Currying favour with the old-school Thai

My friend Ian's girlfriend Cindy has opened a Thai restaurant at Tollcross in Edinburgh. There's nothing particularly reprehensible about that - I mean, at least Cindy is Thai, unlike a lot of the folk who run such establishments. Propping up the bar at Passorn (which means "angel" in Thai and happened to be Cindy's name), Ian was scathing about "Thai" restaurants that are anything but. "Most of them are Chinese places that offer a few Thai dishes," he said, "which they can't cook properly anyway."

Cindy has brought in a couple of top-class Thai chefs from the mother country, and they're doing the real thing with a vengeance; their signature dish of Pad Normai Fa rang - a stir-fry with monkfish, among other things - was superb, and deliquesced on my mouldy Allied Carpets runner of a tongue. As for their Pad Thai, I don't think I've ever had better; I particularly liked the way it came with little additional heaps of herbs and spices so you could spritz it up to your taste.

Flash Pad

Still, enough of this wanking-on about delicious food - I'll leave that to the venal scum who junket with the industry: I pay my way. What interests me more about Thai dining is how ubiquitous it's become. Thirty years ago there was only one Thai restaurant (that I knew of) in London's West End, and we thought we were doing some impressive cross-cultural engagement just by going there. Nowadays there are approximately 1,700 Thai - or possibly "Thai" - restaurants in the UK. It's difficult to see how this many authentic Thai restaurants could be staffed, given that there are only 36,000 people of Thai descent in the country. Assuming half this number are either children or retired, it leaves a ratio of ten Thais to every restaurant, implying that all the Thais in Britain work in catering - surely an unwarranted slur?

I've only been to Thailand once. The first half of the trip was profoundly unreal: my then wife and I stayed on one of the islands off Phuket at a luxury resort. This was over 20 years ago, when the homogenisation of moneyed global culture was still something of a shock; with its western breakfast cereals and servile masseuses, the place seemed so horrifically ersatz that I was compelled to take a fantail boat to a nearby hippie beach and score some dope. This didn't help either; it was so strong that a couple of puffs convinced me that the Thai police had miniaturised themselves and set up a stake-out somewhere in my rectum - so I flushed most of it down the loo.

And then we decamped to Bangkok, which was both frenetic and fabulous - although what I remember most about the city was the food; you could graze your way clear across town from one stall to the next. At each there was a wok, a handful of prawns, some chillies, some garlic, some lemongrass. Everything tasted crisp, clean and delicious, and we had nary a stomach upset; such a contrast with northern India, where you've only to look at a dodgy dish to have spirochaetes swarming up your eye-beams.

Empire of the yum

Anyway, it all left me with a deep affection for Thai food - such a deep affection that I've attempted to replicate the experience in as unpropitious surroundings as Ilkley, Ilford and Ilfracombe. Indeed, while I'm delighted to find such genuine Thai restaurants as Passorn, or Esarn Kheaw on the Uxbridge Road in London (where I used to eat with the late J G Ballard, and where the patron still obstinately refuses to recognise me, even though I've been coming in since the late 1980s), I'm also quite content with "Thai" restaurants, the inauthenticity of which seems only fair during late globalisation.

After all, if westerners have exercised a form of neo-imperialism whereby we insist on the replication of our own environments in foreign climes, why shouldn't foreigners obey the same commercial imperatives and replicate our tourist destinations in our own land? No one expects all the employees of the Hilton or Holiday Inn in Thailand to be American, so why should we expect all the Thai restaurants in Britain to be run by Thais? True, the "Thai" restaurant opened by some Serbs near my house in south London did push the envelope a little too far - the green curry was beige, the sticky rice could've been loaded into a mastic gun - but market forces soon put paid to them.

As they will to us all.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis