As travelers and emigrants know all too well, it’s hard to find an authentic version of your home country’s food overseas. In the Western world, “ethnic” food is often adapted to suit foreign palates; the adulteration could be as minor as tempering the spice level of a curry, or so heavy-handed that it results in an entirely new cuisine, like Tex-Mex or Americanized Chinese.
The government of Thailand is so concerned about your inferior Thai takeout that its decided to take control of its culinary image abroad, reports the New York Times. From a PR perspective, this is easily understandable: A food-obsessed country wants to ensure that its cuisine and cultural identity is not misrepresented. But embarking on such an impractical endeavor hints at deeper and more irrational motivations—a collective intolerance, a national embarrassment, around the abomination of bad Thai food.
An electronic food taster. (Photo: Credit Giorgio Taraschi for The New York Times)
The government takes this so seriously that it has created the candidly named “Thai Delicious Committee,” and given it 30 million baht (roughly $1 million) to exercise culinary quality control. One of the measures it has implemented is a logo for qualifying restaurants to affix to their menus, an official sanction of the dishes contained within. There is also a free app containing government-approved recipes.
But the most fascinating attempt to standardize deliciousness is a new machine that judges food against an official minimum standard. The Thai Delicious Committee describes it as “an intelligent robot that measures smell and taste in food ingredients through sensor technology in order to measure taste like a food critic.”
The machine uses ten sensors to create the chemical signature of the dish it’s evaluating. It can then compare that with the pre-programmed, government-approved chemical signature for that dish and come up with a comparative score out of 100. Anything that scores below 80 is not, officially speaking, sufficiently delicious Thai food.
The Times reports that one businessman wants to sell the machines to Thai embassies around the world, at a cost of $18,000 each. But some people, although supportive of the idea, are skeptical of the technology. The operator of a street food stall told the paper that the government would be better off using human beings to gauge authenticity instead of a robot.
He has a point. Taste is subjective and malleable, and there are intangible elements that contribute to the enjoyment of a dish beyond its chemical makeup. It’s difficult to credit the idea that a robot can measure exactly how good a dish is. But perhaps it can accurately ascertain when a dish is undoubtably bad or dangerous: when the ingredients are rotten, when it contains bacteria or dirt, when there is an unhealthy amount of salt or sugar, or when it contains allergens.
Technology may not yet be able to save you from having bad Thai takeout, but perhaps one day it will eradicate stomach aches.
[via New York Times]