Chef’s Table, Bo Songvisava And Thailand

A colleague of mine recently introduced me to “Chef’s Table”, a Netflix series documenting different world cuisines through stories of individual chefs and their lived experiences with their chosen cuisine of specialisation. The first episode that I chose to watch was on Thailand and Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, a female Thai co-chef and co-owner of Bo.Lan, a Bangkok restaurant.

This was not a random choice. Having previously worked in Bangkok and travelled across Northern Thailand by myself, Thailand has ever since occupied a special place in my life. Yet, I was struck by how a presumably random episode on Thai cuisine would bring back all of my past everyday reflections and concerns about the current directions of Thai society. The following revelations particularly struck me:

“Thai people no longer knows how to cook their own cuisine. In the long run, how will traditional Thai cuisine then be preserved? And if not by us Thai people, then by whom?”

“In Bangkok, when you ask people simple questions about Thai food, people can hardly tell you the correct answer.”

Bo Songvisava

These observations also hit me during my early days of settling in Bangkok and catching up with local friends there. Most of them unanimously admitted that many Thais these days, especially the youth, prefer eating out rather than cooking by themselves. Viewing this from a broader perspective, this is in fact a widespread phenomenon in many Asian societies today, at least perceived from my own observations of the youth in Beijing, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. However, from my encounters with particularly young working people in the large urban cities of China and Vietnam, many of them had the tendency to justify their chronic eating-out habits by personal finance reasons. And this has indeed become an empirical fact: cooking your own meals is becoming rapidly more expensive than eating out in street vendors. The costs are not merely in terms of money but also time. My interactions with friends in Bangkok, however, added a second dimension to my general observations, as many of them revealed that they preferred eating out due to 1) cost-saving and 2) not knowing how to cook Thai food.

Bo Songvisava’s statement above, based on her own experience of growing up in the changing landscape and ownership of Thai cuisine, just confirmed my suspicions. The most powerful testament to this was Bo Songvisava’s confession that she had to initially learn and build her culinary career with Thai cuisine by moving all the way from Bangkok to…London. At that time, apparently all the “Thai cuisine superstars” were male chefs of foreign origin. Both Bo Songvisava and her British partner, Dylan Jones (also co-chef and co-owner of Bo.Lan), were mentored by the Australian chef David Thompson on Thai cuisine.

A few years later, both of them returned to Bangkok to run their own restaurant (Bo.Lan), based on two core principles: local organic ingredients and sustainable cooking. Memories of my past reflections about the directions of Thai society returned most deeply during the scenes in which Bo Songvisava and her partner faced (and still) immense scarcity of organic, non-contaminated ingredients during their 6-month long attempt to find such in Bangkok’s early-morning markets. Wherever they went in all of Bangkok’s markets, the sellers were unable to verify the content of the raw ingredients that were put on the market. It is this ever-stretching scarcity that is being pointed out as the main culprit behind the apparent “dearth and growing cheapness of authentic Thai cuisine”.

To rescue what was about to turn into an ailing business plan for their Bangkok restaurant, their supply of ingredients are now based on direct partnerships with local organic farms in Thailand’s countryside. Their trips to the countryside were my favourite scenes, as they brought back my past memories and impressions of rural Thais as being among the kindest, helpful and most generous people I’ve ever come across.

“People in Thailand don’t know how to cook things from scratch anymore. They all use industrial, processed products. Canned coconut. Processed white sugar. The roots that we have are disappearing. If this continues, industrialisation will imply the disappearance of authentic Thai cuisine. All the curry paste made from one company. Importing from here and there. What, as a cuisine, are we gonna be?”

“Many people told me that, if I wanted to open a Thai restaurant in Thailand, you better make profit or f* up. They implied that Thailand is not the place to open a Thai restaurant.”

Bo Songvisava

These perspectives humbly put individuals like myself into a well-deserved dark corner for a re-assessment of my own controversial views about the urban cosmopolitan life, community, trade and globalisation. Especially as a trained economist, I used to come out of class and vigorously defend trade liberalisation, brushing away its negative trade-offs entirely to the responsibility of domestic policy. At present, I partly still do, as trade liberalisation continues to also be driven by factors whose repercussions cannot be entirely stopped, namely technological change. But stories like that of Bo Songvisava, and the alteration of global politics since 2016 in the forms of public anger at the ways in which policy has facilitated – rather than cushioned – the pitfalls of trade liberalisation and out-of-control growth focus, have certainly dropped on me a big dose of humility to my own pre-defined views. These days, I am reading and learning a lot more seriously about e.g. inequality in incomes, wealth and opportunities. Similar to many countries in Latin America, Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Thailand belongs to a peculiar category of countries with stable, extremely high income and wealth inequality across several decades:

“Before, I’d feel this responsibility in keeping Thai cuisine in the way that it should be. But learning about what we’re doing to the environment in society, the priorities of what is important in life. It’s not only cooking. It’s not only eating. It’s how you live your life. This won’t only affect you, but also the next generation. I have to fight for Thai food.”

Bo Songvisava

It is no secret that Thailand, as a Mekong Delta country, is currently embattled with a range of environmental challenges. Climate change is exacerbated by poor environmental policy and an unsustainable consumption culture, especially of electricity (observe the shopping malls) and plastic. In the Environmental Performance Index 2018 by Yale University, Thailand ranked 121/180, among the worst in Asia. It scored particularly low on air quality, agriculture, forests and fisheries. The country is also now the 6th largest dumper of plastic waste into the world’s oceans. These trends are certainly not mitigated by the negative impacts of staggering income inequality on the country’s long-term economic growth and the disproportionate distribution of those costs onto its own farmers.

Thailand will need millions more of Bo Songvisava to compensate for all these losses of monetary incentives and opportunities for its citizenry to take these matters into their own hands. To argue that these developments are taking place everywhere else in the world is to seriously distort the varying magnitude of these problems and cut short with some empirically proven links to weak institutions, norms and policies.

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