50% of Thai restaurants outside of Thailand are in the US and Canada. And yes, they are both big countries, but there’s no denying that North Americans love Thai cuisine.
But how did Thai food get to be so popular in the US?
It’s a surprising story that involves a little influence from immigration and a lot of influence from the Thai government. And of course, how delicious Thai food is.
Let’s dive into the history of Thai food in the US!
Early Days of Thai Cuisine
The first documented wave of immigration from Thailand to the US was in the 1960s. In this decade, only about 5,000 Thais emigrated. But in the 1970s, it skyrocketed to 44,000.
Bangkok Market opened in 1972 and it is credited with being the first Thai grocery store in the US. It was the family of Jet Tila, a celebrity chef, who owned and ran this market for 47 years. They probably opened the first Thai restaurant back in the 1970s, too.
So, the availability of Thai cuisine in the US was growing. But it was growing slowly.
Today, the number of Thai restaurants in the US relative to the number of Thai people doesn’t match up with immigration. Thai Americans make up 0.1% of the overall population but there are approximately 5,500 Thai restaurants.
This ratio is far more than any other ethnic group in the US. In fact, Thai cuisine in Seattle is more popular than pizza. So, what made Thai cuisine so popular?
To understand that, you need to know what gastro diplomacy is.
What Is Gastro Diplomacy?
Gastro diplomacy is when a government invests in exporting and marketing their food to consumers overseas.
This is to increase their overseas exports and in turn boost their economy. It also generates a positive national brand through food to those other countries.
The Thai government started doing this in the early 2000s. They made considerable efforts to open restaurants all over the US (and worldwide). And they even ran culinary training programs specifically to send chefs abroad and run restaurants.
They also ensured authentic Thai ingredients were exported and readily available in the US.
Thai Cuisine Today
Of course, the ingenious efforts of the Thai government paid off!
If you order your favorite Thai takeout in the US and try the same dish in Thailand, you may find it tastes slightly different. Or you may visit Thailand and find there are dishes you’ve never seen before in the US.
That’s the result of the Thai government’s program. They were so strategic, they focused on flavors and food profiles that Western palates would enjoy.
Now, countries like South Korea are hoping to follow in Thailand’s footsteps.
Honor Thai History in the US and Eat Thai Food!
So, that’s how Thai cuisine became so popular in the US! It’s a rather unusual but successful endeavor by the Thai government. And thanks to their efforts, we all have access to tasty Thai food!
If your tastebuds are tingling for Thai food, check out our menu to see what you’re hungry for. You can order online or head to our restaurant for fantastic Thai food in Seattle!