This article explores the historical roots of the relationship among Thai food, politics, and community formation within the context of global capitalism. It asks why and how Thai food evolved into a powerful community building force for Thai Americans in Los Angeles. Putting the history of Thai Americans in the context of U.S. empire in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, I argue that Thai food is one of the best ways not only to uncover the transnational experiences of Thai Americans but also to understand the way post–World War II U.S. empire has turned foodways into a critical site of racial and ethnic identity formation. Food practices are significant, because they show us that food, as a practice of everyday life, helps people make sense of and imagine their relationship to the world around them. This is an inherently political act.
Drawing from oral histories, Thai- and English-language newspapers, menus, cookbooks, federal and city documents, I discuss the significance of Thai food to Thai Americans in four parts. First, I show how the origins of the Thai culinary scene in Los Angeles spawned not from the arrival of Thai immigrants to U.S. soil but from U.S. intervention in Thailand and the global intensification of tourism during the Cold War. Second, I trace the migration of Thais to Los Angeles and the creation of Thai restaurants as the primary social and community spaces in a period of reindustrialization—or the growth of Los Angeles's service sector economy. Third, I look at how Thai restaurateurs, chefs, and white food critics used Thai food to define the racial, class, and gendered contours of a Thai American identity that was distinct from other Asian groups. Finally, I explain how community leaders tapped into an emerging political discourse of multiculturalism by making Thai food central to Thai American political activism, as well as discuss the limitations of this expression.