Thai cuisine is not being presented well in New Zealand, and is so much more than just pad thai and green curry, a Kiwi MasterChef says.
Brett McGregor, who won MasterChef NZ with a Thai creation, has plans to start a restaurant in Auckland which will offer a fresh take on Thai cuisine and is in Thailand in search of culinary inspiration.
According to this Thai food expert and Taste of a Traveller presenter, many Thai restaurants in New Zealand are failing to convey the variety, colours and tastes of food from this South East Asian nation.
"Thai is one of the most aromatic, exciting cuisines in the world, yet in New Zealand, many restaurants are simply just catering to the broad palate and sticking to a safe menu," McGregor said.
"It's quite unfortunate that for most Kiwis, Thai food is just pad thai, green curry and maybe tom yum."
New Zealand Thai Society president Songvut Manoonpong, who owns Mai Thai, one of Auckland's oldest Thai eateries, said there are between 130 and 140 Thai restaurants in the city. Most, he admitted, competed on who could deliver the "best taste" rather than deviate from a safe menu.
McGregor believes believes it is time Thai restaurants took the cuisine to the next level by combining New Zealand produce with Thai cooking styles.
"Back home, we could take our Thai restaurants and our ideas about Thai food to the next level by simply thinking outside the square a little bit," he said.
"These guys here are doing that with our produce, and I think I should be doing that when I come home with their produce."
Thai cuisine is one of the most popular cuisines in the world and its dishes consistently make it to CNN Travel's list of the World's 50 Most Delicious Foods. However, dishes on the list, such as nam tok mu, a spicy grilled pork herb salad native to the northeast of Thailand but now on the menu of many restaurants around the world, can be hard to find in Auckland.
Mu kratha, a Thai dining concept that resembles a combination of a Korean barbecue and Chinese hotpot, has spread into Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia - but is not available in New Zealand.
In a country where fresh mussels are widely available, the popular hoy tod - a fritter plied with mussels, bean sprouts and eaten with a sweet and sour chilli sauce - is offered by very few Auckland restaurants.
Damrong Puttan, a Thai television host and former senator of Bangkok, believes using New Zealand produce in Thai cooking could be the secret to taking the cuisine to new heights.
"In Thai cooking, it's not just about taste, but everything from how it looks, how it smells and, sometimes, we have to combine many different herbs and ingredients to bring out the best in a dish," Puttan said.
"New Zealand has the best and freshest beef and lamb, and even the mussels are bigger and superior, so I think the secret is when we combine the two, we can make magic."