Companies & Industries

Thailand’s seal of food authenticity is a sly way to boost trade

No ketchup, please, we’re Thai

(Christopher Katsarov)

(Christopher Katsarov)

The country that gave us pad thai, massaman curry and tom yum soup wants to ensure we’re getting its beloved dishes right.

In September, Thailand’s commerce ministry relaunched its “Thai Select” certification, a label that guarantees the authenticity of Thai restaurant food. That meant a new logo and a more rigorous rating system focused on “five-star plus” dining to bolster the standards of Thai restaurants around the world.

“When you pick a Thai restaurant, we want consumers to think of Thai Select,” says Daovipa Leekumjohn, Canadian consul to Thailand’s Department of International Trade Promotion. Leekumjohn compares the label to Ontario’s Vintners Quality Alliance, which has boosted the reputation of Ontario-grown wine. Certified restaurants can display the Thai Select logo and are listed in the program’s restaurant-finder mobile app.

The program is part soft-power cultural diplomacy, and part trade strategy: restaurants must prove they serve at least 60% traditional Thai dishes. They must also prove they import ingredients from Thailand—a nod to the country’s rice, coconut milk and frozen-shrimp industries. Chefs must be trained in Thai cooking for a minimum of two years, and mystery diners from the trade department make unannounced visits to sample the food.

“I’ve seen restaurants put ketchup in their pad thai,” says Leekumjohn. “That’s not traditional.”

Toronto was the first Canadian city to be put to the new taste test before rolling out to Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa. The program has seen a hike in applications from Canadian restaurants seeking certification, and 36 have been successful so far. It’s projected that number will more than double next year.

Still, Leekumjohn says it will take a while before Thai Select can become a globally recognized symbol of authentic Thai food. In the meantime, she hopes it will force the fakes to up their game—and hold the ketchup.