When the average big city vegetable vendor stocks lemongrass and bird’s eye chilli and neatly separates paneer from tofu and galangal from the humble, regular ginger, you know that Thai food is fast climbing the popular cuisine ladder.
The cuisine hasn’t become quite as ubiquitous as Chinese but is fast getting there with more and more Indians discovering their love for flavours sweet, sour and spicy all at once.
With supermarkets dedicating entire shelves to instant Thai curries and soups and all the ingredients available at the nearest vegetable seller, urban Indians are cooking up a Thai storm in their kitchens.
And for those who can’t, don’t have the time or just want that bang on authentic taste, high-end restaurants and even the neighbourhood takeout provide the answer.
Thai green curry, red curry, pad thai, som tam… the dishes, many of them with coconut milk as their base, are rapidly getting as familiar as hakka noodles or arrabiata pasta.
A 2019 survey by YouGov, a London-based market research and data analytics firm, noted that nearly 65 per cent of the respondents in India said they liked Thai food.
The surging popularity of Thai food can be attributed to increasing globalisation with most cities offering a bewildering range of cuisines and also the expanding travel itineraries of Indians, say leading chefs of the cuisine in the country.
“Thai cuisine is extremely popular in India. With an increase in travel and tourism, Indians have become more accepting of several international cuisines,” said Prashant Chaudhri, owner of Mumbai-based restaurant Chin Chin Chu.
The Thai delicacies on offer at the Asian cafe located in Juhu include Thai curries, jasmine rice, seafood and tom yum soups.
The cuisine, which made its advent about two decades ago, is now getting lapped up at restaurants — both pocket-friendly and fine dining — and also home delivered on food apps like Swiggy and Zomato.
Thai food did not always enjoy this fandom.
It did not offer a “satiating experience” as people were not aware, said renowned chef Veena Arora of The Spice Route at the Imperial hotel in Delhi.
Like the rest of the world, Indians, too adapted to it “slowly and gradually”, she added.
According to the Thai tourism ministry, a record 1,80,000 Indians visited Thailand in June alone this year.
Arora got associated with The Spice Route at the time of its inception when neo-Thai cuisine was almost unseen on the culinary map of India.
Her artistically crafted menu features authentic Thai favourites such as Laab kai (Thai minced chicken salad with roasted glutinous rice), Phad Phed Kai (Wok fried chicken and green beans with red curry paste) and Phad Thai Chae (Stir fried Thai rice noodles with chives and leeks flavoured with tamarind juice, palm sugar and crushed peanuts).
Travel has, according to her, opened people up to the idea of savouring local flavours thereby inculcating a deeper understanding of the cuisine.
“At the Spice Route, they now ask for specific ingredients like tofu, pok choy and other greens along with the signature herbs in their food,” she said.
Among more affordable options in the National Capital Region are restaurants like Berco’s, Ichiban, Mamagoto, Boa Village, Mr Choy, and Soy Soi, which after a successful run in Chennai is opening an outlet in Gurgaon.
Prices at these vary from Rs 800-1,500 for two, letting people relish Thai food without burning a hole in their pockets.
Peter Tseng, chef at Soy Soi, said food from each region in Thailand was distinct, and this versatility has made it appealing.
“Each region is distinct in flavour profile and ingredients used in cooking. Indians love the flavours of Thai food, as the holy trinity of Thai food: sweet, sour and spicy is also inherent in Indian dishes,” Tseng said.
The flavour combo is what former corporate lawyer Vikram Shah loves about Thai food.
“I really like the coconut based curries, the sweet, sour spicy combo and the way they use peanuts,” the Mumbai-based Shah said.
Similarities between the Thai and Indian cuisines have also drawn foodies towards the food from the South East Asian country.
For instance, both are largely curry-based and use spices in copious amounts. Both Indians and Thai people use herbs like mint and coriander along with coconut milk in abundance.
“Thai cuisine has many ingredients like coconut milk, chillies, and ginger which are also used in Indian cuisine. Our guests relate to the spicy-ness of the chillies and the smoothness of the coconut milk and the sharpness of ginger,” said Chef Paul Kinny of Mumbai’s By the Mekong.
Vikas Vichare, executive chef at W Goa hotel on Vagator beach, said the rice, the curries and spices act as a bridge between Indian and Thai palates.
For 26-year-old Aprajita Upadhyay, Thai green curry is the “ultimate comfort food”.
“I like Thai food because of the use of coconut milk. It’s the ultimate comfort food. It also has a great balance of sweet and sour,” she said.
While experimentation might be the key to remain relevant, tampering with the authenticity of the cuisine is a big no for all chefs.
“It’s like adding ketchup on a pizza,” Vichare said.
For Arora, maintaining the authenticity of a dish is essential.
Chef Sahil Singh of Delhi based TYGR- Modern Thai Bar & Grill agreed. “If we Indianise Thai food, then there will be no Thai left in it to savour,” he said, adding that the only tweak he makes is the restricted use of fish sauce.