Bo Songvisava and the future of 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 chosen cuisine of specialization. The first episode that I watched featured Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, a female Thai co-chef and owner of Bo.Lan, a Bangkok restaurant.

This was not a random choice. Having previously worked in Bangkok and traveled across northern Thailand by myself, Thailand has ever since occupied a special place in my heart. 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 remarks made in the episode 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 some local friends. Most of them more or less confirmed that many Thais nowadays, especially the youth, prefer eating out rather than cooking by themselves. Interpreting this from a broader perspective, I have found this to be a rather widespread phenomenon in many other Asian societies as well, being an impression accumulated at least from my own observations while living in China and Vietnam.

But from my encounters with young working professionals 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. The empirical reality today is this: Cooking your own meals is becoming so much more expensive than eating out in street vendors. The costs are not merely unfolding in monetary terms, but also time. Furthermore, my interactions with friends in Bangkok, 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 in 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 owner of Bo.Lan), were mentored in Thai cuisine by the Australian chef David Thompson.

A few years later, both of them returned to Bangkok to run Bo.Lan under two core principles: embracing (1) local organic ingredients and (2) sustainable cooking. Memories of my past reflections about the directions of Thai society returned most deeply during scenes in which Bo Songvisava and her partner faced immense difficulties in finding 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 agricultural 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 made me recall 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, industrialization 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 people like myself into a well-deserved dark corner of rethinking my own predilections about the urban cosmopolitan life, community, trade and globalization. Especially from coming out of university as an economics major, I used to vigorously defend globalization in terms of trade liberalization, brushing away its negative trade-offs entirely to the responsibility of domestic policy.

At present, I partly still do, as the cons of trade liberalization have also been exacerbated by other 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 (as opposed to cushioned) the pitfalls of trade liberalization and growth at all costs, have certainly dropped a big dose of humility to my own predilections.

These days, I am regarding issues concerning inequality in incomes, wealth and opportunities a lot more seriously. Similar to many countries in Latin America, Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, Thailand belongs to a peculiar category of countries with records of stubbornly 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 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 how much electricity they exhaust!) and plastic. In the Environmental Performance Index 2018 compiled 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 further by the negative impacts of staggering income inequality on: (1) the country’s economic growth in the long run and (2) the disproportionate distribution of climate change and inequalities onto its own farmers, through e.g. loss of centuries-old livelihoods, greater exposure to dubious loan sharks and worsened social mobility.

If people can no longer see themselves as ever escaping from poverty and debt in their lifetime, then how is the title “developing country” even earned, let alone aiming to become a developed country? This question must also be addressed to other developed countries as vice versa, where within-country inequalities have now reached immorally high levels.

Thailand will need millions more of Bo Songvisava to compensate for all the losses of opportunities for its citizens to take these matters into their own hands. To argue that these developments are taking place everywhere else in the world is to seriously deflect attention away from the role of weak institutions, norms and policies behind such developments.

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