Thursday, 28 July 2016

Something cooking in Thailand’s kitchen of the world. And Britain's.

Khun Sirinya Wattanasukchai writing in the Bangkok Post makes a typically elegant point in her Michelin star comments for the Singapore Tourism Board efforts and first Michelin stars for 29 Singapore restaurants and food stalls.

But as Khun Sirinya points out it’s strange that Thai cuisine is still an undiscovered gem.

In Europe it’s often likened to Italian as one of the world’s great cuisines in terms of flavours, ingredients and regional variations – and crucially as a cultural feast.

That’s why it’s all the more surprising that the only Thai Michelin stars so far are for Nahm in London and Australian chef David Thompson, and all credit to him, and his book, Thai Food, the Encyclopaedia Britannica of Thai cuisine. And Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, but again a Danish rather than chef.

But part of the problem Khun Sirinya raises in terms of Thai cuisine being somewhat neglected and not even rated in its homeland.

And here in East Kent it would be wrong of me not to mention the Surin Thai restaurant and reviews of: “one of the best Thai meals I have ever eaten” by The Observer, and hopefully a Michelin star soon - making it the only so-accredited Thai chef and restaurant in the world. And its range of recipe books, Surin Comic and curry sauces and beer, and kitchen utensils under development.

Britain’s Thai food.

Thai cuisine is popular in Europe: the 3rd most popular cuisine in London as voted by readers of Time Out magazine, and 1,200 Thai restaurants throughout UK. No UK High St is now complete without the gentle sounds and smells of jasmine rice bubbling away.

But it’s surprising how Thai cuisine is so neglected in its homeland. I’m a frequent visitor to Bangkok and ASEAN, yet nowhere is there a definitive guide to Thai cuisine or its seafood and sushi. Although I’m more of a street-food-somtam sort of guy anyway.

Britain has for many years suffered from a reputation for awful food – some of it unfair given its delicious cheeses or pies and cakes. But the volume of Thai restaurants (the first opening in London in 1977) shows the appetite for fresh and tasty cuisine, especially from Thailand.

Yet Britain produces several guides to cuisine and restaurants, numerous cookery shows and celebrity chefs. But Thailand, has not a sausage in terms of food guides, or as worrying, the range of protected Thai foods – crucial for trade into the EU. UK has 73 protected foods eg Kentish Ale or Arbroath Smokies fish. And even Cambodia already has its Kampot pepper range protected for connoisseurs of cuisine.

The UK’s television channels are stuffed full of foodies such as Kent’s Paul Hollywood and BakeOff or Kent’s (the Garden of England and all that) Gregg Wallace and MasterChef or James Martin as was and Saturday Kitchen. And the UK’s bookshops are groaning with dozens of unknown celebrity chefs and Xmas or BBQ cookery guides.

The dynamic Asia Books certainly carries various cuisine guides, yet Thailand lacks a definitive guide to its restaurants and certainly its astonishing range of seafood and sushi restaurants. I plead ignorance on many of the food shows on Thai television, but something must be amiss if I can watch awful British farming soap operas such as Emmerdale Farm in Thailand, but struggle to find a cookery show in Thai or English?

Why is that?

The Thai Select part of the Kitchen of the World activity does highlight the best Thai restaurants in Europe, and Surin restaurant for example at one point was even recommended by the Ministry of Agriculture for use of authentic foods and techniques such as red or black rice and bamboo steamers.

That sort of culinary craftsmanship and authenticity can be taken for granted in Thailand but is hard to do in England. And authenticity must be key to promoting Thai cuisine, just as Italian cuisine doesn’t celebrate staples such Spaghetti Bolognese or tinned ravioli. And Thailand shouldn’t expect to keep reheating old staples such as Green Curry as an entrance ticket to Thai cuisine.

With my marketing hat on, what would I suggest to help Thailand?

Certainly a united effort: a Team Thailand of Cuisine if you will from BKK to London to NY with consistent messaging and promotions. As you can gather, I’m interested in Thai cuisine yet have never heard of Thai Deliciousness. It’s a rather clunky English phrase for Thai promotion which is unusual for TAT under the dynamic leadership of Khun Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul as Tourism and Sports Minister.

Certainly programmes such as The 12 Undiscovered Stars in the provinces should elevate the Thai tourism offering. And certainly there’s an opportunity for Thailand Tourism this year with the Turkish failed coup decimating the tourism industry there to almost nothing.

It’s good that Kent’s dynamic Tourism and Sports Minister MP Tracey Crouch of Chatham has been selected back into the UK Cabinet, even though on maternity leave. Indeed, as a break from the kitchen, Kent is doing rather well in the Cabinet reshuffle with Ashford’s Damian Green at the Work and Pensions dept, Sevenoaks’ Michael Fallon at Defence dept, Tunbridge Wells’ Greg Clark at the Industry dept.

And there’s not one but 3 Foreign Office ministers in Boris, David Davis and Liam Fox, sharing Chevening mansion near Sevenoaks. As well as former Cabinet members such as Charlie Elphicke of Dover at the Treasury and Julian Brazier of Canterbury of the Army dept.

But a Thai celebrity chef should be a key strand of Thai Government policy. Mere icing on the cake you say? Not really, with tourism 10% of Thailand’s GDP, and farming industries even more crucial for Thai employment and exports. As well as the hidden industry of Thailand’s restaurants and supermarkets abroad creating employment and sending money home.

A Thai celebrity chef should be a key part of Thailand plc strategy.

Whether you like Jamie Oliver, Rick Stein, Ken Hom or Gordon Ramsay or not (and I do), they provide a clarity and focus for cookery in general and different types of cuisine. To be blunt, Thailand plc in its Kitchen of the World should select a few chefs to lead the cuisine charge.

The Galacticos of the Galley if you will.

It’s especially absurd given Thailand’s strong reputation in gender equality and female entrepreneurship, female STEM scientists, and even world-leading low rates of female smokers that a female Thai chef isn’t lionised as is say UK’s multi-talented Delia Smith, both chef and Chairman of Norwich City football club.

And thought should be given to developing the Thai Select brand within Thailand and beyond to focus Thai consumers and businesses, and foodie farangs like me, on the key dishes and regions. Is it's funding enough?

No disrespect to say Patara or Blue Elephant but if Thailand cuisine is focused on such hi-so brands that are already established, especially in the narrow, expensive and swish districts of Paris or London, then how can the variety of Thai food be expressed as the Kitchen of the World?

It’s a problem UK plc faces in always concentrating its industrial efforts on say Rolls Royce and Burberry which are already successes, and least in need of extensive government support, and can make UK plc appear one-dimensional, which ultimately impacts their business as flag-bearers.

Such a rounded offering is all the more important, when UK business and parliament is combatting the monstrous sweatshop and fraud scandals around Mike Ashley of Sports Direct, and the BHS of Philip Green and Lord Grabiner of One Essex Court.

And certainly there is a massive opportunity for Team Thailand with the low-hanging fruit of developing a regional dishes strategy eg Mussaman curries from the Deep South, and so on. Certainly the latter would fit within the new Safety, Sustainability and Wealth strategy.

Anecdotally, most Brits (the largest group of tourists into Thailand from Western nations) are even, after 30 years of travel in Thailand, and numerous Thai restaurants in UK (the most in the world?) still unsure of many dishes beyond green curry. And there’s a farang fear of all the dishes being blisteringly hot, and I for one, thought all the dishes involved peanuts and satay.

And if I’m no fan of Thai desserts, as too sugary in taste and too day-glo in look, that doesn’t particularly matter but there needs to able a broader tasting menu if you will of key Thai Select dishes. Thai cuisine ingredients are now widely available in wholesalers and specialist Thai and Chinese supermarkets: air-freighted lemongrass, sticky rice and so on.

And hopefully too the Lucky Iron Fish with the good folks at Unilever and World Food Programme, will be as prevalent in UK brand and store promotions, as in Cambodia or Laos for work against malnutrition.

Thai food for thought.

Frankly, Khun Sirinya points out, it’s outrageous, beyond petty nationalism or personal taste, that Singapore cuisine is gaining Michelin accreditation but not Thai cuisine. I can think of just one or two Singaporean restaurants in London.

And 1,200 Thai restaurants in UK sliding back from 1,700 isn’t ideal for Thailand plc, whether from the recession and more recently the Brexit uncertainty and rise in, mostly minor, hate-crime and UKIP racism. Friends in the Thai Embassy are active in working with UK to loosen concerns over too-tight reactive immigration policies. The result now of a shortage of trained Thai chefs as well as of other cuisines such as Indian, Bangladeshi or Chinese too doesn’t help anybody.

And more Thai students to UK are required to increase from 8,000 to nearer the Malay total of 17,000, and a tripling of Chevening scholarships as part of UK’s active programmes with Thailand in particular, and ASEAN in general. Then, consideration needs to be given to Thai students being able to work part-time around their studies in Thai restaurants, to practice their Thai and English, earn a few quid to help support themselves, and to use their knowledge of authentic Thai cuisine.

UK needs no explanation of its very cosmopolitan and multi-cultural and welcoming nature (UKIP and Brexit rapidly receiving short shrift now so there political existence is now in doubt). And one key point overlooked in David Cameron’s open government was confirmation that a student visa can be extended to a work visa if, as graduates, the students have an offer of a graduate-level job.

I’ve raised the KORA Kent Oriental Restaurant Association
(and written before on the White Gold of Thai cuisine: )
as a support group and a lobbying organisation for Thai and Japanese and Chinese and Indian restaurants in Kent, given its Frontline status.

Frontline Kent is at the sharp end for immigration, legal or not, being near to London and the Continent with Amsterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, Duisberg and Paris, and Dover, Europe’s biggest port, and Eurostar and Channel tunnel.

Again, to be blunt, work needs to be done by UK to develop the range of Thai and ASEAN study courses and languages through the UK's 24,372 schools and 130 universities and 438,000 teachers and 8.2M pupils, with potential for say court or police translators given the existing 50,000 Thai population in UK, lacking a voice, and undoubted increase in Thai students and tourists who will no doubt decide to return to UK in future.

Britain should be more active in setting the table for Thailand.

While, more short-term, Brexit has unnerved the 130,000 EU citizens who work in the NHS, many of whom will no doubt decide to return to Poland or Spain. I certainly wouldn’t advocate Thai doctors and nurses being plundered for the NHS but closer links could be established with UK and Thai hospitals for exchanges and work programmes and learning English, given its status as the 2nd language of ASEAN. And certainly UK could learn much from dynamic universities, hospitals and NGO’s such as Mahidol, Bumrungrad and Operation Smile and Thai Red Cross.

While specific issues such as say 105,000 Myanmar refugees on Thailand’s borders or the presence of 10,000 Wa Army troops in the Southern Shan region around the Thai border, could be developed with say the UN Refugee Agency based in London. Food crops would be a key part of reducing opium crops that sustain that frontline.

Or there’s seafood issues, with sterling work by the Thai Royal Navy in improving people trafficking and fisheries sustainability, now rolling backwards a little with Tesco’s announcement this week of removing Thailand and Liverpool’s John West products from their shelves.

And easier, more frequent, access to Brussels, Interpol and an ASEAN office could no doubt be gained with such activity.

Food for health and nutrition science is an open goal waiting for Team Thailand to tap into the back of the net. Just this week Saint Louis University published research on phytochemicals in food such as turmeric in curries preventing cancer cells spreading. While even the redoubtable Public Health England is currently discussing the value of a low–carb diet (essentially Thai food without the rice) in preventing diabetes. 80,000 UK citizens found their diabetes improved in just 10 weeks with diet variants from that previously promoted, and a further 120,000 signed up to the UK Diabetes website.

The blend of food and science is important, whether cataract research, or given the 2.7M UK citizens with type 2 diabetes (no doubt similar problems in Thailand given the same size in population and ageing society and rise in Western fast food), and 750,000 UK citizens undiagnosed with diabetes who will cost the NHS £8.8BN in diabetes. Certainly dynamic organisations such as TDRI and TRF should be part of that debate, with say Imperial College, feeding through into research activity with Kasetsart, Mahidol and SPU.

While the cultural aspects of Thai cuisine shouldn’t be overlooked with say an extended roster of events whether a Khundrum festival, perhaps even a Khon dance-off between Thailand and Cambodia, or an ongoing ASEAN Bolshoi programme. Even a UK-Thai joint celebration of The Beatles Sergeant Pepper 50th anniversary next Summer would be fun – a Morlam version of say Strawberry Fields Forever would be apt to season some of the revitalised work for the Kitchen of the World.

Tim Garbutt is director of Sincerity Advertising and PR agency, launching in BKK soon, a somtam freak, and is standing for UK parliament to highlight Thailand and ASEAN issues.

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