23 May 2024

The Thai foodie community was recently in an uproar after a website published a listicle article in which  “Kaeng Som” (sour curry) was named as among the world’s top 20 worst dishes. The 12th worst dish? Many Thais found that hard to digest (the article, not the curry) and vented their disagreement on social media. Even some TV channels picked up the report. If this article on the TasteAtlas website was designed as clickbait, it accomplished its aim.

Kaeng Som is actually a Thai favorite and one of the most common curries. It is cooked in households in all regions of the country and served at street-side stalls as well as posh restaurants. Some people may not like Kaeng Som but it doesn’t make sense to casually put it in the worst dish category.

Of course not every Thai loves “Kaeng Som” – after all, food preferences are very individual. Similarly, not every English person loves eating Shepherd’s pie or fish ‘n chips. But because it depends on individual taste buds, it is not fair to name any national dish “the worst”. Many dishes are delicious but not every tasty dish is our favorite.

While a lot of Thais got carried away with the ranking on TasteAtlas, some people have understood and digested the ranking although they might not agree with it. Montri Jiratitkankit, the chef in charge of a Thai restaurant at The Athenee Hotel, a Luxury Collection Hotel Bangkok, said that he was not surprised. Having worked abroad for almost 2 decades, Montri noticed that foreigners loved certain kinds of Thai food.

The Southern style Kaeng Som. (Photo by Dae Warunee)

“When you mention a curry, a foreigner thinks about a curry with coconut milk. They love coconut-based curry. They regard clear watery dishes as soup and a lot of non-coconut curries such as Kaeng Liang, Kaeng Rawang, and Kaeng Som don’t click with their taste buds,” he said.

Food is about feeling and perception too, as Chef Montri has found out. People in the food industry know that and many took the matter lightly and did not feel offended.  “The ranking doesn’t define our food. Food is about culture, feeling and emotion. We can be confident that our Kaeng Som is good,” said Kriengsak Sengsak, co-owner of Southern rice-and-curry restaurant chain Klup Nakhon.

There are many regional variations of Kaeng Som and Kriengsak’s restaurant sells the Southern version which normally uses sea fish as the main meat following the recipe of his hometown in Nakhon Si Thammarat. The curry will also be more orange than the central one thanks to cumin added to the paste.

So, it is quite understandable that the article caused an uproar. It is also comprehensible that others can accept such a “bizarre” ranking.

Kaeng Som Dok Khae with shrimp is also common. (Photo Wikipedia Commons)

The listicle published on TasteAtlas just casually ranks food around the world. No one knows whether the writer has ever tasted Kaeng Som, or if he or she has, which version of it and who cooked it.

TasteAtlas described Kaeng Som as a “sour water-based Thai curry that is typically prepared with fish or shrimps and a thick paste that usually incorporates shallots, chillies and shrimps. Perhaps that is the most they know about the curry. So we can justifiably question how well the website that has the courage to rank the world’s worst food knows about the dishes they talk about.

Kaeng Som is a Thai dish that has not been influenced by foreign tastes like many others. The dish is a favorite thanks to the depth of its taste – sourness, saltiness and sweetness – all in one plate. There are also many types of this curry, and it varies according to the choice of vegetables and protein such as freshwater fish, sea fish, shrimp or plant-based protein.

Kaeng Som can also be a dish to increase one’s appetite as the tamarind paste plays a big part in it. Apart from the combination of flavors, it is great when paired with a “side” dish such as omelet and fried salty fish or dried squid. In summer when the temperature is unbearably high, Kaeng Som is a choice that is lighter, refreshing, and a good alternative to thick coconut curry.

Perhaps the only weak point about Kaeng Som is that it is not a good choice for those concerned about their weight because this curry will have you eating more rice, especially when paired with fried salty fish or squid. Maybe we can rank it among the worst dishes for people on a diet.

By Veena Thoopkrajae

A view of the beautiful East through the windshield