With Thailand’s spate of successes on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a Bangkok Michelin Guide newly released, gourmands around the world have more reason to turn towards the Land of Smiles.
Count them: Gaggan, Nahm, Sühring, Bo.Lan. But forget the hustle and bustle of Bangkok for the moment and look further north: the quiet, understated, yet hip municipality of Chiang Mai is quickly making a case as the next ‘It’ city of the culinary world, burgeoned by the growing enthusiasm of Thais for organic produce and responsible farming practices.
Laying the Foundation
Before you dismiss it as a trendy fad of the moment, conscious agricultural techniques in Chiang Mai took root long before the noveau riche of the Western world spurred the movement into global consciousness. Quite certainly, the Chiang Mai as we know it—with its rustic Old World charm and pristine natural landscapes—would hardly exist without the Royal Project Foundation’s agricultural programme, founded in 1969 by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in response to the gross mismanagement of fertile lands in the highland region. As the story goes, upon visiting the northern regions around the royal Bhuphing winter palace, the king discovered that the ethnic Hmong hill tribes were growing poppies and other cash crops as their main source of income. In addition to fuelling the ongoing opioid epidemic and perpetuating the poverty cycle, the highlanders were ruining the land through over-cultivation, highly destructive slash-and-burn techniques and other poor farming practices. The king ordered the hill tribes to cease opium cultivation immediately, and introduced them to new crops, sustainable techniques and modern equipment that bore produce of equal monetary value.
Today, you’ll find Royal Project shops and produce all over Thailand. From processed food to fresh vegetables, the programme produces over 350 varieties for both local consumption and export, 10 per cent of which are certified organic. Together with the Highland Research and Development Institute, the project even produces temperate plants like kiwi and non-native species like macadamia all year round. And if you need further evidence of its reach, Royal Project produce is served in the royal palace, and in the business class of Thai Airways. Closer to home, gourmet grocer Taste Singapore (Raffles Holland V, 118 Holland Ave) imports regular shipments of the Project’s fresh vegetables for sale here.
On a side note, it’s not that hard to see where the Thai people get their deep-seated reverence and adoration for the late monarch—the programme he initiated some 50 years ago now provides over 150,000 people and 13 hill tribes with an honest livelihood and a vastly improved standard of living. Simply put, the project has left behind a legacy that has lasted for generations, and will last generations more to come.
You don’t have to look too far off to find its impact on young Thais: more young entrepreneurs and consumers are making their partiality for green produce known. Organic farmers’ markets are popping up all over Chiang Mai, buoyed by the increased interest and demand for quality produce.
At Meechok Plaza and Shopping Centre, a community of like-minded food producers and small-batch artisans have set up a series of pop-up markets, aptly titled Meechok Organic Community, since late February last year. The aim is to spark conversation, says Oracha Boon-long, owner of retail store Hug Wiang Organic Community, who helped set up the market. She says, “You won’t find the sellers putting signs and price tags on their products here.” She disagrees with the way grocery shopping is done nowadays; people simply grabbing any old bag of produce from an ubiquitous supermarket should not be the way to go. “People should be asking questions and having true dialogues about where their food comes from and what goes into it.”
Besides basic signage pointing the way to the market, there aren’t any prominent markings that identify Meechok’s farmers’ market as part of Thailand’s neo-green revolution. Instead, the market is a quiet hive of activity that slowly draws members of the public in with live acoustic music and composting workshops.
Neither is profit their goal here: according to Boon-long, the items are set at a reasonable price, and are in fact lower than that at the Rimping chain of organic supermarkets, one of which sits a mere stone’s throw away from the pop-up market. With the support of local NGO Green Net and a venue sponsorship by Meechok Plaza, the farmers here need not charge exorbitant prices to stay afloat. The only difference is that some of these producers aren’t officially certified by international governing bodies like the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM). But that isn’t an issue, she argues, because the community maintains a tight relationship with the farmers, and are well aware of their organic farming techniques.
Farmer Wilat from Baan Wasunthara Organic Farm, for instance, practices crop rotation to keep nutrients in the soil balanced, and eschews the use of chemicals. Using wood vinegar as the only form of repellent, he maintains a surprisingly light-hearted attitude when it comes to pests. He says that because he grows a variety of crops, it’s all right if the insects nibble a little here and there—he absolutely refuses to use chemical pesticides of any sort. So does the team behind Suan Lahu Organic Coffee. They burn medicinal wood in bamboo chimneys to drive away insects, and collects the residual fluid to make a plant spray.
Meanwhile, there’s a growing movement towards composting and biomass-based fertilisers. Suan Lahu coffee uses pigs’ waste and coffee bean skins for fertiliser. Similarly, Aom Kwanpirom Suksri, a young entrepreneur based in Chiang Mai, is pushing for farmers to switch to biochar, which is charcoal mixed with manure and compost, that promises better yields, reduces soil acidity and is carbon negative.
No Smoke Without Fire
Surely this is a response to the pollution that has dogged the region. Slash-and-burn techniques and the excessive use of carbon-based fertilisers are widely recognised as the leading cause of smog and haze here. Many traditional farmers operate under the belief that burning crops and crop-waste on the land helps to renew its fertility. Those who don’t believe in this do so simply because it’s the fastest and most cost-effective solution to clearing the land in preparation for the new season. Local food and travel writer Anne Chomdock says the city’s geographical location in the Mae Ping basin contributes to the problem as well. Picturesque sunsets aside, the lush mountainous terrain that surrounds the city forms a bowl that traps the polluted air for long periods of time. The months between February and April are especially bad, she says.
Beyond the more immediate effects on tourism, rural communities—areas that are particularly prone to slash-and-burn agriculture—are increasingly vulnerable to the long-term effects of irresponsible farming practices. According to statistics from Warm Heart Foundation, a charitable non-profit that provides support for isolated mountainous regions, thousands experience the adverse effects of pesticide contamination in rivers and ponds, in addition to smoke inhalation from the burning fields. And that’s not even taking into account the big picture effects on soil fertility.
Thankfully, the shift towards organic farming is backed up by a growing community—one who capitalises on modern methods and values prudent farming ownership.
Chef Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava of Bo.Lan restaurant in Bangkok works with farmers who aren’t necessarily certified organic by official governing bodies but who practice green farming techniques. “Organic produce is a lot stronger in flavour—it’s more intense so when it comes to herbs and such, you don’t have to use so much of it. And when you use organic ingredients, you have to work with the seasons, and that’s always interesting because you can create seasonal menus,” she says.
It isn’t all just talk, either. Bo.Lan aims to be a zero-carbon restaurant by 2018, putting in place concrete measures to reduce waste and be less reliant on traditional forms of electricity.
Chef Bo believes that young Thais are the backbone of this blooming micro-economy, slowly but surely changing the mindsets of the older generation towards organic farming methods. “Initially it was difficult to get suppliers of organic produce. Nowadays it’s definitely a lot more common,” she says.
She and chef-partner Dylan Jones had the opportunity to work with local producers in Chiang Mai for the Asian Organic Gourmet Festival (AOGF) in March, creating a sumptuous, authentic Thai eight-course dinner menu made from fully organic ingredients. Highlights included a northern-style beef shank curry, stir-fried pork tenders with organic shrimp paste and Bo. Lan’s signature salad of cured fish and pickled garlic. Almost as a testament to her words, the event was fully sold out, debunking the long-held notion that organic food doesn’t taste good.
If you’d like to test that out for yourself, the AOGF—presented by luxury boutique hotel 137 Pillars House Chiang Mai, recently named top resort hotel in Southeast Asia by Travel + Leisure—is a must-visit. Now in its third year, and showing no signs of stopping, the festival treats guests to a weekend of organic-centric offerings, from a farmer’s market to specially curated dinners.
“We’re focused on working with the growing number of small farmers to expand our farm-to fork offerings and raising awareness about organic produce in the region,” says 137 Pillars House general manager Anne Arrowsmith. Visitors will find organic ingredients incorporated into the hotel’s wellness programme—think herbal tonics and drinks, and even hot massage compresses.
With the newly opened 137 Pillars House Suites & Residences in Bangkok, we look forward to the AOGF Bangkok spinoff that’s set to take place from 22 to 24 March.
The writer’s trip was sponsored by 137 Pillars House.
This was first published in Wine and Dine’s August 2017 issue, Love Singapore ’Travel’