not often that food is thought of as a force for political change at home. Yet, in a recent article for the Jakarta Globe, writer Paul Rockower makes just such a claim, part of a growing school of thought called Gastro-diplomacy.

Increasingly Asian nations, including South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, are turning to their national cuisines as a way to promote their country’s brands abroad, gaining increased attention and burnishing their image among the international community.

As the argument goes, people are more likely to relate to other cultures in terms of its cuisine, resulting in economic and political gains. In many ways, the effort seems to be working – the Thai government’s “Global Thai” campaign, which successfully helped open thousands of new Thai food restaurants in the U.S. alone, is seen as a model for other nations now following similar strategies.

So does a bowl of noodles create new paths to cultural understanding? At first-glance, Gastro-diplomacy does make a simplistic linkage between food and genuine cultural understanding. After all, food can just as easily become a stereotype (rice in Asia, tacos in Latin America) as it can be used to deepen cultural knowledge. But there are some signs that gastro-diplomacy has had success – Sushi, anyone? In the years ahead, look for politicians to not just try to win hearts and minds, but also stomachs.

[Via @EatingAsia]

[Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt]

Learning to cook Thai food

I’m sort of obsessed with Thai curries, and if it weren’t for that I’d be more obsessed with other Thai dishes. I love the balance of bitter, salty, spicy, and sweet, and I’m always trying to guess which ingredient in each dish supplies one of those four elements.

I’ve never had the budget to attend a Thai cooking school (which are everywhere in Thailand), but I made it a point on my recent two-week trip to the country to allow for one. Since I was spending close to a week on Ko Chang, I chose the class at Blue Lagoon on Khlong Prao, because I’d stayed at the guesthouse on my Lonely Planet research trip last year and loved it. The food was always spot-on, with most of the produce coming from an organic garden, and made even better by the ambiance of small eating pavilions that hover over the lagoon. Friendly staff rounded out the offerings, so I booked a 1200-baht (about $35USD), five-hour class.A staff of four instructed and prepped for our class of seven. As a group we decided which dishes to prepare (tom yum, tom kha, curry, pad thai, chicken with cashews, and mangoes with sticky rice and coconut milk). Two staff prepped the dishes, making sure we had the proper ingredients and portions, while the other two instructed us on how to chop vegetables, when to add stuff to the wok, how to extract coconut milk from the flesh of the fruit (it’s not the juice inside, by the way), and generally had a good time with us.

One of the instructors was the granddaughter of a woman whose original kitchen is available for tours; the recipes in the cookbook we got to take with us were all hers. While the dishes were typical, mainstream meals that are universally “Thai,” I still like the idea that somebody’s grandmother had added personal touches to some of my favorite foods.

Of the food we prepared, curry proved to be the most difficult. I’ve always believed that anyone who can read can cook (even though I’m a disaster in the kitchen), but with curry you also need some arm muscles. In theory you can use a food processor to make the paste, but, as with pesto, it is believed that using a mortar and pestle better brings out flavors and aromas. Grinding all of the ingredients up took at least 20 minutes and was more labor-intensive than kneading dough. Thankfully the staff had bulging biceps and took over for most of us.

I got to sit back and listen to one of my favorite Thai sounds, the “thock thock thock” of the mortar and pestle, and afterward enjoyed a Thai feast that I hope I can repeat back home.

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Siam Palace – Bentonville, Arkansas

Siam PalaceGood Thai cuisine in Bentonville, Arkansas was the last thing I expected to find, but a slight change of plans lead me and my hungry, exhausted, walking troop to Siam Palace. We strolled in to find the restaurant had only been open for a few days which gives me the perfect opportunity to be one of its first critics. So without further delay allow me to give you the delectable low-down.

Anyone entering Siam Palace for the first time will instantly feel at ease from the soft, pale, greenish-yellow freshly coated walls, dimly lit lights, and various aromas drifting from the kitchen. For a second it almost feels as if you’ve stepped into a dining area adjacent to a soothing spa where the host greets you with a smile warmer than the Thai sun and happily escorts you to your seats. (There are two ways to dine at Siam Palace: the Western way and the Eastern way. My party opted for the Eastern way seated on the floor.) Once settled in order a cool glass of Thai tea. It’s sweeter than most, but not as much as sweet as a dessert. For the main meal – If you’re in the mood for something both sweet and slightly tart order the pineapple chicken dish in a special Siam sauce. If noodles are a priority, sample some traditional style Pad Thai with their own special twist.

Pineapple chicken Judging from all the happy faces and tummies in my group I figured you could order almost anything off the menu and be pleased all the same if you had opted for a slightly different dish. I enjoyed my experience so much I tried making one last late lunch visit the following day, but found they were closed for a two-hour period of the day. If you’re anywhere near or around Bentonville, make sure this one gets placed on your list of dining destinations. You won’t regret it!

Siam Palace is located at 3404 SE Macy Road Suite 20, Bentonville, AR 72712. Ph. 479.254.8559. Hours vary since the plaza is fairly new with several new businesses springing up. Be sure to call ahead to make sure they are open. Most dishes range from $10-$15.