I grew up in rural coastal British Columbia, and every now and then I like to sneak back to the Sunshine Coast for a weekend away from city life. It was a bit rainy today, but I still managed to sip coffee by the beach, take in the misty forest air, and I even managed to spot a golden eagle by the ocean. We decided to finish the day with a little culinary adventure at the local rural Thai place, Absolutely Thai. When we walked in my cousin Deanna was already there waiting for take-out, proving that in a small town one doesn’t just run into people one knows, but indeed usually runs into a blood relative.
The first delightful thing about this Thai restaurant is that it is located in what was once Ernie and Gwen’s Drive In, a scruffy little place that I remember well as I went to high school next door. In small town Canada restaurant renovation budgets are small to non-existent, so Absolutely Thai has retained much of the original space’s look and feel. One can perform a sort of restaurant archeology in small towns; pizza joints were once bars that were once fish and chip stands that were in some cases once failed chain restaurants.
Thai food in rural Canada deserves mention in its own right. The Thai population of Canada is very small, and so Thai restaurants are oriented to serve western tastes. Thai food became popular in the US after the Vietnam war, as Thailand was a popular recreation spot for soldiers on leave. The distinctive spicy Thai cuisine began to appear in Los Angeles and spread slowly North; the first real Thai restaurant in Vancouver was Pranakorn, which opened in 1986, followed closely by Baan Thai in 1987. These restaurants maintained an informal network that stretched all the way back to Thailand in order to secure both staff and ingredients.
Thai food restaurants have spread into many areas over the last ten years, adopting to their new surroundings. They are a great example of how the concept of authenticity in a cuisine is a bit of a myth; all cuisines adapt to their surroundings given necessity and time. In the case of Thai food, North American restaurants offer salads and appetizers, where in Thailand all dishes are served at once. Also, spices are more carefully controlled to better suit North American tastes, and more vegetarian dishes are offered. The most interesting difference, however, is the presence of basil in Canadian Thai food. It is a stand-in for Bai Kra-pao, also known as holy basil, which I have never seen in North America. This herb is spicy and savory, and lacks the sweetness and aromatic nature of our basil. It is, however, available, and it suits North American tastes.
As for the meal, it was really quite excellent. Everything was extremely fresh, and the flavours were intense and clear. Rural Canada is often stereotyped as filled with greasy, oily cuisine, but there are some hidden gems. And in a town where everyone knows everyone, that pays off; they sometimes have as much as a three hour wait for orders, and people are phoning in days in advance. As might be imagined, restaurants in small towns live and die by word of mouth.