Paddy to Plate

Sparkling salt, smelly pastes, and organic everything.....

...Thailand sets an example  

~~~

The 22 million-plus tourists who visit Thailand annually come for a variety of reasons. Many arrive to enjoy the sparkling beaches and unique rock formations in the south...

....others come for shopping and make their way around the city of Bangkok in the ubiquitous tuk-tuks. No one knows for sure the exact population count in this sprawling city, and likewise it would be impossible to know how many of these three-wheeled auto-rickshaws there are, but the estimate is well over 10,000.

Of course a large proportion of visitors also come to see Bangkok's palaces and grand buildings but, on our recent trip, we decided to go back to grass roots. Quite literally.

There is perhaps nothing more basic in the human diet than salt, so it was appropriate that our first stop was to the west of the city. Here, in the blazing sunshine, made even more fierce by the reflective white salt, workers shovelled the crystals, harvested from salt flats just steps away, into huge 35 kilogram bags which would later be repacked ready for sale. It is hot, arduous and backbreaking labour.

 

WATCH the Paddy to Plate video.

The roadside stall sold bulk packages, many weighing several kilograms.

Anyone who loves Thai food knows that it would not be the same without a couple of its foundation ingredients. One of these is shrimp paste, essential for nam phrik and various other dips and condiments. For this, tiny shrimp – krill actually – are harvested by the tonne from ocean inlets and klongs (rivers) and fermented in giant vats for up to 18 months before being processed and packed for sale.

And far from being an industrialised process, we discovered a family business about 70 kilometres west of the capital where much of the manufacture is done entirely by hand.

Be glad that this is not a 'scratch-and-sniff' page!

When the shrimps have been sufficiently matured, they are broken down and worked until they become a smooth purplish paste, rather like smelly playdough, but amazingly nowhere near as pungent as you might imagine. We stood in the open shed in which it was being made and marvelled at its smoothness and the vast quantities being produced.

And here is the final product, spooned into small containers (again by hand) ready for sale to the public. These pots sell for about 50 baht, or around A$1.75. A 700kg vat commands A$2000.

Shrimp paste is often used in dishes containing pla thu (short mackerel).

Another core seasoning is fish sauce. Like many age-old cuisines Thailand relies on several foods that have been fermented, but interestingly Thailand did not adopt the use of this sauce until early in the 20th century.

The Saengthai Fish Sauce Factory, a family business since 1946, manufactures a superior brand of fish sauce. Small fish, usually anchovies, are fermented with sea salt for around 18 months, before being the resulting filtered liquid is bottled. The products are exported to France, Hong Kong, Australia and other countries. The plant can produce 20,000 750ml bottles per day.

Fish sauce is a good source of protein, iodine and calcium and is used as a basis for many sorts of dipping sauces and condiments such as this one served with green mango.

But not everything is savoury. Other popular treats like these from Sampran Riverside are small balls of sticky rice rolled in tender fresh coconut shreds. To make them even more attractive they are sometimes coloured blue using the pigment from the butterfly pea flower (below) or green, using fragrant pandan leaf.

(Butterfly pea flower)

In Thailand, a syrupy blue drink is made from this flower. Called nam dok anchan, it is sometimes consumed with a drop of sweet lime juice to increase its acidity and turn the juice pinkish-purple. In traditional Ayurvedic medicine, it has been used for centuries as a memory enhancer, nootropic (smart drug), antistress, anxiolytic, antidepressant, anticonvulsant, tranquilizing and sedative agent.

In Western countries it is now becoming popular in designer teas, confectionery, and smart cocktails.

Sampran Riverside, formerly Rose Garden Riverside, 45 kilometres west of Bangkok, has been one family's project for over fifty years. As the name suggests it originally began as a rose garden, but now it is an eco-cultural destination fostering a far-reaching organic outreach that has revolutionised the lives of around 200 local farmers, offering a valuable supply chain for their produce, and is a vital educative centre for Thailand and south-east Asia. The weekend Suk Dai (happy) farmers' market on-site is unique in Thailand, and draws about 900 tourist and local shoppers.

Managing Director, Arrut Navaraj, is the driving force behind the new direction for the centre which includes four-star accommodation with 160 rooms, a restaurant and organic farm. The project's holistic approach also fosters strong ties with the local villagers and temples. The Echa monastery nearby has the first monastery garden in Thailand (which Arrut hopes will soon be certified organic) and the plots are tended by monks, and local children and elderly people.

This is liquor for the soil, not humans, and is valuable as part of the organic process.

The gardens grow a range of herbs and vegetables, including beans, corn, bitter gourd and coconuts.

The ten-acre organic farm is  a showpiece of careful land-use and the success of raising vegetables and fruit in this way. There are farm tours and products made from the produce are used in the spa and also on sale at the hotel. It is also popular for convention groups interested in raising their CSR - Corporate Social Responsibility.

The Sampran Riverside restaurant also uses as much local produce as possible.

And there are cooking classes for those interested in learning how to prepare simple and delicious Thai dishes.

Coconuts feature in a multitude of Thai recipes, and of course coconut water from a freshly opened coconut is one of the most refreshing drinks you can have. Interestingly coconut water is so pure it has been used successfully to replaceplasma in emergency blood ttransfusions!

In keeping with our tour's name – Paddy to Plate– we also visited a recently certified organic rice field. The owners were thrilled they had passed the criteria and they now join a growing number of organic rice-growers. It soon became apparent to us that Thailand is on the threshhold of an agricultural renaissance.  

Two hour's drive north-east of Bangkok, at Khao Yai in the Asoke Valley, at an altitude of 350 metres, there is a vineyard. In Thailand, this alone would be a surprise, but there is much more of interest. Not only are there vines on the 40-acre property, but the property has accommodation, a restaurant, a tasting room and cellar door and shop.

GranMonte Asoke Valley makes products which are sold in the shop and used in the restaurant such as this unique table salt flavoured with cabernet must.

GranMonte's state-of-the-art winery, which began operation in early 2009, makes a full range of red and white wines including syrah, cabernet sauvignon, chenin blanc, viognier, semillon, verdelho and durif, as well as this sparkler.

Yet another surprise is the winemaker, Nikki Lohitnavy who studied oenology in South Australia before working in wineries in several other countries before returning to join her father, Visooth, and her mother Sakuna Lohitnavy in the family business. She is Thailand's first and only female winemaker and is passionate about her craft and product.

(Nikki with her father Visooth Lohitnavy in the vineyard)

In the cellar door the walls and shelves are crammed with dozens of awards won in wine competitions worldwide.

The name Khao Yai means 'big mountain' an imposing landmark of this valley.

Nearby we meet yet another pioneer is at work at Harmony Life Farm, an organic venture at the foot of Khao Yai mountain. President, Mr Sho Oga, originally from Japan, describes this as a place of 'harmony of nature and human being'.

Here groups can visit, go on tours and attend training classes. Mr Oga is proud of the wide range of fruits and vegetables the farm has been able to produce in the fifteen years since it began. He estimates they have around 40 kinds of vegetables and 50 sorts of fruit, as well as herbs used in herb teas.

Just look at these monster onions! Despite Thailand's tropical climate, in this microclimate, with temperatures mainly around 20C, and with an abundant source of underground water, even delicate vegetables such as lettuce thrive. Everything is raised organically now, although it took several years to achieve certification, he says. The produce is used in the company's many products, which are available on the farm and in the shop and restaurant in Bangkok.

Of particular interest is the work the farm has been doing with moroheiya a leafy Egyptian wonder-plant that gets its name from these strangely triangular seeds. With five times the amount of iron in spinach, it is being exported to Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.

The farm also has a restaurant in Bangkok where its products can also be bought.

Our 'paddy to plate' tour had turned out to be truly inspirational and we felt privileged to have met some of the key people involved in Thailand's new direction in farming. Not only are they helping to improve the produce that restaurants can use and which are on sale to the public, but by teaching farmers to avoid harmful insecticides and fertilisers, the workers' own health is improved too. The birds are returning; insects are breeding; the soil is breathing again.

These companies are helping Thailand to become a leader in improved and eco-friendly agriculture in south-east Asia. 

&&&&&

Our guide on this tour was the inimitable and hugely knowledgable Pohnpan Chantanahom (Poom) from Absolutely Fantastic Holidays.

(Thanks also to the Tourism Authority of Thailand)

 
 

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