Same Same but Different - Part One: My First Baked Potato in Thailand

It's been five years, and I still think about it.

‘Same same but different’ is a phrase that’s so nonsensical that when someone uses it, you know—and they know that you know—they use it as a joke.1

This post is the first of the multi-part series in which I talk about things related to Thai food that are, heh, same same but different.


What you’re looking at here is the baked potato I had during a visit to my hometown of Bangkok five years ago; it was the first baked potato I’d ever had in Thailand.

You see, I’d never had baked potatoes when I was growing up. That’s not how the Thai people prepare potatoes.2 My mom bought a lot of American cookbooks from her American missionary friends who lived in Bangkok, and she cooked out of them quite often. I also have several aunts and uncles who liked to sneak into our family cookouts a few American dishes they’d learned to make while going to school in the US. However, for some reason, baked potatoes were never among those American things.

The first time I had a baked potato was when I was already an international student in the US. It was at Wendy’s; I didn’t know better—I couldn’t afford better. Even so, I fell in love with it right away. The memory of my first baked potato was seared into my memory. Piping hot, fluffy potato. Butter. Sour cream. Chives. So simple. So sublime.

Fast forward to 2016, when I went to the Victory Monument area for a few bowls of boat noodles but inexplicably changed my mind and pivoted to a restaurant called Eat Am Are,3 in the southeast corner of the roundabout. The restaurant’s tagline is “Good Steak,” which I guess means it positions itself as a steak restaurant. I don’t know what they served before 2016, but the menu was full of things like steak with Thai papaya salad and toast when I was there. So it’s probably not accurate to call this restaurant a budget steakhouse. A fusion café is more like it.

Regardless, I ordered a rib eye, a baked potato, and a side salad.

The potato came first (the steak arrived nearly half an hour later). Apparently, even though baked potatoes were listed under “Appetizers & Side Orders,” they were considered more of a stand-alone appetizer than a side dish.

And it looked like this.

A potato, split open. A dollop of sour cream. Some bacon bits. Chopped chives. Nothing out of the ordinary.

Well, until I cut into it and took a bite.

The bacon bits were what you’d expect bacon bits to be, so nothing to say about those. Instead of chives, though, I got green onions. Not a big deal. After all, the variety of chives commonly used in the US is very hard to find in Thailand, and topping baked potatoes with green onions isn’t exactly unheard of in the US.

We see this a lot when it comes to how global cuisines are presented to mainstream consumers in the US. This is prevalent in the consumer packaged goods and restaurant industries as well as food literature.

But I did pause a bit when I discovered that not only was the potato served at room temperature, it was also a waxy type of potato. Its texture was a cross between that of a Yukon Gold and that of a red new potato—a far cry from the starchy, light, fluffy russet, aka Idaho, potato that my brain associates with an American baked potato. That white stuff? Not sour cream. It was mayo, and the kind that was so sweet it would have given Miracle Whip a run for its US dollars. It took me a while to realize that the waxy texture (“nuep” in Thai)4 is what the Thai people like very much. And the sugary mayo? The Thais like it, too.

Eat Am Are may or may not know American baked potatoes all that well, but it definitely knows what its target consumers like; they know what sells.

We see this a lot when it comes to how global cuisines are presented to mainstream consumers in the US. This is prevalent in the consumer packaged goods and restaurant industries as well as food literature.

Apart from the fact that my baked potato tasted more like a potato salad than a baked potato and that it was served as an appetizer, the biggest reverse culture shock for me, though, was the spoon with which I was expected to eat it. In fact, when I cut into the potato with the spoon, being so firm and waxy, the potato slid off the plate and almost off the table. Seeing me dive for the potato and probably feeling sorry for my clumsiness, the server asked if I wanted a fork to use together with the spoon.

My first baked potato in Thailand looked same same as the American baked potato it sought to replicate, but it was definitely different.

(I have more to say about this same same but different thing—more to clarify and more examples to share with you in the subsequent posts.)


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1

You can read more about it here, though I’d like to add that “same same” is the literal (read: bad) translation of the Thai “muean muean (เหมือนเหมือน)” (or “khlai khlai (คล้ายคล้าย)”) which demonstrates how reduplicated adjectives work in the Thai language. There are multiple types of adjectival and adverbial reduplication in Thai, and they all work differently. This particular reduplication, however, denotes the lack of precision in meaning. The English suffix “ish” and the adverbial “kind of” are probably the closest things to it. In other words, when you say X is “same same” as Y, you’re saying—while holding one hand horizontally, palm down, with the fingers spread, and then tilting the hand to the left and the right—X and Y are kinda, you know, like, same-ish.

2

Potato has long become a common ingredient in Thailand, but its Thai name, man farang (‘white people’s yam’), speaks volume about how foreign potato was—and in some ways is, considering how its use in traditional Thai cooking is still quite limited.

3

The name—THE NAME. I should write another post about this.

4

I wrote an essay on this in Bangkok.