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Tue, Mar 05, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Growing `exotic' produce

Thailand, far better known for fiery curries, is producing `foreign' food locally


Sudhiphand Ritviwat cares for ducklings at a pen in Kanchanaburi province, 110km west of Bangkok. The ducks at this farm, southeast Asia's only foie gras producer, are raised for their livers.


Melts-in-the-mouth foie gras from a World War II tropical hellhole? Mascarpone cheese churned near the stalking grounds of tigers? Maybe a glass of white wine -- Chateau de Loei -- from hillsides where tribals planted fields of opium?

Voila! The table is being set for a meal that most Western gourmets would savor. And it's all made-in-Thailand, far better known worldwide for fiery curries and pungent soups.

Globalization, entrepreneurial spirit, changing local tastes and an economic crisis, it adds up to Thais rearing and growing "exotic" produce for domestic consumption and even export.

"I love to introduce and support foreign products made in Thailand, to get the word out and have people talk about it," says Pongtawat Chalermkittichai, executive chef of Bangkok's five-star Regent Hotel. He thereby also prunes his costs.

For example, Pongtawat pays 2,300 baht a kilogram (US$53.40) for foie gras, the rich liver of duck or goose, imported from France. But now about half his stock comes from Chateau Interfarm, Southeast Asia's only foie gras producer. That costs 1,550 baht a kilogram.

Local sourcing like this enjoyed a big boost following the 1997 economic crisis, when devaluation of the Thai baht hiked prices of foreign goods, some of which are subject to high import duties. The Thai palate is also a factor.

When he returned from apprenticeships in London and Sydney eight years ago, few Thais were ordering the Regent's now popular pan fried foie gras with port wine or strong-flavored cheeses, Pongtawat says. Wine drinking was still relatively new.

Spotting the trend, construction tycoon Chaiyudh Karnasuta imported vines along with expertise from France and began planting the hillsides of Loei Province in northeastern Thailand.

"Light and undeniably fruity, yet able-bodied and not at all sweet. Not a great wine, but a good one," opined a Time magazine tasting. Good enough, however, to be served at a 1996 conference of Asian and European heads of state and other official functions.

Chaiyudh, whose enterprise yearly corks 500,000 bottles, predicts Thailand will be producing 10 million bottles by decade's end. Prospects are likewise favorable for comestibles like pheasant, frogs and snails for French cuisine, venison from imported Chital deer and decidedly untropical items such as strawberries and Brussels sprouts.

On the grasslands adjoining Khao Yai, an extensive wildlife park, a budding dairy industry is producing one foodstuff traditionally regarded too smelly to stomach. Ricotta, mascrapone and cream cheeses are ordered by Bangkok's fancy restaurants while Thai-made mozzarella tops now popular fast food pizzas.

On the slopes of the country's highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, Thailand's innovative King Bhumibol Adulyadej has initiated a rainbow trout farm, utilizing fresh water cascading from the heights. Most of the workers are hilltribes people who might otherwise scrabble for a living.

The Regent chef, whose mother peddled curries on Bangkok streets, says New Zealand trout still has the taste edge but the hotel's Thai breaded trout fillet with a light garlic sauce garnished with organic vegetables from northern Thailand is a winner.

The main problem, he says, with these niche foods is not so much taste but insufficient, and sometimes, erratic local supply.

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