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Tea Leaves

Thai lessons in cultural appreciation

Pad thai noodles and tuk-tuks highlight influences from around the world

Traditional Thai costumes also have Victorian and Indian influences. (All photos by Andrew Benfield)

Recent visitors to Bangkok's Museum Siam were greeted by a giant electronic screen displaying some of Thailand's best-known cultural icons beneath a banner headline asking: "But are they really Thai?" Given that national museums normally focus on emphasizing -- as opposed to questioning -- their nation's uniqueness, I felt the exhibition warranted a closer look.

The displays inside could certainly give ardent nationalists pause for thought. They start with pad thai, one of the country's best-known dishes, a simple, delicious concoction of sauteed noodles with a salty-sugary kick. It is a culinary icon in a country obsessed with food. But as the display explained, pad thai originated as a Chinese import. It was given a few tweaks by Thailand's military government in the 1930s, removing the pricey pork and adding egg and nam pla (fish sauce), for example, then marketed as a national dish with the aim of getting people to switch from eating rice during a time of shortage.

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