Did Apec elite taste enough of Thailand?
published : 26 Nov 2022 at 04:00
updated: 26 Nov 2022 at 11:00
newspaper section: Oped
What lasting benefits will Thailand enjoy having just wrapped up its hosting of Apec 2022 -- a global trade forum held in Bangkok last week? How will the much-touted meeting make Thailand better off in the long run? And will the excited chatter about a "BCG" economy ever amount to more than an acronym few working in those targeted sectors can decypher to give a full name to?
I have no good answers for these tough questions, and I don't think enough time has passed for anyone to offer a frank and fair appraisal yet.
However, I do think one sector enjoyed an undeniable boost -- the Thai food industry. Last week's meeting proved a great showcase for local ingredients and the chefs who prepared food for 21 Apec country leaders and other attendees.
Yes, I am talking about lobsters from Phuket, Betong chicken from Yala, sundried and salted pla kulao from Tak Bai district in Narathiwat, Wagyu beef from Nakhon Ratchasima, giant river prawns from Ayutthaya and caviar from the Royal Project in Chiang Mai. The menus and ingredients served during Apec were stunning examples of what has become known as sustainable gastronomy
But the item that grabbed most headlines was the salted pla kulao, from Tak Bai.
It is worth remembering that the popularity of Tak Bai salted fish is accidental after it became the talk of the town and went viral after a TV news report wrongly accused the Apec chefs of purchasing the fish from elsewhere. The allegation was only debunked after the seller, who is a native of Tak Bai, came forward and insisted that the salted fish served to Apec leaders came from her home district. The TV station had to remove the reports and issue an official retraction. Meanwhile, the demand for Tak Bai salted fish soared.
In fact, until last week's meeting, Tak Bai mostly summoned images of violence and the notorious military crackdown of October 2004 followed by numerous bombings, shootings, ambushes, and military crackdowns. Now Tak Bai has a chance to turn the page and start a new chapter, where the narrative places it as the deserving home for prime-grade salted fish, great cooking, and a resurgent fishing industry.
As a huge fan of southern food, I believe the region's seafood has got the promotion and acknowledgement it richly deserves as the violence has eclipsed everything over the past twenty years.
The Thai government as well as the food industry itself and the culture and entertainment sectors have done little to help.
Now the government and tourism sector want to capitalise on Thai food as a magnet for tourism, but they lack the nous to compete with other countries that create grand narratives and appealing content to promote their local cuisines and ingredients.
Again, we need to look at South Korea as an example of how it should be done. The South Korean food industry was quick to seize on the exposure gained from dishes featured in the popular Dae Jung Kum historical TV drama in 2003 to promote South Korean food and ingredients such as fermented vegetables and vinegars to world foodies. Japan, of course, has been working continuously to keep Japanese cuisine at prestige level. The best example is Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a 2011 documentary that paid tribute to the art of sushi and its preparation. In China, CCTV funded the outstanding documentary A Bite of China in 2012 which is a historical storytelling of the cultural backgrounds of Chinese food from each region. As well as stunning imagery, the highlights of the film, which was recently acquired by the Amazon streaming service, are stories about the origins of ingredients.
Meanwhile, Western cultures have plenty of books, cookbooks and movies to highlight each cuisine, from the Oscar-awarded Babette's Feast of 1987 that added to French food's reputation as haute cuisine to Sideways, perhaps one of the best movies on wine that introduced and romanticised New World wine from the Napa Valley in California to a global audience.
So what is the narrative that will sell Thai food to the world, aside from the food itself?
When Thai food is talked about internationally it is the books of David Thompson -- an Australian chef with a deep knowledge of Thai cuisine -- that are often quoted.
Despite looking so fantastic on a plate, there are very few movies that promote our cuisine or TV series that tell the stories behind our favourite dishes.
The only recent and vivid example is the hit 2018 TV drama Love Destiny which featured Thai cuisine. Recent attempts to promote the sector include Pad Thai: The Secret Recipe which is to be released this year, but now the summit is over, is it coming far too late?
Editorial pages editor
Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.