A quick search on Yelp in any major American city and you quickly notice that some the most popular restaurants are Thai. Although the population of Thai Americans is relatively small compared to other immigrant populations, Thai restaurants are ubiquitous. As delicious and vibrant as Thai cuisine can be, there is actually another reason for this reality: the Thai government. Unknown to most Americans, the Thai government invests in funding Thai restaurants abroad. And with the Thai Select Program, the Thai government also deals with awards for restaurants.
This concept of government intervention in the culinary field is a calculated strategy of soft power. Gastrodiplomacy, also known as culinary diplomacy, is a concept invented by The economist in 2002. It is essentially a “win hearts and minds by the stomach” campaign. The logic is that a government can leverage its country’s culinary heritage for diplomacy, enabling it to elevate the national brand and increase economic trade and cultural prestige. Thailand is not the only country to invest in this strategy, other countries such as Taiwan, South Korea and Peru also have missions dedicated to gastrodiplomacy.
What is Thai Select?
The Thai Select Project is a certification mark sponsored by the Thai government and first introduced in 2006. According to Nithima Siriphokakij, director of the Thai Trade Center (TTC) in Miami, Florida, the government developed this program because of the growth of Thai food abroad. “We have seen several restaurants promoting themselves as authentic Thai, but the quality of the food did not match authentic Thai cuisine,” Siripokakij said. “By starting this project, we hope to help local restaurant enthusiasts distinguish authentic Thai restaurants from others and improve the image of Thai cuisine.”
Basically, Thai Select is a seal awarded to Thai restaurants and Thai food products around the world by the Department of International Trade Promotion (DITP) of the Ministry of Commerce of the Royal Thai Government. Any Thai restaurant with a Thai Select seal is essentially a guarantee of quality and authenticity courtesy of the Thai government. These selections are made by government officials who monitor and maintain the quality of Thai restaurants within their area of responsibility. Similar to the Michelin Guide, Thai Select focuses only on Thai cuisine. Currently, there are 58 TTC offices around the world, including Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The current list of Thai restaurants designated by Thai Select will show you where to find authentic Thai food.
There are four categories in the Thai Select program and each award represents a different style of Thai cuisine:
- Thai Select Signature (fine dining restaurants) is for restaurants that offer an upscale experience, featuring authentic Thai cuisine, excellent service, and decor with traditional Thai or contemporary design. A Thai Select – Signature restaurant should “portray an exquisite image of the uniqueness of Thai cuisine” according to Siripokakij.
- Thai Select Classic (mid-range restaurants) rewards Thai restaurants of excellent quality and good service. Ideally, diners who eat at a Thai Select – Classic should be happy with both the food and the price.
- Thai Select Casual is awarded to restaurants that have good quality Thai food and taste but have limited service.
- Thai Select Unique (Outstanding Thai Restaurants located only in Thailand) is awarded to local Thai restaurants that focus on regional Thai cuisine.
There is a standard operating method for selecting a restaurant for Thai Select. First, there is a selection process for restaurants. “We get restaurant leads from a variety of sources including newspapers, social media, food distributors and the Thai restaurant owner himself,” Siripokakij said. “So if a restaurant serves authentic Thai food and wants to be part of this exclusive program, they can contact the TTC in your area to begin the application process. Once selected, a TTC representative will perform a random inspection at a location to test the quality of the food, the restaurant atmosphere and other factors. If the restaurant meets the standards, the TTC will submit the information to the DITP committee for approval.
As a nation, Thailand has a particularly strong culinary impact. Each year Thailand exports billions of dollars in food products, with Thai restaurants being one of the main backers of this global distribution network. Thai restaurants are big business – America alone has about 5,000 Thai restaurants. With all this money and cultural influence, gastrodiplomacy is essential for the Thai government. By having an official program that maintains both authenticity and quality, the Thai government can ensure that consumers around the world continue to enjoy the best Thai food possible. “Our goal is to help consumers get the most out of their dining experience at Thai restaurants,” Siripokakij said.