Today’s New York Times contains a front-page report on an important new Thai government initiative. Education? Infrastructure? Trade facilitation? No, it’s a robotic device for evaluating the authenticity of Thai dishes. Apparently this is a response to Cabinet-level concerns that much of what is presented and sold as “Thai food” around the world isn’t really authentic — and (horror!) may even have been prepared by non-Thai cooks. So the government-funded Thai Delicious Committee spent $100K to develop this machine, which will evaluate the flavor profile of your gaeng (curry) and give it an authenticity rating out of 100. Can’t wait for a coin-op version of one of these to be installed outside my local peanut-butter and jalapeño Thai place!
You are no doubt asking how the ideal flavor profile is established. According to the report, it results from tests on 120 volunteers at Chulalongkorn University, the nation’s most elite institution of higher learning. One is of course entitled to ask whether these one-percenters are reliable arbiters of the taste of a rustic dish such as, say, gaeng pa moo pa, but we’ll leave that to another study. I’ve spent too much time stuck in Bangkok traffic, being driven clear across town by colleagues determined to visit the one and only lunch place that does tom yam goong the way it should be, to buy into that controversy.
Meanwhile, the planned rollout of the “e-delicious machine” and an associated restaurant rating system to Thai embassies across the world presents a unique natural experiment for the quantitatively-minded young economist. Will adherence to government-sanctioned authenticity standards by local restaurateurs improve perceptions of the quality of other Thai products, or the attractiveness of Thai investment vehicles? Or at least, will it help stop Thailand’s decade-long slide in perceptions of government effectiveness? รอและดู.