More than Michelin stars on the menu

CHIANG RAI, 26 July 2017: CNN Travel readers listed seven* Thai dishes among Worlds 50 Best Foods in its latest Facebook poll that garnered 35,000 responses. Good news for Thai food fans.

If that is not enough to underscore the popularity of Thai food, worldwide, the momentum continue as Michelin Guides prepares to introduce a guide for Bangkok embedded with its famous star-rating.

The Thai government splurged THB143.5 million on the sponsorship deal to bring Michelin and its star rating to Thailand. Under the terms of the five-year contract the first guide will focus on Bangkok’s top restaurants before spreading out to other popular tourist destinations in Thailand.

Credit TAT: Tom Yum Kung (Shrimp Spicy Soup.)

Taking the guide and its star rating to other destinations in Thailand is a priority for the Ministry of Tourism and Sports that repeatedly declares its intentions to spread tourism dollars far and wide across the land

This growing interest in Thailand’s food tourism spawned a seminar on the subject at the recent Thailand Travel Mart in Chiang Mai led by the Minister of Tourism and Sports, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, who gave a “heart-to-heart” presentation on taking food tourism to the next level.

Credit TAT: Green Curry with Chicken and Plain Naan.

While the link between food and agro-tourism was identified in the TTM presentations, many of the practical challenges facing restaurants serving tourists in the provinces failed to gain an airing. One of them was growing consumer demand for organic and chemically free food ingredients to be included on menus.

“We would like to present dishes that are 100% organic in their source,” said Joakim Holmberg, founder and owner of Chivit Thamma Da, arguably Chiang Rai’s most famous independent restaurant and a favourite with Thai tourists visiting from Bangkok.

“Farming communities would benefit from higher returns on crops, once Thai restaurants have a guaranteed source of authentic organic ingredients, while it would raise the quality bar for Thai restaurants as they could offer star-rated chemical-free menus,” he said.

Cooking delicious but healthy food, free of chemicals, is a growing trend as more travellers look for a healthy lifestyle even when on holiday.

Credit TAT: Pad Thai.

It is not apparent whether Michelin’s star evaluation extends to checking whether food ingredients are organic, safe and free from chemical additives. It should because most Thai restaurants soak their dishes in MSG a product that originated in Japan and has been identified as a probable cause for the increase of some cancers.

Holmberg touches on the needs of up-scale restaurants that want to cater to a growing number of international visitors who demand more healthy organic dishes.

“Of course, there is a higher price tag, but there is a vast market for rural communities to supply restaurants and hotels committed to serving chemically-free and organic dishes.”

Credit TAT: Som Tum with Khai Khem.

He points out that the big consumers of organic food ingredients are not in Chiang Rai.

“Rural communities can grow the herbs such as rosemary and vegetables but the consumers are the high-end restaurants in Bangkok.”

Growing organic crops is good for the environment although it’s a long tedious process to clean the land after generations of pollution and the use of insecticides. While Chiang Rai has the potential to be a market garden for the region, it could take a decade, or more, to restore soil quality and clean up the natural water supply.

A recent study by Mae Far Luang University indicated vast problems for downstream water purity caused by insecticide spraying on hillsides across the province.

There are a few sources of organic food ingredients emerging such as those supplied under Thailand’s OTOP brand that promotes natural foods geared to maintaining good health. Their products are largely MSG free.

For travellers who intend to stay clear of MSG it is not enough to ask a cook to refrain from sprinkling the poison on the ingredients as he stirs them in a wok. Without exception MSG is added to stock and the soup prepared once a day to fill countless bowls of noodles.

Credit TAT: Gaeng Massaman Gai (Chicken Massaman Curry).

One of the few safe culinary paths leads to Thai Muslim food shops and restaurants. Muslims are restricted from cooking with MSG under the Halal food standard.

Upgrading Thai food hygiene standards should start with removing chemicals and encouraging communities to step up the challenge and produce organic vegetable and food ingredients.

Homberg believes restaurants should lift their standards and support communities in order to make the supply of organic foods and ingredients an economic viable alternative.

Joakim Holmberg

“There is a vast export market for quality organic ingredients especially for up-scale restaurants in Bangkok. Once the distribution is in place it would raise the quality of food tourism in Thailand.”

But there are other serious challenges for restaurants serving tourists.

The alcohol rules related to restaurants are baffling. Diners can only order their favourite alcoholic drink from 1100 to 1400 and again after 1700. This applies daily even on the weekends when diners may like to take a leisurely late lunch that extends almost to the evening cocktail hour. It is not possible at a law-abiding restaurant anywhere in the country.

Holmberg argues that tourists visiting his restaurant don’t fully understand the drinking hours or the justification. If they visit bars on Jet Yod lane, a red light district in the heart of Chiang Rai town, they can drink beer and cheap box-wine throughout the day to midnight.

The latest addition, Chivit’s well stocked bar.

But when they go up market to any of the riverside restaurants including Chivit Thamma Da, the bar closes sharp at 1400 until 1700.

“It’s an irritant for visitors who are on holiday and want to chill out riverside on a terrace and sip a glass of wine… we have to explain it and frankly it is not easy to explain if there are blatant exceptions in town.”

Thailand introduced its strict rules on alcohol consumption and its promotion to prevent students from buying booze. The legal drinking age in Thailand is 20 and restaurants and bars face heavy fines for serving underage drinkers.

Up market restaurants in Chiang Rai province face other problems linked to alcohol. There is a perfusion of fake booze in the market and it is not uncommon to see bottles of whiskey either without a tax sticker or sporting a fake duty stamp supplied by an obliging printer. It discourages serious investment in the restaurant business in Chiang Rai. The playing field is far from level.

Chivit’s English Garden.

But slowly the tourism market is changing as more airlines serve the destination. Hong Kong Express offers a direct service and flights are packed with Hong Kong holiday makers who take the two-hour and 10-minute flight to chill out in Chiang Rai.

Although Hong Kong Express is a low-cost airline, its passengers are ready to spend once they arrive.

Chivit Thamma Da has seen a surge in Hong Kong residents visiting the restaurant this year, mostly the airline’s passengers.

The owner acknowledges the dominant market remains Hi-So Thais, who are drawn to the quaint English style villa restaurant in a garden next to the town’s picturesque river. They represent 80% of the clientele, but international visitors are on the increase mainly due to better flight connections.

When he opened the restaurant in 2011, Holmberg recognised it was a gamble. That is changing as the town benefits from an increase in flights from China and over the last few years treble the seat capacity on services from Bangkok’s two gateway airports.

chivit interior

TV channels, popular DJs and bloggers flown in by the Tourism Authority of Thailand make Chivit Thamma Da a stop on their itinerary. It’s a highlight of their trips posted on Facebook and filmed by TV crews from around the world.

Social media and the interest in posting food shots and following celebrity chef programmes on TV are driving food tourism to Thailand, but it’s a worldwide fashion, competitive and fickle.

According to UNWTO’s Global Report on food tourism 2015, the sector generated USD150 billion.

Spain, France, Italy and the United Kingdom were the top four countries attracting so called ‘foodie’ travellers. Popular activities were visiting vineyards, wine tasting, cooking classes and purchasing food tours.

Terrace dining

For Thailand, food tourism generated THB456 billion last year accounting for 20% of overall tourism revenue, Thailand’s tourism minister reported.

Of that, THB282 billion came from international visitors mostly Chinese, British and Russians, while THB174 billion came from the domestic market.

The world’s appetite for organically grown foods has become too big to be ignored, now worth USD80 billion according to a study in 2014, by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture. The biggest markets are Europe and the US.

Sales of organic foods are growing by double-digit rates in many countries. The fastest growth is reported in China, up 32% per year. In Thailand, sales of organic food grew by 7% in 2015, well above the 5% growth rate of conventional foods, according to Green Net Cooperative, a Thai non-profit group.  The main foods grown organically here are rice, coffee beans, mulberry leaf tea, fresh vegetables like lettuce, and fruits like coconut.

chivit thamma da day

Organic farming remains a tiny niche industry in Thailand. Just 0.3% of the nation’s agricultural land is certified as organic, compared to 1% worldwide, according to Organic Agriculture Development Thailand and Earth Net Foundation. Less than 0.2% of Thailand’s farmers practice organic agriculture. Remarkably, 58% of the organic food sold at retail outlets in Thailand is actually imported. That has to change.

*The seven Thai dishes in the CNN list: Tom Yum Kung in fourth place, Phat Thai (fifth), Som Tam Papaya Salad (sixth), Massaman Curry (10th), Green Curry (19th), Chicken Fried Rice (24th) and Mu Nam Tok or spicy minced pork salad (36th).