Thai Food Crises

It all starts with a paste. Aromatic plant parts are pounded in a hefty stone mortar; garlic, ginger, lemon grass, galangal, Thai shallots, chillies (red and green) – quintessentially Thai flavours – all get the same treatment. There’s hardly a Thai dish that doesn’t start with a paste, be it a curry, soup, savoury snack, grilled meat or dipping sauce.

When I lived in an apartment in Bangkok I always knew when the neighbours upstairs were cooking: there’s be a steady thwock-thwock-thwock on the ceiling above as the unseen cook squatted on the floor and pounded her paste for that night’s repast.

There are plenty of dishes that we think of as Thai, but are really mutant Chinese food. For example, sweet and sour sauce in Thailand has no cornflour to thicken it, and the soy sauce is replaced by fish sauce. Stir-fried chicken with dried chillies acquires cashew nuts in its Thai incarnation, and soy sauce (again) is supplanted by fish sauce. (The use of fish sauce, rather than soy sauce is a common feature of Thai-Chinese dishes. However, increasingly fish sauce is being replaced by oyster sauce in Thai cuisine. For example, phat gaphao [spicy stir-fried finely choppped meat with holy basil] – virtually Thailand’s national dish, used to be seasoned with fish sauce, but the sweet, saltiness and rich unami taste of oyster sauce is far more prevalent nowadays.)

But to return to curry pastes. One can buy curry pastes in plastic sachets or glass jars in any supermarket, though the range is fairly limited. One can go to the local market where a curry paste vendor will dollop paste into a plastic bag for you to take away. But the dedicated cook will make his/her own. And here begins the first crisis: Thailand has banned the export of a wide range of herbs and vegetables, including Thai basil, peppers, chillies, Thai aubergines, bitter gourds (karelia) and saw tooth coriander. This preemptive move was in an attempt to stop the European Union banning the import of these ingredients because of high levels of pesticide – many of which are banned in Europe – and insect infestation.

(Many Thai people are aware of the issue of high levels of insecticide in food plants. In most supermarkets the “organic” section is both large and prominent. Sometimes it’s hard not to buy organic.)

Thai restaurants overseas now have a problem: they are cut off from their supply of essential ingredients. Some restaurants have taken to buying Vietnamese or Cambodian equivalents – at a higher price. Others have taken to importing pasteurised curry pastes from Thailand. Desperate times, desperate measures.

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For consumers in Thailand things are also looking grim. Last month shelves were stripped bare of coconut milk. There’s apparently a shortage of coconuts caused by a plague sweeping the nation. Things are so bad that Thailand’s major exporter of coconut milk has halted export better to meet domestic demand.

And for the last couple of weeks there’s been no oil on supermarket shelves. It seems to be a problem based upon a shortage of palm fruit and consumers hoarding palm oil ahead of an impending price rise. It also appears that the government has been directing supplies to large food manufacturers, rather than to the retail market. The shortage of palm oil led consumers to shift to soybean oil. When all that disappeared they stripped the shelves of corn and sunflower oils, too.

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