At Thai King’s Birthday Bash, Sampling Current and Former Forbidden Fruits
As we chatted about Thai agricultural commodities at Tuesday night’s birthday party for King Bhumibol Adulyadej at the Capital Hilton, Rapibhat Chandarasrivongs, agriculture minister in the Royal Thai Embassy’s Office of Agricultural Affairs, graciously passed me a large coconut with a straw in it. I wanted to take notes, but the milk inside was so refreshing, I decided to savor the moment, imaging how it would taste on Ko Phi Phi beach. (Plus, there was no place to put it aside as we discussed mangosteens, lychee, and other Thai fruits that were previously prohibited for U.S. consumers.)
The ballroom had not yet opened to guests but the reception hall was beginning to pack in with an interesting only-in-D.C. intersection of international diplomacy, military officers from a cross-section of nations, and the local Thai community—including its restaurants.
As Thai women in colorful formal wear prepared delicate appetizers and sweets and showed off plates of finely carved fruits and vegetables, Rapibhat told me about working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lift restrictions on certain Thai commodities. Thai mangosteen, longan, mango, lychee, rambutan, and pineapple are now all permitted for export to the U.S.
“It took three years for all six commodities,” he said. That was surprisingly quick—a testament, perhaps, to Thailand’s long-standing diplomatic ties with the U.S., which counts the kingdom as its oldest treaty ally in east Asia. (Relations were formalized in 1833.)
The birthday celebration, which doubles as Thai National Day, tripled as a showcase of Thai enterprise (and the role the world’s only U.S.-born monarch has had in fostering it). Agricultural exports to the U.S. are big business. You might not realize it, but Thailand is the top supplier of shrimp to the U.S. market, and also exports large quantities of rice, tuna, canned pineapple and pet food. (Orchids, too, are big business for Thailand.)
Rapibhat urged me to try some slices of a guava. The fruit was grown in California, but the embassy hopes to get USDA approval to export Thai guava, dragon fruit, pumpkin, pummelo, cassava, and taro to the U.S. market in the next few years.
Just hours before, the U.S. Senate approved legislation that would overhaul the U.S. food safety system, which would allow the Food and Drug Administration, according to Bloomberg, "to inspect at least 600 foreign food facilities within a year of enactment, and double its number of foreign inspections in each subsequent year for five years."
Rapibhat said Thailand has good relations with the United States, and that any food safety overhaul stateside wouldn’t adversely affect Thai agricultural exports.
But enough work and commodities talk! There was more Thai food to sample.
As the ballroom doors at the Hilton opened, a stage with a large portrait of the 83-year-old king was revealed, with stalls from 15 area Thai restaurants lining the sides, including Thai Tanic of Logan Circle and Columbia Heights, Asian Bistro in Old Town Alexandria, Mayuree Thai Food Express at the Springfield Mall, Asia Nine in Penn Quarter, Banthai in Baltimore, Bangkok One near McPherson Square, and Talay Thai on the House side of Capitol Hill. (There were also some tasty sticky rice noshes from the Thai Funeral Association.)
A walk-around sampling event, a great marketing tool, wasn't the best environment to enjoy a Thai meal, but it gave me some good ideas of places I might want to check out. But any event that involves the Thai national anthem, balancing coconuts with small plates of spring rolls, and trying to avoid accidentally poking a Russian naval officer with a pork skewer is a fun evening, no matter how you present it.
Photos by Michael E. Grass