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Imported vs local: Is Thailand finally able to compete with imported food products?

Many of you who over the past decade have lived in Phuket, and indeed across Thai­land, cannot fail to have noticed the ever-increasing range of local food products now on offer in our supermarkets and even the upsurge in artisanal grocers.

Dining
By Chris Watson

Saturday 18 May 2019, 10:00AM


Despite Thailand being an agriculture-based economy, many products end up ex­ported and quality has never been comparable to the imported variety – that is until today.

Emerging from these improvements has been a restaurant movement focusing on local, artisanal of­ferings of the highest quality with many garnering Michelin stars and other accolades for their efforts. Combined with this has been a focus on organic, sustainable farming with a goal to minimise carbon footprint. Inevitably this has placed question marks around those restaurants which only feature imported products. But are these questions really fair?

Considering the question of whether to import or not, clearly if one is dining at an Italian restaurant, one’s expectation is to eat parmesan cheese on one’s spaghetti carbonara. So integrity of concept must be preserved. However, where there is the possibility of using local produce, why do chefs continue to use the imported offering?

Perhaps the single largest area of improvement in Thai-raised protein has been in that of beef. Whilst Thais have not traditionally had an appetite for this particular meat, for obvious reasons, the younger generation are now gradually shunning their parents’ beliefs, and as a direct result of this, a plethora of pre­mium steakhouses have successfully sprouted across the country.

The recently opened Prime at The Nai Harn, Phuket offers up an extensive range of world-renowned, imported Stanbroke and Rangers Valley wagyu from Australia, and their Executive Chef Mark Jones holds the view that Thai beef is not quite yet at the level insisted on by his discerning diners. Mark describes the Rangers Valley black market sir­loin, 30-day dry-aged with Himalayan sea salt and a marble score of six, as “truly incredible” in terms of both flavour and texture.

Focusing on the other side of the coin with a local of­fering, Chalee Kader, chef/proprietor at 100 Mahaseth in Bangkok, the receiver of a Bib Gourmand award for his Isaan-themed restaurant, provides a menu entirely devoted to Thai beef, and to a certain extent challenges that view. He receives his beef from Korat, and whilst embracing a nose-to-tail philosophy, offers lesser-seen cuts of bavette and oyster blade in addition to his prized fillet and rib-eye. He believes that in a blind tasting, his local beef, cross-bred for the past 15 years, would come out on top.

Chalee does, however, somewhat amusingly com­ment that Thai diners quite often query why this local beef is so expensive, almost the same price as imported Aussie or US wagyu. Interestingly, despite this, he tells me proudly that the premium cuts always sell out first.

Whilst chefs may debate whether Thai wagyu can truly sit alongside the Australian or American variety, most chefs concur that it cannot yet compare with Japanese wagyu such as the gold medal-winning Miyazaki, the accepted champion of the wagyu Olympics.

In Bangkok, Ryuki Kawasaki, chef at the two-Michelin-starred contem­porary European Mezzaluna, imports almost 80% from Japan including his signature beef, Niigata Murakami wagyu beef A5, which he serves grilled over Binchotan charcoal. The quality of this beef, he believes, is unrivalled. This perfectly meets his diner expecta­tions for luxury proteins.

Back in Phuket, our only Michelin-starred restaurant on the island, PRU, located at Trisara, is proud of its 100% local commitment. Head Chef Jimmy Ophorst can frequently be found nearby the restaurant at his dedicated farm, Pru Jumpa. On his seasonally-inspired menus, he currently offers Thai beef from Nakhon Phanom alongside locally grown vegetables.

In fact, he informs me that the key to his signature carrot dish – unsurprisingly, the carrot – is the intense sweetness, largely due to the in­fluence of the much warmer climate. His locally grown beetroot, which features unusually in a dessert, is also an opin­ion-altering surprise. One of Jimmy’s aims is to stimulate the diner through his innovative combinations to rethink their view of these humble vegetables.

Continuing with this theme, Ales­sandro Frau, chef and owner of Phuket’s temple to Italian gastronomy, Acqua, recently awarded a Michelin Plate, has discovered a fellow Italian in Khao Yai who using Italian seeds is growing many Italian vegetable varieties here in Thai­land, which are now reaching his re­quired standard. He does, however, still import many Italian products as his din­ers expect when they ask the provenance of, say, the asparagus or the tomato for it to be 100% Italian.

A fellow Phuket restaurateur, Jamie Wakeford, chef/partner of Bampot Kitch­en & Bar, also a recipient of the Michelin Plate, recently branched out with a sec­ond restaurant, Olta in Bangkok, and reflects that when he opened Bampot in Laguna in 2015, sourcing quality, local products at that time was a daily chal­lenge. He agrees that the local scene has improved considerably with the upsurge in artisanal producers. He is currently featuring on his Bangkok menu recently discovered Chiang Mai heirloom toma­toes which I have been fortunate to ex­perience; sweet and juicy!

However, for chefs to be able to offer their diners a choice of local products, they need to have access to growers who share their philosophy of cooking the seasons and the drive for the zero-mile vegetable.

Laguna Golf Phuket

James Noble, a former star-studded British chef, has established his farm in Pranburi. Boutique Farmers, located south of Hua Hin in Pak Nam Pran, specialises in organic and sustain­able growing, providing vegetables to many of the Michelin-starred restau­rants in Thailand. One can also experi­ence dishes created from “plant to plate” as James likes to say at his farm restau­rant, open for dinner at the weekend and Sunday brunch. You can even homestay for a very nominal price, provided you help out around the farm!

Fish and seafood in particular sur­prisingly pose yet another dilemma. Re­garding lobster, Mark comments that it’s extremely difficult to source a consistent supplier of local lobster, it’s often up to three times the price of imported Boston lobster and, sadly, despite the freshness of the former, it’s not necessarily a more superior end product.

Scallops offer up an equally challenging issue; the local queenies just cannot com­pare with the deep, icy water, hand-dived Hokkaido scallops on Mark’s menu.

Jimmy has had some success with a painstaking but ultimately worthwhile search for Phang Nga crab and river prawns from Surat Thani which are both truly exceptional. Alessandro’s diners, however, have an expectation of the vibrant, red Sicilian prawns which reflect his Italian heritage.

As for lo­cal fish, most chefs agree that they would love to offer them up, but there are very few that meet their exacting standards due to the warm, muddy wa­ters affecting the flesh and ultimately the taste. Jimmy features on his latest menu an innovative cobia and stur­geon dish, but most except for the truly brave prefer to import.

Butter and cheese have also pre­sented chefs with a further headache with many importing both from France and Italy. Alessandro even serves up the stellar Beppino Occelli wrapped in parchment, a multi-award winner in blind tastings.

Jimmy, strictly adher­ing to the PRU philosophy, churns his own with a high fat content local milk to ensure the end result delivers the rich and creamy taste and texture we love. PRU also leads the field in Phuket and I believe even in Thailand with a world-class range of Thai cheeses from cow, sheep and goat, mostly from the north of the country and certainly worthy of comparison with those from France and Italy.

So, having chatted with this group of culinary magicians, let’s acknowledge that this drive for culinary excellence is not solely driven by chefs themselves; it is also catering to diner demand as they seek ever more exceptional culinary experiences. The demand for premium products is as high as it has ever been. Diners still seek luxury imported pro­duce and are apparently willing to pay the price associated with the unique flavour profiles offered. Sustainability is of course moving up the league table and we must respect both chefs who challenge themselves with locally sourc­ing the best that Thailand has to offer and also those who strictly maintain their integrity of concept.

Whether it’s local or imported, pro­viding it for our dining pleasure at its peak is a far from easy task. In my dis­cussions with these incredibly talented cooks, several also raised the customer value perception; diners, be they Thai or non-Thai, will always sadly be more willing to pay a higher price for an im­ported product, rather than a product from “up the road”, although this may indeed change with time.

But Thailand’s wealth of high quality products does not end with proteins and vegetables. Whilst many of you reading this article will have undoubtedly sampled local wagyu and vegetables, I want to share with you a further artisan product you may well be less aware of.

I wonder how many of you have sampled the ever-widening range of artisan bean-to-bar local Thai chocolate on offer, particularly at the premium end of the market. If I was to ask you, “Where does the best chocolate originate from?”, perhaps you would say Belgium, Switzerland or France with beans from South America.

However, Thailand is now competing on the glob­al stage. The cacao bean is now grown across Thailand in Chanthaburi, Nan, Prachuap Khiri Khan and Chumphon. Growers such as Kad Kokoa are leading the field with award-winning chocolate bars. Other artisan chocolate makers such as Xoconat are specialising in small batch production that in blind tastings is beating competitors.

In conclusion, there is an old Thai saying, “Nai nam mee pla nai na mee khao” – “there are fish in the waters, there is rice in the fields.” It seems that now there is much more than just fish and rice; Thailand is indeed a land of plenty and now premium plenty!


Chris is a former Michelin Guide In­spector who, following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.

 

 

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