“Now I’m beginning to think that I can turn my mum’s many Lanna curries into something I can export”
Along with times, thinking is changing. For a country long entrenched in traditions and norms, for decades bogged down by the quagmire of bureaucracy and the slow stubborn wheels of officialdom, there have, of late, been some forward thinking initiatives which should not be just studied and emulated, but extolled for their successes.
You may recall that ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the advocate of all things hub, had declared Thailand to be the Kitchen of the World, a lofty ambition, which is surprisingly bearing some rather juicy fruits through the efforts and energy of Pranorm Chernbumroong, Director of Northern Thailand Food Valley Command Centre.
The Thai Global Programme launched the Kitchen of the World in 2002 with the intention of promoting Thai cuisine as well as increasing the number of Thai restaurants worldwide. According to the government, the number of Thai restaurants around the world increased from 5,500 in 2002 to more than 10,000 by 2013. Another aim of this programme was to dramatically increase Thai food industry exports which accounts for around 7.5% of exports, the total of which contributes to 65% of the GDP.
This is where Northern Food Valley (NFV) has come in. A decade after the advent of the Thai Kitchen policy, the Thailand Food Valley project was launched through the joint initiatives of the Ministries of Industry, Science and Technology, and Agriculture and Cooperatives. Out of four pilot projects in various regions of the country, the Northern Food Valley, founded in 2013, is the only one not only still in existence, but thriving. An independent organisation, but funded by the government, NFV was inspired by the Food Valley Netherlands to assist food industry businesses in developing food processing technologies and creating added value for agro-food products by acting as a facilitator between government, the private sector and research institutes as well as fostering links between the food industry, technology and innovation.
“To get a downstream farmer in a village in Chiang Rai to market a product to Europe is almost impossible,” Pranorm told Citylife from her office at the Northern Industries Promotion Centre. “But with the Northern Food Valley, this dream has already been realised by dozens of small and medium business owners.”
“I look for ideas, for innovation,” said Pranorm. “If you have a business, however small, and you come up with a great idea, I can help you turn it into a reality, something that most business owners would struggle to find channels or funding for.”
“We receive applicants, we screen them then invite a committee of about ten researchers, scientists, industry experts and government representatives, and we interview them about their ideas and their expectations. Next we sit them down with scientists in various fields and they discuss turning their ideas into products, we then look into costing and that is when the government steps in. We don’t touch any of the 25 million baht received so far from the government, money goes directly to service providers. We use research facilities and food scientists at local universities to conduct research and development and it can take anywhere from months to years. We then hire designers to create packaging and assist them in gaining certifications, whether it is organic, halal or other food safety regulations required by target markets. Once done, we do business matching, sometimes taking them to meet businesses in other countries, others matching them with buyers within Thailand.”
A tentative goal of a 10% annual growth in exports was set by the Ministry of Industries at the inception of the project, and according to Pranorm, NFV’s annual growth is now at around 9%, a number she expects to increase in the coming years.
Bursting Meatballs & Curried Ice Creams
“I’ve had a small meatball factory here in Chiang Mai for ten years,” Tosspol Bhatiyasevi, owner of Tha Pae Meatballs told Citylife. “We had always made and sold them to fresh markets. I had always wanted to expand my business, but didn’t know how to make my meatballs last longer. I heard about Northern Food Valley and decided that I needed a good idea to pitch them. Sometimes looking at people eating meatballs on a stick, sauce dripping all over their hands, I thought it would be good to find a way to make it easier to eat. So I thought about putting the sauce inside the meatball instead.”
Tosspol was immediately accepted by NFV and was soon working closely with researchers at Chiang Mai and Mae Jo Universities. “I wanted the sauce to retain its flavour, but it must not seep through the meatballs, so we now use sodium alginate to coat the sauce within the meatball. Then we thickened the meatball itself a little to hold it all in.” A natural product often used in modernist cuisine, sodium alginate combined with calcium salts produces spheres with liquid inside that bursts in the mouth. “I invested around 50,000 baht in this research but the government funded the rest, a total of around 400,000 baht I think, which included R and D, gaining all the correct certifications as well as package design. NFV invited me to showcase my products at a number of important fairs and I made numerous contacts, we now sell in all Rimping and Tops Supermarkets and as of next year we will be exporting 1,000 packs a month to Japan. My business has grown by 20% since NFV stepped in. I’m now trying to come up with new ideas!”
Pranorm, a career bureaucrat who worked in the Industries Promotion Centre for over three decades, says that this is not only a highly rewarding job, but something she is really enjoying. “I am from Chiang Mai and graduated with a master’s degree from Chiang Mai University. I was posted in Pitsanulok before my retirement so when they asked me to head this office I was a little reluctant. But I can’t be happier with my job. I get to meet some really amazing people who have exciting ideas and I get to help them, what more can I ask for? I am always on the lookout for new products to develop.”
Chayanon Chumsawat, a 23 year old recent graduate from a musical school is the biggest fan of his mother’s Lanna home cooked dishes. One of his favourites is an ancient but little known rice dish topped with marinated slices of liver, sticky pork, intestines and pork neck. Over the past few months he has taken this dish to various fairs around the city. Now packaged trendily and with a catchy logo, ‘Chum Lanna Curry’, they have been selling like hotcakes. Early in September he set up a stall on the way up Doi Suthep during the annual walk up the mountain, intending to feed hungry and tired freshies.
“A van stopped by my stall and some people got out,” he said. “One lady seemed very interested in what I was doing. The next thing I know she said that she was the Director of the Northern Food Valley and invited me to a seminar on processing food. Now I’m beginning to think that I can turn my mum’s many Lanna curries into something I can export. I am very excited about this opportunity and am going to be applying to be a recipient of their next batch of funding.”
One of the Northern Food Valley’s greatest success stories is when a young single mother learned that banana blossoms had long been a traditional plant in helping to stimulate breast milk, according to Lanna lore. Interested in giving her child the best care possible, she began to look into how she could share this cheap and ubiquitous plant with other mothers in areas with no access to the blossom. “This took a good three to four years of research,” said Pranorm. “We found extracting and organic experts and finally we had a product, a package and we helped her to enter various markets. Today she exports and sells around one million baht’s worth of her Banana blossom bilk, Plee Acme Drink, per month, and business is growing.”
“Mountain Plus, a company in Chiang Rai does organic bake-dried pineapples,” Pranorm continued. “It was OK for export, because foreigners understand that organic produce can’t look as colourful and fresh as those using chemical preservatives, but the Thai market wanted bright yellow pineapples. We asked Chiang Mai University’s Food Innovation and Packaging Centre (FIN) to help us resolve this issue. We now have fully organic bake-dried pineapples which are pretty and yellow. Another example is that we have many lamyai farmers. The Chinese market likes sun-dried lamyai, but to enter the Singaporean or Malaysian markets, we sent some marketeers there to do research and found out that they don’t want simple sun-dried fruits, they wanted more sophisticated products. So now we are helping to develop lamyai teas, lamyai coffees, lamyai creams, even an alcoholic beverage for colder climates called Lamyai Heat, sold in shot jars.”
Another recent success story is that of a company selling honey. Wanting to differentiate themselves from the competition, they infused lemon flavour into the honey so that instead of having to purchase both honey and lemon, consumers simply pour hot water to this mix for an instant alcohol-free hot toddy.
The Northern Food Valley also organises numerous seminars and workshops, with over 300 participants having attended over the years, many of whom have gone on to become recipients of their funding and support. They organise trips to meet buyers abroad, which businesses must pay for themselves if they can, but can also ask for subsidies if they are small or startups. For all its support, there are no strings attached; the government does not require any monetary compensation nor shares in future profits.
“My aim is also to help reduce inequality,” Pranorm explained. “Yes, we help big businesses, but I make sure that we always help the smaller ones too. Sometimes if we help a big company we will insist that they in turn take on and help mentor or support smaller ones in their sector. I want us to help the entire body of water, from downstream producers to upstream success stories. I only have two staff and a part time worker, so it is all very challenging, but I think that we are really gaining momentum and I hope that we can expand and achieve much more in the future.”
When asked what exciting innovations she has recently discovered, she said, “Khao soy ice cream. Yes, I know, it sounds awful, but trust me, you have to try it; it’s delicious.”
Citylife called D Cup, the producers of what surely must be the world’s first khao soy ice cream, and the next day they came to our office and offered our staff free cups.
“There are three of us, two of us are computer engineers and one studied home and communities,” said Netnapa Kuntaudomm one of the owners. “We started selling ice cream part time, and went to various fairs and festivals. In November last year we joined the Northern Food Valley Fair and by March we had a shop in front of Chiang Mai University and Maya Lifestyle Shopping Centre had invited us to open another shop, it all took off so fast! We have all just recently quit our jobs and are now being exhibited in shows all over the country; the Thailand Industries 4.0, the Thailand Startup, SCB Expo, Thailand Innovation, and many more. We haven’t even had time to register our company yet! But we are doing that now, and once we are legal, we will apply for support from the Northern Food Valley to develop our ice creams to expand our markets.”
D Cup sells over 3530 flavours of ice cream, with all ingredients personally sourced by its three shareholders to guarantee only the best quality. Their ice creams include wasabi, beer, spy wine, red bull, marshmallow and other intriguing flavours. Their most exciting ice cream to date is the khao soy ice cream, which they hope to be able to export one day. The flavour is sweet with hints of local spices and cinnamon. The iconic crunchy egg noodles have been baked with cheese flavours to turn the savoury aspect of the dish into a dessert and the chicken drumsticks are even recreated with flavoured baked flour. A sprig of coriander garnish completes the look.
“I think that they will do very well with us,” said Pranorm excitedly.
Pranorm encourages any agro-food business with an innovative idea to contact her, adding that year on year she is finding more excellent products which she believes will not only succeed in the global markets, but help realise the Kitchen of the World policy, considered by many to be the world’s first government sponsored gastrodiplomatic initiative, after all the way to win hearts is supposed to be through the stomach.