Alex and I were sitting at the long, white-topped bar of Little Serow in Washington, D.C. and the fried tofu was so damn spicy we were no longer able to carry on our conversation.
"This is nam tuk tow hu," said our server, a young woman with thick rimmed glasses and a darling white summer dress splotched with red and blue, "it means 'running waterfall,' because it is so spicy, you will sweat like a waterfall."
We smiled and thanked her. Nothing so far in the set, seven-course, $45 tasting menu had been as terrifying spicy as the online reviews had mentioned, so we weren't too worried. This is, after all, a Thai restaurant run by white people.
"Got it," we said, picked up our chop sticks, still smiling, and dug in.
"And be careful," she added, "because the dish becomes spicier and spicier as you eat it."
Five minutes later, we were no longer smiling.
The first bite had not been so bad, a well-seasoned mouthful of salty fried tofu, mint, cilantro, red onion, peanuts and an oily sauce which spoke of exotic chilies but not of the wrath of Satan. A second bite brought on more heat but was still manageable. But the spiciness grew, slow and steady, like a tidal wave. Five bites in, we were sweating, red in the face, unable to complete sentences, and chugging our beers for relief from the pain. But it was good -- so good that it proved difficult to stop eating, yet so painful that it seemed unreasonable to go on. Masochistic tofu if I've ever seen it.
It gave me pause, after the plateful of hellishly addictive tofu, that the experience we were having had something to do with more than just tofu. We'd eaten sour fruit, dried shrimp and palm sugar. We'd had pork with lemongrass and sawtooth. They were all good, and all drew from Thai tradition. But it seemed, more than anything, that this tofu was Little Serow's way of showing its muscle, taking out its Thai passport, and saying "Yes, motherfucker, this is for real. You sweating now?"
It reminded me of a conversation between Eddie Huang and Francis Lam published on GiltTaste. The two immigrant sons debate what it means for Americans (white Americans, really) to cook the food of foreign cultures. Huang takes issue with the cultural appropriation he sees in American-run ethnic restaurants, while Lam finds the complexity of immigrant cuisines in America too complicated to throw blame in any one direction.
It was a new experience, to say the least, being served hot-as-hell Thai food ("We focus on Northern Thai food, similar to the food of Laos," our server had specified) in downtown D.C. by a cast of charming white girls, surrounded by D.C. political staffers just out of work on a Friday evening, in a room with pastel-blue walls and modernist restaurant design, sipping an American craft beer.
Is there something wrong about this?
It was a Thai restaurant as far from Thailand as you can get - geographically and spiritually - serving what it claimed to be the most authentic Thai food around. Excuse me, Northern Thai food, to be exact. Not dissimilar from Laos. It seemed to be shouting, "See! If it's this spicy, it's legit."
Legit or not, Litte Serow must be called, at best, a restaurant borrowing from Thai tradition. It's awkward at times -- it's a phenomenon we see in restaurants popping up across the country -- but not an unfamiliar cycle in American food. Little Serow's food is always what American food -- food served in America -- has been: borrowing from other cultures, recreating, adapting, improving, mellowing this time, spicing the next time, at times for better, at times for worse.
And this is where American food, and America, finds its culinary strength. It is where the undefined "American cuisine" has always been well-defined, hiding in plain sight. America is still the great melting pot. The insalta mista. The great vegetable tofu curry miracle.
Thai food may be the food of the moment, but that we're grabbing onto new cuisines, new cultures, broadening, expanding, finding Americans making Thai food, finding Thai immigrants making American food - that is nothing new. Italian food was "ethnic food" a hundred years ago. Americans were literally afraid of garlic. Pizza was borrowed from Italy where it was a food of the poor in slums around Italy, a simple creation of dough with tomato sauce. It came to America, it changed over time. Today, pizza is American as apple pie.
Today, Thai food, like many "ethnic" cuisines, is growing up in America too. It's awkward, we're afraid of cultural appropriation, we're blaming the hipsters, we're blaming capitalism, and yet we're still eating the masochistic tofu. That's just as well. We're still eating pizza, too. Thai food as part of American cuisine isn't going anywhere. Get it while it's hot.