Experienced travellers know that if they want a local experience, they must try local dishes because food can bring insight to a community’s identity.
A variety of Thai dishes to attract foodie tourists.
In Thailand, a variety of plants are found easily, and many dishes use these as key ingredients, including chilli, basil and lemongrass, as well as lime to make sour and spicy soups such as tom yam.
Each community has signature dishes that reflects its traditions and heritage, and visiting them allows tourists to enjoy new food in novel places.
“As tourists find other reasons to travel besides leisure and visiting family, enjoying new cuisine seems to be popular and can make the trip more impressive,” says Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat.
Given the growing importance of food and travel, the ministry has implemented the Gastronomy Tourism Policy to use food to attract travellers.
Speaking at the UN World Tourism Organization and the Basque Culinary Centre joint forum held in Bangkok in May this year, Mr Weerasak vowed to gather leading experts in the field of gastronomy tourism to strengthen the connections between Thailand’s two core industries, agriculture and tourism.
A gastronomy policy campaign launched recently called “Local Chef Thailand” aims to upgrade local food and local restaurants nationwide by having famous chefs, namely Chumpol Jangprai, Michelin-starred David Thomson, Andy Yangeksakul and Nooror Somany Steppe, help villagers upgrade dishes and create delicious items using raw materials from their backyards as key ingredients.
First with 30 communities
In the first phase of the campaign, a total of 30 communities in provinces located across the country have been selected. They are part of the over 600 communities that have worked with the Designated Areas for Sustainable Tourism Administration (Dasta) to improve their communities as tourism destinations.
Participating villagers have the opportunity to attend a three-day cooking course instructed by renowned chefs, covering basic food knowledge, modernising existing dishes and adding new dishes as well as how arrange cooking activities for tourists during their visits to the community.
Apinya Tipnak, 53, a resident of Baan Takian Tia community in Chon Buri’s Bang Lamung district who joined the programme, says that even though she had cooking skills already, the training course with Chef Chumpol expanded her knowledge about Thai food and taught her how to design more dishes by using local raw materials.
Signature dishes from the Ban Takian Tia community, where coconut trees are plentiful, have coconut as a main ingredient. Soft coconut shells can be put in Thai green curry and have a similar taste to bamboo shoot and coconut shoot.
“We have plenty of this raw material in the village that used to be left as waste, since we did not know the produce has value and taste,” Ms Apinya says.
Communities and villagers that take part the programme must design a trip for foodie tourists.
“For Ban Takian Tia, visitors can enjoy biking through coconut fields, workshops about cooking, coconut leaf weaving and relaxing gua sha massages,” Ms Apinya says. “We charge visitors only 250 baht per head for the one-day activities plus food.”
But if visitors want to try Isan food, they can visit the Busai community in Nakhon Ratchasima’s Wang Nam Khieo district, which claims to have the world’s seventh-freshest oxygen concentration.
Many communities in the Local Chef Thailand campaign also promote self-sufficiency, the philosophy of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, such as in the Ao Noi community in Prachuap Khiri Khan, which has several activities focused on resources to produce sufficient supplies for their own.
With over 224 kilometres of seashore, the province’s main industry is fisheries. Visiting Ao Noi means a chance to join workshops on squid and crab fishing, as well as planting rice, while enjoying seafood dining and dishes with pineapple grown in the area.
“The campaign helps generate income for people in our village,” Ms Apinya says, “and we’re delighted to use our traditional recipes to help promote tourism in our home.”
Giving knowledge, not cash
Irin Rerksasarn, managing director of ThaiGuide Taste Inc Asia, an agency working with the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Dasta to manage the campaign, says many criteria were considered to select the first phase of 30 communities.
The community must be capable of conforming with the concept of gastronomical tourism, places to visit, good team work, and importantly, good attitude.
They have to help create a food tourism network by opening local restaurants in five regions in the country — northern, central, eastern, north eastern, south and southern border region by December this year.
She says it took about six months to select communities and send chefs to train villagers on how to improve simple dishes and cook them to meet international standards.
Apart from cooking knowledge, villagers will be trained on how to manage activities for visitors, and such activities could be a step to promote community enterprises and entrepreneurs.
Ms Irin says the Local Chef Thailand programme does not provide financial support for participants, merely knowledge development.
Certain companies, including PTT Global Chemical, have jointly organised the programme by advising the use of eco-friendly food containers and fewer plastic items.
Ms Irin says Local Chef Thailand will be extended to cover more areas as the programme fosters government policy to promote tourism in 55 second-tier provinces.
The tax-break scheme for tourism spending in less-visited provinces, or those that welcome fewer than 4 million visitors a year, was enacted this year, allowing individual taxpayers to deduct the value of travel expenses in these provinces for accommodation, food and drinks of up to 15,000 baht from personal income tax.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry reported that 40 million tourists visited second-tier provinces after six months of the tax scheme, up 5% from the same period last year. The number is estimated to expand to 80-90 million visitors this year.