A Case of Culinary Illiteracy

Sandwich billboard rs
Blackboard menu, Chiang Mai, Thailand. A question of pointing and hoping for the best. (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

It wasn’t just the Thai language and its lacy script that rendered me illiterate.

So also did the sheer variety of ingredients, the creatures – crawling, swimming, splayed, and grilled – and the vast range of vegetables and fruits on display in the Warorot market in Chiang Mai, Thailand. My adrenaline levels soared as if I’d gulped a good fierce cup of espresso. My heart pumping, I meandered through the aisles, staring at all the mysterious items arranged so carefully on fresh banana leaves or ripped sacks made of woven plastic. Slowly, that’s the only way to navigate the crowds of shoppers and oil-guzzling mopeds delivering quivering, gasping fish, fresh off the boat.

Dried squid
Dried squid (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Then came déjà vu, with all the force of an out-of-control train. While eyeing the endless stacks of dried fish, I realized again just how much I don‘t know about food and cooking. The last time this happened, I’d stepped inside the central market in Ouagadougou in West Africa, where I saw food items I’d never seen before. And, truthfully, have not seen since.

Thailand might be experiencing a decline in culinary literacy as well, because in aisle after aisle, I saw small bags of curry paste, nam prik, and other essentials of Thai cuisine being sold in small plastic bags, puffed up like the bags used to sell goldfish and other aquarium fish at pet stores here. And one of the more endearing customs of the country is street food, to be found everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, but particularly at night, when the brutal heat of the day dissipates somewhat.

Smoked catfish
Smoked catfish (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

Along with the language and the ingredients, I must add that the street food – a real jewel in Thailand’s culinary traditions – also contributed to my sense of culinary illiteracy. So much variety and no sure way of knowing what most of the dishes were made of.

There’s a huge gap between the reality of cooking in places like these and the rarified writing found in many Western publications, those jumping on the trendy organic bandwagon. All evidence points to the startling fact that culinary illiteracy exists, even amongst the so-called well informed. And this on a deeper level than not knowing how to cook at all, which is the case more and more in the West, where culinary literacy is defined as knowing how to operate in the kitchen, primarily those influenced directly or indirectly by French culinary traditions. Articles like “Make Dinner: A Home Cooking Manifesto” address this sort of culinary literacy and the smug, self-righteous attitudes toward food these days.  When I immerse myself in the obsessive food culture so prevalent in the West right now, it’s easy to forget the immense richness of languages and variety of foodstuffs available across the globe.

Condiments rs
Condiments (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

These languages and ingredients, however, prove to be somewhat divisive and exclusionary, because without the proper language skills and access to ingredients, it’s not really possible to capture the essence of a cuisine. And, truth be told, cookbooks – even those written by Thai food expert and restaurateur David Thompson – tend to not be as comprehensive as they could be, because publishers know that ingredients might be hard to come by and readers in other parts of the world might prefer different tastes. Or just plain unpalatable. Fish sauce and toasted shrimp paste, for example, play vital roles in the flavor profile of Thai cuisine, yet the underlying taste of fish is not to everyone’s liking. On the flip side, there are kaffir lime leaves, which deliver a unique and savory perfume to various dishes.

So, in spite of having delved a little into the intricacies of Thai cuisine prior to arriving in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, the stark reality was that I didn’t have much of a clue when I stepped off the plane and into the market. It takes years to develop an understanding of cuisine in one’s own culture, much less becoming proficient in another.*


Cummings, Joe. Thailand (World Food series, Lonely Planet, 2000)

Danhi, Robert. Southeast Asian Flavors (Mortar & Press, 2008)

Duguid, Naomi. Burma: Rivers of Flavor (Artisan, 2012)

Thompson, David. Thai Food (Ten Speed Press, 2002)

________. Thai Street Food (Ten Speed Press, 2009)

*(See Rachel Laudan for more on this issue: “Cuisine and Language: 4. Bi-Cuisinal.”)
Condiments 2
Green curry paste (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)

© 2014 C. Bertelsen

One thought on “A Case of Culinary Illiteracy

  1. Great, as always, Cynthia!

    Question: Can I get a higher resolution copy of this photo for my preserved foods book? I’d like to replace one of the ones you gave me before… since I had so many Indonesian ones (& Thailand is under- represented). You will of course get credit.

    Also, if you can tell me anything else about the photo, that might make the caption more interesting (Bangkok? open-air market? how the dried squid would be used? — that sort of thing).



    ________________ Gary Allen http://onthetable.us

    Author and/or Editor: The Resource Guide for Food Writers (Routledge, 1999), The Herbalist in the Kitchen (University of Illinois Press, 2007), The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries (Greenwood Press, 2007), Human Cuisine (Booksurge, 2008), Herbs: A Global History (Reaktion Books, April 2012), Terms of Vegery (Kindle, August 2012), How to Serve Man (Kindle, November 2012)l contributor to The Oxford Encyclopedia for Food and Drink in America (Oxford University Press, 2007, 2014)

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