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Bringing local to the table

The organic movement gaining popularity abroad has deep roots in Thai cooking traditions

Thanks to globalisation and technology, any trendy product in the United States gets popular in Thailand not long afterwards. Organic food, for instance, is a must-have for the health-conscious American consumer. Lately, it’s become a visible trend in Bangkok too.

healthy choice: Organic vegetables on sale at a supermarket.

The US has the farm-to-table dining experience, while here we’ve got a restaurant of the same name offering straight-from-the-farm organic food too.

I believe the appeal of farm to table and organic produce will resonate until a new food trend comes along to replace it. The thing is, organic crops have been bought and sold in Thailand for a while now. Fancy branding strategies make the organic trend seem like a whole new phenomenon.

Let’s examine the differences between how organic crops are dealt with here and in the US.

Since the US is a large country with strong purchasing power, the large-scale agricultural system is quite industrialised, drawing from advanced technology. Take salmon farming, for example. The fishing hogs are released to the sea first. Every day, a large number of salmon are caught and sent to factories to process and sell nationwide.

Shrimp produce, on the other hand, is less common in the US, so it is imported from elsewhere. Likewise chicken eggs, which are modified to look and taste the same.

As for bananas, they are shipped from South America on strict schedules so that when they arrive in the US, they are ready to be eaten. Many types of fruits and vegetables are grown in larger sizes outside the US, such as watermelons that weigh over 10 kilogrammes.

In the US, the industrial food processing system is a big, highly competitive business. With today’s immense variety of industrial food products, consumers are increasingly inclined to be sceptical about the quality of the food they purchase. Is it safe and healthy? Considering the generous amounts of corn sugar added in high-tech processing, they have a right to be cautious.

Consumers have started to realise that eating organic is best for bypassing these doubts. Many know now that the Angus cow is considered the best type of cattle. Keeping them in pastures where grass is unfertilised is safest. As for pigs, it is best to have them in open areas. The same is true of chickens.

The best corn is produced on well-controlled farms using only certified chemicals, while the best sugar syrup comes from maple trees.

These are a few examples of organic staples in America.

Let’s see what eating organic looks like in Thailand. While we do have our own agricultural business going, much of it has yet to be industrialised to the same extent as the US.

We can place vegetables into two categories: economic and herbal. The former is planted in large conversion systems and includes kale, cabbage, longan and white cabbage. Previously, these crops were grown with the help of strong fertilisers and insecticide. Laws have slowly reduced the amount of chemicals that can be used in such processes, however.

The other type of vegetable is herbal, or local, which is naturally planted in a small garden without using any fertiliser or insecticide. These are also what we refer to as organic vegetables, which Thais have been growing for a while.

How do we cook vegetables in Thailand? Thais do not tend to eat fresh vegetables the same Westerners do as separate side dishes like salad. They prefer to eat fresh vegetables with chilli paste or Thai-style salads with herbs like peppers, parsley, shallots or kaffir lime leaves.

We also like to cook vegetables with heat — through frying, steaming or boiling them. For meat, chickens and pigs are raised on farms, freshwater fish in ponds or rivers, and the other fish plucked off our own coast.

Now you know where the raw ingredients of Thai cuisine originate. Can you start imagining how a farm-to-table experience would look like in a Thai setting?

Normally, we cook using ingredients found at the local market. Southern-style tables would offer moo pad sataw kapi (fried pork with shrimp paste and sao), kang lueang pla krapong yod ma praw (yellow curry with snapper and coconut) and kang moo luk klua dib (pork curry with baby banana).

Northern-style cuisine would feature yum look kanoon on (soft jackfruit salad) and kang khae (vegetables and mushroom soup). Each dish features fresh vegetables.

Using local ingredients is a practical thing to do. Bangkok is an exception, however, as green space and gardens for growing are quite limited in the capital. But city people who crave regional food can dine at any number of locally oriented restaurants with friends and family.

Still, home cooking is always special for bringing family together. That’s real Thai-style farm to table, our natural way of life. If we realise the resources we already have, we wouldn’t be so wooed by the commercialised trend of farm-to-table growing elsewhere.

traditional treat: ‘Moo pad sataw kapi’ (fried pork with sao and shrimp paste) is among many original Thai organic dishes.

spicy treat: ‘Num prik kub pak sod’ (fresh vegetables with chilli paste).

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