By Rolf von Bueren
When explaining Thai food to a Western, the only comparison that comes to my mind is a Symphony Orchestra.
I don’t know of any food which applies so many ingredients like Thai food. Each of these ingredients represents a taste, an instrument, which needs to be harmonized into one dish. And such harmony is orchestrated by the cook (the director, the conductor). Not one of the many spices and ingredients should dominate, and all should be in harmony to demonstrate the craft of Thai cooking. The cook/conductor ensures the harmonious blend of the tastes. The minute one of the many spices becomes too overpowering, the harmony is gone and the dish loses its attraction.
Helen at home in her kitchen
Helen and Rolf with Khunying Boolvipha Sonakul
It’s easy yet complicated at the same time. In the past, most of the harmonizing happened in a mortar, with the pestle as the baton. Once the size of a standard mortar was exceeded, however, the harmonizing process had to be adapted (a problem which occurred when the traditional mortar was abandoned in restaurants to feed bigger crowds.)
Chefs Duangporn Songvisava (Bo) and Dylan Jones (Lan) from Bo.lan
Chef Duangporn Songvisava (Bo) with Khun Yanin Viravaidya
In the west, the choice of ingredients was limited, increasing with the rise of every centigrade of temperature in the geographical aspect. The South of France and the Lombardy region of Italy were the considered “Paradise” for the multitude of Westerners (but in my view still lagging behind Thai food by miles). Rice was even grown near the Po River. Still it was the Oriental spices that provided excitement for the rich in the West - the peppers, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and others which were priced on the level of gold! In the north, Germany and the Scandinavian countries offered a sparse and very limited choice of ingredients which only increased after the discovery of the Americas with the introduction of potatoes, tomatoes, sweet potatoes etc. Even then, food supplies were limited by the short planting and harvesting seasons and the marginal climate.
Thailand is one the 10 countries in the world that produces more food than they eat and the surplus is astounding. One can literally stick a branch into the ground and it will grow… not just grow, but also deliver a top quality product as well.
Thai ginger garnished with Japanese lacquer jewelry from Lotus Arts de Vivre
Banana Flower and Thai Lemongrass garnished with Lotus Arts de Vivre
Thai ginger, just to mention one example, is the best, because it is also so fragrant that it enhances the smell of the dishes very distinctly.
The taste of Thai coconuts is outstanding and is certainly the best in Southeast Asia. There are a number of explanations. One is that the Malays and Indonesians grew coconuts for their cooking fat, while the Thais used pork lard for cooking, and the coconuts were for drinking the juice, and for the coconut milk – pressed from grated coconut meat and used as an ingredient for curries. .The other is that most of the central region of Thailand gets sea salt from the high tide which pushes up the river on certain dates, deep inland. I was surprised to see the Mae Nam Chao Phraya flowing up into the country, not down into the sea, during the high tide. But this meant that coconuts planted inland also benefited.
Connoisseurs of food and fruits rate the quality of Thai food and ingredients very high. There are very few fruits from China, Malaysia and Indonesia that are better than Thai fruits - maybe the lychees from China, the salak from Bali, the rambutan from Malaysia are among these, but in general Thai fruits are “King”. Even more importantly, the art of carving fruits into a visual feast for presentation before consumption is recognized as a famous Thai craft - “Art one can eat”.
Carved fruits, art one can eat
Allow me to point and an obvious, but rarely mentioned difference between Thai or Southeast Asian fruit, and western fruit - the packaging. Western fruits can be eaten directly; apples, pears, grapes, cherries, berries etc. can go directly into the mouth without peeling. Thai and Southeast Asian fruits, however, are beautiful “packaged” by nature. Durian, mango, rambutan, all need peeling. Nature has created these “packages” with good reason, which probably led to the next step of fruit carving. This is no evaluation, but merely an observation.
Thai dishes have originated in so many different ways. The Thais are very flexible and nimble where it comes to new influences. The Thai kitchen has incorporated and modified Chinese, Indian, Muslim and Portuguese dishes to name but a few, which today have become firmly established in Thai cuisine.
I heard that the first ice reached Thailand around 1900 to 1905 on a boat from Singapore. Initially, only the court could afford this luxury and new dishes were instantly created using ice like Khao Chae and various jellies and candied fruits doused in Ice, sweet syrup and coconut milk.
Social life in Agricultural societies follow the planting and harvesting rhythms, and therefore very few holidays happen during the monsoon, the rainy season, as people are busy planting rice. Once harvested, however, the feasts and frolicking would begin. That was the perfect time for culinary experiments, and even court members would try eating wasp or ant eggs, fried in a little fat, or spiced up with chilli and lime. In other words, Thai eating habits extend into odd and rare corners of the local universe, and even avoids killing in the Buddhist tradition.
I eat fast, as I was raised in a boarding school, but I love food and I am lucky as my wife is mad about cooking. She has a huge collection of cook books which she studies diligently. She also finds the Thai kitchen the most demanding.
However, her complaints are more about prices; the difference between a fresh market and a supermarket. The difference of pricing can be huge. I also observed a huge change in Thai culture when the supermarket became popular.
In the fresh markets, the Thai “khunyings” (or upper-crust ladies) would carefully and slowly select the fruits one by one and then bargain, while, in the supermarkets, they had to take the pre-packaged lot at a fixed price. But they got used to it rather quickly.
The Thais’ love for good food is not limited to their own kitchens. People sometimes travel long distances for a famous duck noodle soup. It’s not hunger that drives them, but curiosity and the joy of having experienced something special. It’s a lifestyle, and the approach is easy-going, very much a Thai trait that contrasts with the strict European etiquette. I was nearly thrown out of an exclusive Parisian club 40 years ago for requesting chilli sauce to add to my oysters. For my French friends, this was a barbaric request. Westerners are driven by necessity, by purpose, while the basic approach of the Thais is a joie de vivre, a fun approach that is vastly different from ours.
The Famous Khun Sumantana Mokkhavesa – she is one of the food ambassadors of Thailand, with her team from The Cup
Back to food and politics. Like all developing nations, the main focus of Thai politics was industrial development. But it was King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, who for many decades promoted self-sufficiency in terms of food and agriculture and initiated over 4,000 projects in the villages.
He was well aware of the negative impacts and the social tensions of purely an Industrial economy and therefore balanced it well with agricultural sufficiency. Finally it is up to the present government to continue this work in agricultural development, and it is the Labour minister who will register over 30 million farmers and workers in order to try and build a social network for them.
The photos you see in this blog are from a curry festival organized by Lotus Arts de Vivre in 2013, with a menu created by a number of guest gourmets including the famed Khun Sumantana Mokkhavesa (of The Cup bistrot), and the famous chefs from the now Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, Bo.lan. There was great excitement throughout for the delicious food choices.