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Why there are so many Thai restaurants in Seattle

A chef at Thai Tom Restaurant in Seattle. (Closari, Flickr Creative Commons)

When I first moved to Seattle in 2005, I went on a Thai food bender. There seemed to be a Thai restaurant on every corner and the food is delicious and, often, cheap.

On the latest episode of my podcast, Your Last Meal, my guest, actor Lauren Weedman, wondered why there are so many Thai restaurants in Seattle. I went on a mission to find the answer.

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In 2014, I produced a story about why there are so many pho restaurants in Seattle and the answer is pretty straightforward: In 1974, when six thousand Vietnamese immigrants were being held at Camp Pendleton in San Diego, Governor Dan Evans invited them to live in Washington.

“I was listening to the radio and I heard Governor Jerry Brown of California say he didn’t want any Vietnamese there,” Evans told me. “I was just furious. We sent a young aide in my office to Camp Pendleton and he called me back and said, ‘Governor, you’d be amazed at the kind of people who are here. They’re professionals, all sorts of very talented people.’ I said, ‘Invite them to come settle in Washington state.”

Washington now has the third largest Vietnamese population in the country.

I assumed the number of Thai restaurants in Seattle would be relevant to the number of Thai immigrants who landed here, but that’s simply not true. According to the Washington Hospitality Association there are 110 Thai restaurants in Seattle but only 1,217 Thai immigrants. That’s roughly one Thai restaurant for every 11 Thai people living here.

So what’s the story? Turns out, it was a plan cooked up by the Thai government. It doesn’t just affect Seattle, but countries all over the world. In 2001, the Thai government embarked on an economic development plan called “Thai Kitchen To The World” to ramp up tourism and popularize Thai exports. Maybe if more foreigners tasted pad Thai, they’d want to fly to Thailand for a vacation? According to Vice, the concept is called gastrodiplomacy.

“The idea was really to train Thai people to become chefs and to export them to different parts of the world so they could open up restaurants and introduce people around the world to Thai food,” said Mark Padoongpatt, assistant professor of Asian American studies at University of Nevada Las Vegas and author of Flavors of Empire: Food and The Making of Thai America.

Their goal was to open 3,000 new Thai restaurants around the world. Vice reports that a Thai bank offered loans to Thai nationals interested in opening a restaurants abroad. The Public Health Ministry even published a book in 2002 called A Manual for Thai Chefs Going Abroad. The government also created a few prototypes for Thai restaurants; turnkey, prefab restaurant plans complete with restaurant designs and standardized menus based on different price points so investors could simply choose a plan and set up shop.

“I think it’s absolutely correct that the Thai government played a key role in promoting and increasing the number of Thai restaurants around the world. But there are two issues I have with that,” said Padoongpatt. “One is, the story actually begins much earlier. In LA, by the 1970s and 80s, you have over 50 Thai restaurants in west LA. And that has nothing to do with the Thai government, this is 30 years before.”

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“So I think it’s important for me to say that because Thai people aren’t robots, right?” he continued. “They’re immigrants and they struggled and they’ve learned to be really savvy about the American palate. I think that deserves recognition for their work to open up these Thai restaurants long before the government got involved. And in fact, that’s why the government got involved. Thai immigrants in the United States in the 70s and 80s were the ones who popularized the cuisine so much, the Thai government was like, ‘Hey, there’s this growing popularity. We can benefit from this.'”

This wasn’t the first time the Thai government has gotten involved in Thai food. It actually invented pad Thai.

“So it’s not this traditional, authentic, going back hundreds of years [dish]. It was actually created in the 1930s in Thailand by Phibunsongkhram, who was the prime minister at the time. The dish was created because Thailand was focused on nation building. So he created this dish using Chinese noodles and called it pad Thai as a way to galvanize nationalism.”

According to sources, the government’s plan to popularize Thai food and increase tourism worked. There are triple the number of Thai restaurants around the world since 2001 and more than double the number in the United States. But it’s hard to say if these restauranteurs followed the government’s plan or struck out on their own.

To learn more about the history of pad Thai, which is actor Lauren Weedman’s last meal, listen to the full episode of Your Last Meal.

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