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Cooking up food and identity in Pailin Chongchitnant's "Hot Thai Kitchen"

Chef and YouTube host Pailin Chongchitnant.
Courtesy of Pailin Chongchitnant
Chef and YouTube host Pailin Chongchitnant.

For more than 12 years, Pailin Chongchitnant has hosted the YouTube cooking show Hot Thai Kitchen. Chongchitnant's recipes (of which there are hundreds, free to access online) aim to offer a deeper understanding of the steps and the ingredients that make Thai cuisine so distinct. They also highlight the cultural background of each dish; from steaming bowls of tom kha gai to crispy coconut corn fritters, Chongchitnant weaves stories from her own life and childhood into each video. (My personal favorite is her recipe for instant pot massaman curry; the freshly toasted warm spices and rich curry is more soul-nourishing and flavorful than any bowl I've had at a restaurant).

And the videos are resonating widely; the channel has more than 1.4 million subscribers worldwide. Chongchitnant's cookbook, Hot Thai Kitchen: Demystifying Thai Cuisine with Authentic Recipes to Make at Home, was published in 2016.

But while her love of food was always a driving force, the road to Chongchitnant's current position had some unexpected turns. She grew up in Southern Thailand, and when she was in high school, cable TV became available to her. That's when she started being able to envision what pursuing a career in food could look like. Cooking shows hosted by Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson offered her a dream: to one day be the host of her own cooking show.

But as she got older, Chongchitnant realized that there was no clear path for hosting a TV show about a cuisine deemed "niche" by mainstream networks. With that dream on the backburner, she got a degree in Nutritional Science at the University of British Columbia, went on to work in professional kitchens, and eventually attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. But despite reveling in a new world of Western cooking, Chongchitnant missed being immersed in Thai food.

So in 2009, as YouTube was emerging as a more prominent platform, she decided to create a cooking show of her own: "That's kind of when the light bulb went off in my head—I no longer have to wait for someone to discover me so that I can put myself on the map," she said. "I got really excited about the possibility of being able to do this without anybody's permission."

I called her up to dish (pun intended) about the most common misconceptions about Thai cuisine, how food and identity intertwine, and what it means to make your own rules in the culinary world.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

My family and I have loved eating at Thai restaurants since I was a kid, but for most of my life, I always thought of Thai cuisine as outside of my scope for cooking at home, and maybe subconsciously relegated it to being a "takeout food" because it felt so complex. But when I came across Hot Thai Kitchen, that quickly broke down those notions and made Thai cooking seem a lot more approachable. I'm curious if there are any preconceived notions that you've noticed people have about Thai ingredients, flavors, and food overall.

I think the main issue with people's familiarity with Thai cuisine right now is they really only know what's available on restaurant menus, which is actually very limited. But there really is so much more and there really is a lot more freedom when it comes to cooking. Cooking it at home, you don't have to make those specific dishes—you can have the freedom and the flexibility to put your own spin on it.

Most people come to Thai food thinking that it's complex and complicated. But I think what that actually means is that it's unfamiliar. So to approach Thai food, the best way is to start by approaching ingredients, because once you're looking at an ingredient and familiarizing yourself with it, you realize it's just another herb. It's just another sauce. You don't know about lemongrass? Well, let's take a look at what it does. You throw it into a dish. It adds some flavor, just like rosemary.

So when you look at it that way, it's not anything difficult. You just have to get to know some of these building blocks a little bit. Technique-wise, it's quite easy. We don't even use the oven—everything happens on the stovetop, more or less quickly. So start by learning about ingredients one at a time and then just start building your knowledge repertoire of what each ingredient does and tastes like, and it'll all seem it'll all fall into place.

As someone who is often introducing Thai cooking to people for the first time, do you feel pressure to make your recipes feel more quote un-quote "authentic," or rather, to cater to a Western audience?

Oh man, I have felt a lot of pressure. In the beginning, I didn't really think much of it. But once I started to have a big audience, I felt a lot of pressure to make it as authentic as possible because I thought, I am the ambassador of Thai food. This is what people are going to think Thai food is, so I better make it authentic.

But as I've kind of gained more confidence in myself, I've relaxed my take a little bit. I still want to present the food in an authentic way, but I'm not going to stress out over an ingredient that I can't find, or a technique that's just not practical to do in a condo.

Over the years, I've realized that there's a difference between something being traditional and something being authentic. Traditional is the "official" way a dish is done. But authentic is different. The authentic is something the Thai people do, and there are many different ways to go about doing it. But it's still all authentic. It's still all Thai. It's still food the Thai people eat and make.

Getting back to this idea of Thai and Chinese food often being seen as take-out food, rather than fine dining – you interviewed a chef at a Thai restaurant in Vancouver, and he also touched on this idea, and how their restaurant aims to challenge that. How do you feel about that perception of Thai cuisine?

It's definitely considered cheap food. I just had a personal experience with this the other day—there's a new Thai restaurant in Vancouver that just opened, and I wanted to check it out. I went in and I was shocked because everything was so expensive! And then I kind of caught myself—I thought, "It's because you expect Thai food to be cheap, because that's kind of the way it's always been."

But if I was sitting in a French restaurant, would I have had the same reaction to these prices? Probably not. It's just so pervasive, this idea that Thai food or Asian food in general should be cheap food. It shouldn't be—there should be a whole range. There should be cheap things so people can afford them. There should be medium things so people can go have a nice meal for their birthday if they want. And there should be some really refined things so that if people really want to experience the deluxe version, they know that it's out there and it exists.

It also puts the people making the food at a higher level too, because if you think of the food as being something cheap, you kind of group the people cooking them in that light as well—that they're all just immigrants doing cheap labor work back there. But if you're seeing people doing really incredible work, you all of a sudden know that, oh, these quote unquote immigrants are chefs and artists and people with high skills and abilities just like all the other well respected chefs in other cuisines.

On our show we've been interested in exploring the relationship between food and identity—food is often something that people take pride in as a signifier of where they come from, or alternatively, something they might feel some sense of shame around based on negative stereotypes or experiences. What role does Thai food play in your understanding of your identity?

It's huge. Especially being Thai living abroad, I know so few Thai people. There's no Thai community that I'm a part of, so most of the time in my everyday life, I'm the only Thai person in the room. So having food to go back to is sort of grounding. Seeing Thai restaurants on the street feels like I'm not quite alone, because I know there are Thai people behind those places.

But then interestingly, when I talk to people and they ask me, "Where are you from?" and I say I'm from Thailand, the first thing they'll say is, "I love Thai food." That kind of bothered me after a while, because the only thing that they know about Thailand or Thai people is that it automatically goes to Thai food. And I feel like there's so much more to being Thai. On the one hand, food plays such an important role. I cook Thai food and it connects me to my culture, and it keeps the community here together. But at the same time, I wish there was more about Thailand that people knew that we could talk about.

What are some of the things about Thai culture that you wish people knew more about beyond just Thai food?

I wish people knew more about the Thai personality. Thai people are so friendly and so helpful. I have a friend who's in a wheelchair, and he traveled to Thailand, and he said that in no other country were people more willing and eager to help him get places than in Thailand. And that's something that I've noticed myself, too. The Thai people are just so eager and willing to help other people, especially people who are foreigners, that they see are unfamiliar with the place.

Food is a tool for communal gathering and togetherness, especially during this time of year. Are there any specific food traditions that you like to take part in during the holidays, or just in general when you're sharing a meal with loved ones?

You know, tradition is something we don't really do. In Thailand, you just eat whatever you want, whenever you want. And when you gather, the only thing that's different is your food is more elaborate or extravagant. It's going to be maybe some expensive seafood. We do a lot of seafood feasts for gathering such as big whole fish, grilled barbecued prawns or like crab steamed crab. So whenever I go to Thailand and we have a New Year's something-or-other with my family, it's often at a seafood restaurant. There's something about picking apart meat in crab shells, it's more of an activity – there's action involved in this eating rather than just just putting the food in your mouth. Also, anything that involves self grilling, or hot pot is a great holiday meal. Again, action is required.

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