When people find out I am a journalist covering the restaurant industry for SFGN one of the first questions they ask me is, “Why are there so many Thai restaurants in Wilton Manors?”
The answer is, “Why not?” There are more than 100 Thai restaurants in South Florida, so three in our town is not that surprising. Thai cuisine is one of the most popular ethnic foods in the U.S. A survey by the Kellogg School of Management in 2003 showed that Thai cuisine ranked fourth when people were asked to name an ethnic cuisine, after Italian, French, and Chinese cuisine.
The first Thai restaurant in Broward County, Wilton Manors’ own Siam Cuisine, opened in 1979 when Wilton Manors was decidedly less gentrified than it is now. The restaurant was opened by brother and sister team Sam and Patty Suwanpiboon, who grew up in Bangkok, Thailand where their mother owned a restaurant. Sam moved to New York in 1969, where he studied cooking and hotel and restaurant management. Patty, a cook in Thailand, joined him in 1972. The success of their restaurant encouraged other Thai immigrants to open restaurants nearby, so that’s the solution to that mystery.
Sam and Patty were like a lot of Thai immigrants who came to the U.S. following the Vietnam War, in which Thailand was an ally of the U.S. and South Vietnam. Records show that in the decade between 1960 and 1970, some 5,000 Thai people immigrated to the United States. In the following decade, the number increased to 44,000. From 1981 to 1990, approximately 64,400 Thai citizens moved to the United States.
The Thai population has been growing rapidly in South Florida — having more than doubled since the 1990 census. Now, an estimated 3,000 Thai-Americans live in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
"The area is popular because the weather and geography is very similar to Thailand," said Khanya Moolsiri, founder of the Thai-American Association of South Florida.
Thai meals typically consist of rice with many complementary dishes shared by all. The dishes are all served at the same time, including the soups, and it is also customary to provide more dishes than there are guests at a table. Dishes should form a harmonious contrast of flavors and textures as well as preparation methods. Traditionally, a meal would have at least five elements: a dip or relish for raw or cooked vegetables a crucial component of any Thai meal. The other elements would include a clear soup, a curry or stew, a deep-fried dish and a stir-fried dish of meat, fish, seafood, or vegetables. Condiments, such as spicy chili sauce, relish or dip are served alongside the meal.
Traditional Thai cooking places great emphasis on a pleasing appearance of dishes, which accounts for the intricate carved vegetables used to garnish a plate. The art of vegetable carving is said to have originated nearly 700 years ago. A plate of raw vegetables and herbs, together with a dip, is often served as a free complimentary dish at southern Thai eateries. Cucumber is sometimes eaten to cool the mouth with particularly spicy dishes.
Thai cooking places an emphasis on strong aromatic components and a spicy edge often combining disparate elements to create a harmonious finish. Like most cultures, Thai cuisine offers regional favorites, as well as influences by outside cultures. Bangkok cuisine, from the country’s metropolitan area, is perhaps what most Westerners recognize. Southern Thailand is bordered on both sides of the island by tropical seas and its food shows Hainanese and Cantonese influences. Northern Thai cuisine dishes show influences of Burma, northern Laos, and the Yunnan Province of China. Northeastern Thai cuisine is influenced by Cambodia and Vietnam. Chili peppers, originally from the Americas, were introduced to Thailand by the Portuguese and Spanish. The cuisines of India and Persia, brought first by traders, and later settlers from these regions, with their use of dried spices, gave rise to Thai curries.
Thai dishes are often accompanied by sauces and condiments, either brought to the table by wait staff or present at the table in small containers. Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Thai cuisine and imparts a unique character to Thai food. Fish sauce is prepared with fermented fish and provides a salty flavor.
Thai dishes use a wide variety of herbs, spices and leaves. Kaffir lime leaves are frequently combined with galangal and lemongrass. Fresh Thai basil, with stems that are often tinged with a purple color, are used to add fragrance. Spices and spice mixtures used in Thai cuisine include five-spice powder, curry, fresh and dried peppercorns. Northern Thai larb uses a very elaborate spice mix, which includes ingredients such as cumin, cloves, long pepper, star anise, prickly ash seeds and cinnamon.
Like most other Asian cuisines, rice is the staple grain of Thai cuisine. Noodles, a basis for many Thai dishes, are usually made from either rice flour, wheat flour or mung bean flour. Thai noodle dishes usually come as an individual serving and are not meant to be shared and eaten communally. Thai iced tea is made with strongly brewed black tea sweetened with sugar and condensed milk and served chilled. Evaporated milk, coconut milk or whole milk is generally poured over the tea and ice before serving. The lactic acid in the milk douses the heat from chilies and spices.
If you haven’t tried Thai food, you owe it to yourself. Check out one of these local favorites.
2010 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors
Tee-Jay Thai Sushi
2254 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors
Galanga Thai Kitchen & Sushi Bar
2389 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors
Lemongrass Asian Bistro
3811 N Federal, Fort Lauderdale
Beg For More
2831 E Oakland Park Blvd., Fort Lauderdale