Thai cuisine excites palates in southwest China
Many bricks-and-mortar stores have felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but restaurants featuring Thai cuisine seem to have bucked the trend in southwest China's Chongqing Municipality.
According to Chen Shaoling, a Thai resident who came to Chongqing in 2019 and named herself in Chinese, the number of restaurants providing their national dishes has risen steeply since the epidemic started in late 2019.
In Huangnibang, along the city's major subway line in the downtown Jiangbei District, at least five new Thai restaurants have been opened since 2020. Two of these establishments are run by Yuli and Chen Meilin, both originally from Thailand.
Now well established in their adopted home, they have acquired Chinese names based on their favorite Chinese characters. The two women came to Chongqing in 2012, a time when Thai food was of little interest to most Chongqing residents.
Yuli and Chen Meilin used to open large restaurants inside shopping malls, featuring up-market decor and plenty of floor space.
However, last year, they decided to offer something different – serving authentic Thai street snacks in smaller outlets, aiming to reproduce the Thai street-food experience with cheaper price.
"The dishes we serve are mainly staples and snacks. The average cost per customer has dropped from 150 yuan (about 23.5 US dollars) to 60 yuan," said Yuli.
Serving up to 100 tables each day, Chen Meilin's eatery has been a big success with customers, who have warmed to the novel tastes of Thailand, despite the epidemic.
"Though Chongqing lies relatively far away from Thailand and is not the most famous Chinese city for Thai people, the sour and spicy taste of Thai food suits the locals perfectly," said Yuli.
Although the recent spurt in interest has been impressive, Chongqing's love affair with Thai food goes back a long way.
About 18 years ago, a famous Chinese chain restaurant named Thai Rice House set up its business headquarters in Chongqing. In 2020, the brand received official recognition from Thailand's Ministry of Commerce and several franchises were labeled "Thai SELECT restaurants."
Restaurants bearing this title are recognized as using raw materials from Thailand and professional chefs with expertise in Thai food. Meanwhile, each of their dishes presents an authentic flavor and the overall environment of the eateries is decorated with Thai cultural elements.
The current interest in Thai food reflects strong links between the two cultures. In 2019, Thailand became the most popular travel destination for Chongqing residents.
"Nowadays, due to travel restrictions, many Chongqing residents can no longer fly to Thailand themselves. But having a delicious Thai meal can help ease their disappointment, as if they were traveling in that foreign land," Chen Shaoling said.
Ziwei Street in the Huangnibang neighborhood has now been nicknamed "Little Bangkok" due to the coffee shops and Thai restaurants that are reminiscent of the Thai capital.
"On the one hand, this just shows how much Chongqing residents love Thai food. On the other, the reality also pushes us to provide more authentic food and quality service to meet the mounting market demand," Yuli said.
In 2021, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remained Chongqing's largest trading partner, with the foreign trade between the two reaching nearly 130 billion yuan, up 15.2 percent year on year.
During the period, Chongqing's total import and export value with Thailand hit more than 21.1 billion yuan, with an increase of 40.7 percent compared with the previous year, accounting for over 16 percent of the city's foreign trade with ASEAN countries, according to local commerce authorities.