Before she was ousted from office by a military coup in May, Thailand’s prime minister pushed an interesting initiative through government: To use robots to banish the world of bad Thai food. Apparently, as she traveled the world on various diplomatic missions, she was constantly bombarded by pale imitations of real Thai food — and I’m sure we can all agree, there’s nothing worse than being forced to consume a bastardized version of your country’s quintessential cuisine. Now, the first stage of the prime minister’s initiative is finally here: A robot that tastes your Thai food, and then compares its taste and smell against pre-programmed “standard” definitions of popular Thai dishes such as tom yum soup or green curry. Yes, the Thai government has created a database of how an authentic national dish should taste.
Thailand’s former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra had obviously had to suffer through one dodgy green curry too many when she enacted the initiative. Now called Thai Delicious, the program’s sole task is to raise the overall quality and authenticity of Thai food around the world — but primarily in foreign countries, where key ingredients for Thai cuisine, such as tamarind and galangal, are often substituted for other inferior ingredients.
The Thai Delicious program involves a few different efforts — a smartphone app for finding officially sanctioned recipes, an official logo/sticker that can be used if restaurants stick to authentic recipes — but by far the coolest is the e-delicious machine. As the name implies, this machine takes a small cup full of the dish to be tested, and then gives it a score out of 100 — with 100 being the most legit tom yum soup you’ve ever tried. “Normally we say that anything lower than 80 [percent] is not up to standard,” Nakah Thawichawatt, a Thai businessman who is trying to commercialize the machine
The e-delicious machine has 10 sensors that measure smell and taste, generating a unique fingerprint for each sample of food that passes its digital maw. The exact tech specs aren’t available, but apparently Thawichawatt is trying to sell them for $18,000 a piece, so presumably the sensors are fairly advanced. Generally with electronic tasting, there are electronic sensors that work just like the taste buds on your tongue, measuring the quantity of various taste-giving compounds, acidity, etc. While these electronic sensors can’t actually tell you how something tastes — that’s a very subjective, human thing — they are very good at comparing two foods scientifically.
Once the sample has been tested, the e-delicious machine compares its chemical fingerprint against the fingerprints/signatures of Thai recipes that have been authenticated by the Thai Delicious program. The closer the match, the higher the score. Unfortunately, because the machine only gives a rather “dumb” score out of 100, it can’t tell you what exactly is wrong with a dish — only that, in some nebulous fashion, it’s not quite right. There are lots of reasons that a dish might not taste quite right — from substituted ingredients due to local availability, through to dumbing down for less adventurous foreign palettes — so it would be nice if the e-delicious could provide a bit more detail.
Still, the e-delicious machine is a good start. I can’t count the number of times that a Thai or Chinese friend has told me that the food we get in the US or UK is nothing like the stuff they make back home. Of course, by now we’re so used to the Western versions of pad thai that an authentic version would probably be offensive to our senses — but still, it would nice to have the choice of visiting a restaurant that is robotically guaranteed to be truly authentic.
And then, of course, why stop there? Why not use a robotic taster to make sure that your Texan BBQ actually tastes like Texan BBQ? Or caesar dressing, or sriracha sauce, or fish and chips…