Why are we relying on pre-packaged and processed foodstuff when we could be feasting on local, organically grown produce?

Spoilt by more than 25 years of supermarkets and pre-packaged foods, Thais, it seems, have become "food illiterate". That’s according to Duangporn "Bo" Songvisava and Kingkorn Narinkul na Ayutthaya of the Bio Thai Foundation, both key speakers at a symposium on "Local Foods" held last week at Bangkok’s Royal Paragon Hall as part of the Office of Knowledge Management and Development’s event "T(ha)ime Machine: Global Trends Turn Back to Thai Wisdom". 

"Can you tell me the names of the vegetables in the baskets?" Bo, one half of the successful chef team behind Bo.Lan restaurant, asked as she busied herself grinding three kinds of nam prik or chilli paste with a pestle and mortar. The vegetables in question, all of them local, were sitting on long dining tables ready for participants to sample with the chilli paste. 

While some of the greens – tua phu (winged bean), makua (eggplant) and krathin (white popinac) – were easily identifiable, most drew blank stares. Bo wasn’t surprised at this show of ignorance, patiently pointed out the pak pongfah, pak kayaeng and pak paew.

"People these days know less about the diversity of food. ‘Food illiteracy’ means we are not aware of where the food we eat comes from, how it is grown or produced and what ingredients are used," added Kingkorn, one of the key players behind the campaign Food4Change that aims to empower effective nutrition and environmental sustainability.

"Thanks to our country’s rich agricultural heritage, we can eat 365 dishes a year, meaning something different every day. Yet our regular menu includes just a few rice dishes prepared with mass-produced ingredients like kapao kai khai dao (spicy stir-fried chicken with basil leaves and fried egg) and kao moo tod (fried pork on rice)," Kingkorn continued.

Processed and ready-to-eat foods found in supermarkets and convenience stores have become the mainstays for Thais caught up in this fast-moving world. According to Kingkorn, 36 per cent of Thai urbanites buy processed foods from convenience stores and 37 per cent from hypermarkets. Each person eats an average of 14.5 kilograms of chicken – most of it laden with hormone injections – per year and that figure continues to rise.

Bo refuses to use mass-produced ingredients and searches for artisanal produce that is local and organic. Committed to supporting small and local producers who make responsible food choices, she buys her palm sugar in Samut Songkhram, her chilli in Pathum Thani, her salt from a community around the Bang Pakong river and her shrimp paste from Phuket. 

It’s an approach has brought her success. Bo was voted Veuve Clicquot’s best female chef among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2013 and Bo.Lan ranks 28 on the list of 2015’s best Asian restaurants. 

"I adopt a slow food philosophy and revisit past recipes created by our ancestors," said Bo. "The distinctive characteristic of Thai food is a fine balance of flavours. I’m not just concerned about using only fresh and artisanal ingredients but also about the carbon footprint growing them causes. I concentrate on environmentally friendly filtered water and waste-management systems and hope to make Bo.Lan carbon neutral soon.

"The future of food depends on going back to our origins and ensuring environmental sustainability. We must change our attitudes towards food if we are to make the right choices, learn about produce and producers and pay for its real value."

Bo’s approach is in line with the 2015 "What’s Hot" culinary forecast by the National Restaurant Association of America, which predicts that local sourcing, sustainability and nutrition will top the list of trends.

In addition to slow food and farm-to-table sourcing, restaurants are also tending to use more sustainably sourced ingredients – and that means cooking with local and organic ingredients. In Melbourne, Attica restaurant is celebrated for its lean towards the rediscovery and celebration of Aboriginal culinary heritage. It has own farm and sources rare and native ingredients found only in Australia like Bunya nuts, rock samphire and quandong. 

In Thailand’s southern province of Songkhla, a cooperative in Singha Nakhon district has set up a community eatery called Khrua Bai Note to explore native dishes and preserve indigenous plant and rice varieties. The garden-to-table dishes are cooked by skilled elders using only the freshet ingredients direct from the farms of the community’s 200 members. 

In Bangkok, several "green" networks are supporting local farms with farmer’s markets now a regular fixture at K Village mall on Sukhumvit Soi 26 and Park Venture on Ploenchit.

Australian-born chef David Thompson, a Thai cuisine scholar whose Nahm restaurant at Bangkok’s Metropolitan Hotel topped Asia’s 50 best restaurants list last year, agrees that the trend is to reconnect with the land and our native roots. Chefs like Thompson not only think about fresh and local produce, but are dedicated to quality, biodiversity and environmental awareness.

"I’m interested in the way Thais live and eat. I started moving here in 1988 and I met an elderly woman who was the last generation to be brought up in a palace. Her food completely shocked me! Thai food is much more than som tum – spicy papaya salad – and gaeng khiew waan – green curry: it describes Thai culture and the Thai soul. Nam prik alone has lots of herbs and ingredients and requires a delicate cooking technique to achieve the intense flavours. Thai food is ancient and unique and we should be sharing it with the world," said Thompson, a veteran of Thai cuisine.

He offers little-known dishes prepared to centuries-old recipes that he has culled from Thai funeral books. He too sources only the best local produce, buying rice that’s native to Surin and pla ra (fermented fish) from Sing Buri.

"I prepare and cook with ingredients that are rare outside Thailand like som saa (bigarade) and yee raa (fennel). I respect all ingredients and the sophistication of Thai food. I run my kitchen based on an ‘eco Buddhism’ approach, which means not polluting the soil or exploiting nature for sustainability," Thompson added.

Bo, David and the Khrua Bai Note collective have a quality-driven obsession for meaning and cultural heritage, notes Kingkorn.

"We must pave the way for these values to become part of everyday cooking and take action as active, not passive, consumers. We can choose what kind of foods we need. The way we choose the right food can change the world," she concluded.