Thai food is ready for its mainstream moment — and Pailin's Kitchen will show you why
If you’ve ever tried to look up how to make Thai green curry on YouTube, chances are you’ve probably landed on Pailin Chongchitnant’s recipe. Still one of her most popular videos to date at over 4.8 million views, Pailin’s Kitchen has been serving hundreds of authentic Thai recipes since the channel began on YouTube in 2009.
Since then, Pailin’s Kitchen has evolved beyond just recipes and looks to “edu-tain” viewers on things only a Thai chef can tell you (i.e., which red curry paste is best? How about oyster sauce?) She’s also become a mother during her YouTube career, a life-changing moment that became the genesis behind her latest cookbook, “Sabai: 100 Simple Thai Recipes for Any Day of the Week,” which comes out this week.
We caught up with Pailin to learn more about her thoughts on food fads, the evolution of Thai culture and cuisine on an international stage — and where her perspectives fit into it all.
Pailin, your channel is all about Thai food — cooking it, eating it, buying the ingredients for enjoying it the authentic way. What does being authentically Thai mean to you?
Being Thai to me is being connected to my roots. I've been fortunate enough to keep going back to Thailand every year as much as I can, and I can see it evolve. And so in my YouTube channel, I try to do that as well.” Pailin Chongchitnant Host and Creator, Pailin's Kitchen
Pailin: I think about this a lot because at this point, I've basically spent the same number of years in Thailand as I have in Canada, where I’m now based. Being Thai to me is being connected to my roots. I've been fortunate enough to keep going back to Thailand every year as much as I can, and I can see it evolve — the food, the culture, the people. And so in my YouTube channel, I try to do that as well.
That means going beyond the traditional dishes. A video that I released during Christmas time was a traditional Thai dessert that has been turned upside down, and serving it that way is not traditional, but it's a thing that Thai people are doing right now.
I'm in a unique situation where there are so few Thai people who are fluent in English, but are also born and raised in Thailand, so I am lucky enough that I can help bridge the two.
As someone who straddles two cultures, how do you translate both perspectives to an international audience in a way that resonates with them?
Pailin: I find myself using a lot of analogies. For example, in Thai, we have a category of food called Ahaan Jaan Diew, which literally translates as “one dish meal.” I refer to them as the sandwiches of Thai cuisine because that is a food that you eat by yourself, you're not sharing with anyone, you're not going to have a sandwich at your family dinner. When I say that, people get it. Another example is fried rice — I call it the pizza of Thai food, where you have this base and structure, but really, you can add whatever you want as you're topping, and it will still be some sort of a fried rice.
I feel like because I am fluent in both cultures, I see so many of these analogies and use them to help people get it more quickly than having to explain it all from scratch.
You’ve now been creating food content on YouTube for over a decade. How have you seen this world evolve and adapt to changing trends?
Pailin: When I started out, the only kind of food content that there was was recipes. At the time, the only kind of visual media people had as a reference at the time was TV, so a lot of things on YouTube were similar to what was going on on TV. But now, I feel like non-recipe content performs much better than recipe content. And I see this in my own channel — unless it's some wildly popular dish, it's going to perform at a certain level, but if I post a non-recipe post, it has a potential to do more, because I feel like non-recipes, such as ”How to Eat Thai Food Correctly” and the “Asian Grocery Store Guidelines,” it has a wider appeal. You don't have to be interested in this one dish, but it's consumed more as an entertainment, rather than a tutorial.
As Thai food has evolved and also become more popular over time, there are also growing numbers of non-Thai creators and writers sharing Thai recipes. What do you think when you see folks from outside your culture teach others how to make Thai food?
I’m glad to see folks wanting to share Thai food [but] I often see recipes that don’t seem to do it with enough research, respect and consultations with Thai people — with reference and credit to Thai people.” Pailin Chongchitnant
Pailin: I think it’s great for our representation and being seen and I’m glad to see folks wanting to share Thai food. But it can also be frustrating. I often see recipes that don’t seem to do it with enough research, respect and consultations with Thai people — with reference and credit to Thai people. There are creators or mainstream magazines that have huge platforms, which means there's an opportunity there to credit the people from that culture. Sometimes someone will share a video with me or I’ll read an article and wonder, "Did you actually talk to any Thai people, any Thai chefs about this? Is there any context around it? Are you giving credit?"
One of the things I'm really grateful for is I think people are moving in the right direction — I’m starting to get reached out to by mainstream media because now, people are becoming more aware that if you're going to write a cultural piece, you can't just write it from a white person's perspective. I would like to see more of that on YouTube as well.
Speaking of being the authentic resource, your first book was all about demystifying Thai cuisine. “Sabai,” the Thai word for ‘comfort’ and the title of your latest book, is now about how to incorporate Thai cuisine into your meal planning in a way that isn't overwhelming. Why did you go with that direction for this book?
Pailin: When I wrote my first book, I wanted it to be like a textbook on Thai cuisine. Then I became a mom between then and now, and then suddenly, I have this time pressure that I had never experienced before. I had this whole new appreciation of quick and simple dishes.
Then I realized I didn't really have that for my audience. You can go on my YouTube channel or my website, but it's like, "How do you know which one is quick? How do you know which one is good for a weeknight, or not?" You have to do a lot of work on your part, so I wanted a resource that you can grab my book off the shelf and turn to any page, and anything that looks good to you is doable on a weeknight.
Why that's an important leap is because I want Thai food to become more of a normal thing in people's kitchen, rather than it being this special project that people have to do on the weekend because to break into the mainstream, it has to be easy and there has to be a low barrier to entry. I explain all of the ingredients, I talk through how to stock your pantry and which ingredients you need and which are nice to have, but not really necessary to help people develop a pantry. Then, you can turn to any of these recipes and it’s going to be straightforward.
How hard is it to balance something that feels easy and approachable, but also still authentic?
Pailin: I draw that line at an individual dish level, and I have a lot of information on substitutions in this book. Say, if you don't eat fish or you don't have fish sauce, soy sauce is a decent substitute. But there are things like, if you don't have lemongrass… there is no substitute! You can substitute something else, but you're going to be making something different, which is fine and I'm also very realistic about that.
Galangals are another example — you can look for dried, you can look for frozen, but if you want to put ginger instead, just know that you're making something else now!
I want Thai food to become more of a normal thing in people's kitchen, rather than it being this special project ... because to break into the mainstream, there has to be a low barrier to entry.” Pailin Chongchitnant
Is there a recipe or tip from this book that you're particularly proud of?
Pailin: One thing that I've been super proud of that I feel like I came to on my own is using red curry paste as a base to build other curry paste. You can buy red curry paste from anywhere, but you can't buy Massaman or Panang curry paste from most places. But all those hard-to-find paste all have a similar base, and that base is red curry paste. By adding just a few other ingredients, you've turned it into something else, which is hugely useful because making a brand new curry paste is not something you want to do on a weekday or weekend!
One last thought before we let you go: since you have been keeping up with food trends in Thailand and beyond… what are your thoughts on the obsession with putting cheese on everything?
Pailin: Oh, I think it's terrible [laughs]. Most of the time the cheese doesn't make it better and it's there mostly for the novelty factor.
Fads really thrive in Thai culture. Food comes and goes in huge waves. I don't understand it, but at the same time, I just love the boldness of it. People are not afraid to do weird things, and that's why I love so much all the weird flavored potato chips in Thailand, and I wish there'd be more of that here in North America. I am done with the Barbecue and the Salt and Vinegar! Give me something else!