The power of family meals

The power of family meals

TAT governor Thapanee Kiatphaibool embraces local cuisine to promote tourism

The power of family meals

Throughout her career, Thapanee Kiatphaibool, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), has dined with many top authorities and international statesmen at various prestigious events around the globe.

But the 49-year-old travel professional said that the meals she cherishes most are the ones she shares with her family.

"I believe family meals are the most powerful meals in people's lives. They build not just meaningful bonds but also our identities."

Thapanee recently took the governor position of TAT, which she joined in 1999.

Over the past years, she has initiated many outstanding campaigns to boost the country's tourism. Several of them focus on gastronomic culture.

"Food has long been a quintessential part of Thai culture, playing a great role in every occasion. Treating others with food is also our way to express warm gratitude and honour relationships. Communal dining, therefore, is a part of our everyday life."

Thapanee believes that civilisation starts from a household meal.

"It's the time when family members share their thoughts and elders pass on their principles and instil morals and ethics in children. I believe that experiences and memories during childhood play a significant role in shaping people's characteristics and aspirations."

Inspiring Thai youth to be trendsetters in culinary culture is how she aims to promote tourism.

"Whenever [TAT officials] visit destinations upcountry, especially in the rural villages, we always honour the eating tradition of the local folks. When the local children see that the government pays attention to simple details in their way of life, it makes them proud of their heritage and want to protect and preserve their tradition.

"These youngsters grow up with authenticity in mind and later develop a respect and interest in other's people cultures."

Sharing a meal with native people and listening to their stories is an ideal way to create a memorable experience and meaningful connection while travelling in Thailand, Thapanee said.

Thapanee is a connoisseur of rustic provincial cuisine. Some of her most memorable meals were prepared by her grandparents who resided in suburban vicinities. "Remarkable meals for me are the ones with a captivating, behind-the-scenes story or that I get to observe the long-preserved tradition of preparation."

She recalled a visit with her maternal grandmother in Chon Buri province when she was a child.

"My grandmother was cooking ung ang thord [deep-fried banded bullfrogs], using hibernating bullfrogs from her backyard. I got to see how she prepared them, from cleaning to cooking, and they were delicious. Eating deep-fried ung ang is a gastronomic highlight of my life."

Her paternal grandmother, meanwhile, was a great master of hor mok pla chon (steamed curry custard with snakehead fish), she added.

"The meticulous process of stirring fish meat into the curry, folding the banana leaf to make baskets, pouring the mixture into the baskets and steaming them over a wood fire is still very clear in my mind to this day. Such an impression has made hor mok one of the dishes that I always recommend to people, both Thai and foreigners."

Thapanee said that visitors to Thailand can easily find a delectable hor mok throughout the country. But if they want to sample a classic version prepared with freshwater fish, she recommends they do so while visiting Ayutthaya, Suphan Buri or Nakhon Pathom province where fish from local rivers are used.

Those who like the pungent taste and gelatinous texture of hor mok may want to also try larb ma noi, a provincial dish in Amnat Charoen province, Thapanee added.

"Larb ma noi is one of the must-try dishes featured in the TAT's guidebook of 77 destinations in Thailand. It has nothing to do with puppies but is a jelly-like dish prepared with a wild native vegetable called ma noi [Thai for little dog]."

Confirming her preference for rustic delicacies, Thapanee said that her favourite snack today is deep-fried insects, especially bamboo caterpillars from the North. In the past, they were commonly deep-fried but now you can find oven-baked bamboo caterpillars which are less greasy but just as addictive.

"In terms of food, Thailand has everything for every gastronomic preference, whether it be ultimate palatability or health-conscious victuals."

According to her, food is the third top category, following transportation and accommodation, which tourists in Thailand spend on.

"It's a significant 20% of an average visitor's spending. If we can raise the amount, the multiplying effect will benefit many sectors, from the sellers and food producers to local farmers."

Reinforcing the high standard of Thai cuisine through various campaigns is among TAT's approaches. The arrival of the Michelin Guide Thailand in 2018 has been a prosperous help, according to her.

However, gastronomy tourism, which has been a global trend over the past several years, can evolve quickly. So, as Thapanee said, identifying new audiences is also crucial.

"Nowadays there are food-loving travellers who have great interest in native cuisines while trusting very much in the Michelin star."

Ever since the Michelin Guide expanded from Bangkok to eight other provinces -- Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Phuket, Phangnga, Nakhon Ratchasima, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani and Khon Kaen -- the number of tourists coming to such destinations has increased significantly, according to Thapanee.

"In the past, tourists coming to Isan were mainly culture vultures from Europe and America. Today the northeastern region enjoys a lot of food-loving visitors from Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Japan, Korea and Malaysia. They range from ordinary vacationers and online content creators to resolute gastronomes.

"The ability to cater to different needs of sub-culture tourists makes Thailand stand out as a distinctive and crafty leader in the tourism industry."

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