Eat Responsibly Day at Bo.Lan

Each first Saturday of the month, the upscale, down-home Thai restaurant Bo.lan hosts a farmers’ market they dub “Eat Responsibly Day.” Located on Sukhumvit Soi 26 in Bangkok, chefs Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones’ commitment to slow, local, organic, and sustainable food shines at this market, which is held on the front yard of the restaurant.

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Tawn and I visited in early April. We arrived shortly before 11:00 on a hot morning that threatened rain, midway through the market’s run, which begins at 8:00 and runs until 2:30. At least a dozen local vendors were present, selling everything from produce to prepared foods. Here is a selection of what was offered:

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From Samut Songkhram province, one vendor had fluer de sel (sea salt – left) and palm sugar (right). These are two staple products made in the smallest of Thailand’s 77 provinces and I had to chuckle a bit as the palm sugar comes from the sub-district where I used to volunteer as an English teacher. Every time I went down there, it was all I could do not to return home carrying several kilos of the palm sugar. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I could have repackaged it with a nice label and sold it as an artisinal product!

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Another vendor was selling freshly-baked bread and jars of homemade roasted tomato relish. This relish was amazing, full of whole garlic cloves and cooked at a low temperature for several hours until the flavors combined beautifully. The lady who makes it brought the recipe back from Europe and has been making it for friends, who would wash and return their empty jars, asking her to fill them up the next time she made a batch. April was her first time at the market, and I certainly hope she returns.

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Maarten Kaspersma runs a busines selling microgreens, evenrything from mustard greens to carrot, kale to mizuna. The business name is Mr. Maarten’s Microgreens and you can find them on facebook.

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We bought a pair of trays. I recall that one was mustard but I don’t remember what the other was. They certainly make for an interesting way to spice up the flavor of salads or sandwiches. I could also use a pair of tweezers and artfully decorate a plate with them and charge an extra few dollars. (If I was charging for my food!)

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Joe Sloane of Sloane’s Sausages made an appearance with his grill. Joe has gained fame around Bangkok as a purveyor of fine pork products. He doesn’t yet have a retail outlet so he informs his customers whenever he has purchased a hog or two (always organic breeds that come from up-country) and has more products for sale. In the near future, he hopes to open a proper storefront so he has more processing space.

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Cumberland sausages and fresh chorizo. These were so nice, I see no further need for me to experiment with sausage making at home!

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Homemade sauces and onion relish with which to tart up your sausages.

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Fresh baguette from Le Blanc on Sukhumvit Soi 39 with a heap of onion relish, fire-roasted tomato ketchup, and a chorizo sausage. Heaven on a Saturday morning.

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Accompanying Joe Sloane’s sausages was galangal porter, brewed at home by our friend Brian’s Happy Cat label. Hopefully, he will one day turn this into a proper business and make his fine hand crafted brews available for retain sale.

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We stopped by the table hosted by Pattaya’s own Lulu and Daisy Goat Cheese company and bought two rounds of medium-aged goat cheese. Nice and tangy, we’ve been shredding this on salads for a wonderful, rich flavor and aroma.

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Organic, free range eggs. Not sure if I understood correctly that these came from hens that live on the restaurant’s property. Perhaps I’m mistaken. They were tasty, though.

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The restaurant does have its own mushroom hut and so we purchased mushrooms freshly harvested on-site. While it has been more than two years since I wrote a review on Bo.lan, at which time I found the food very tasty but the prices just a little dear, I have to commend the chefs’ commitment to local and sustainable foods. Quite an emphasis on quality!

Breakfast

When we returned home, Tawn whipped up an omelet using the eggs, mushrooms, goal cheese, microgreens, and tomato relish that we had purchased at the farmers’ market. Another Eat Responsibly Day will be held on Saturday, 5 May and will continue on the first Saturday of each month at Bo.lan restaurant, Sukhumvit Soi 26. I already have my calendar marked! 

 

Undergoing a Sleep Test at Bangkok Hospital

I snore. I snore so loudly that it keeps Tawn awake. After trying various remedies such as weight loss and sleeping on my side, I decided to visit an Ear,Nose, and Throat specialist at Bangkok Hospital. After sticking a probe up my nostrils to inspect that things were roughly in order, he suggested I come in for an overnight sleep test.


(The volume on this video is just a little low… sorry.)

The purpose of the test is to get an accurate read on the quality of your sleep including your sleep patterns, physical movement, brain activity, and breathing. Sleep apnea is a condition often associated with snoring. You stop breathing for extended periods of time (more than ten seconds), which can lead to many health problems including irritability, fatigue, and high blood pressure.

P1200799 I arrived on a Thursday evening at the hospital. After having my vital signs taken, I went for a pair of chest x-rays. (I have to say, before coming to Thailand, I had never had an x-ray in my life. In the six years since, I’ve had close to a dozen. They really like their x-rays here.) Then I headed upstairs to the sleep clinic.

My room for the evening resembled a regular hotel room, but with linoleum floors and bedside equipment that reminded you that this was a hospital. The room was also outfitted with two cameras, one of which was infrared, that would allow the sleep technician to observe me throughout the night.

After changing into my hospital scrubs, the sleep technician started wiring me up. This took about thirty minutes and my recurring thought was that this must be roughly what a condemned man goes through leading up to his execution. Grim, no?

Electrodes were attached to various parts of my body. Having a shaved head made this process easier, I think. A tube was inserted into my nostrils. Straps around my belly and chest held wires and monitors in place. Finally, all the wires were pulled together like a ponytail and wrapped with medical tape.

When it was time to go to bed, I had to carefully position myself on the mattress. The technician stretched the wires across the bed to a trio of small devices, which then fed the data directly to the computers in his hidden control room. After saying goodnight to Tawn, I read for a little while until sleepy, finally turning out the light and shutting my eyes.

Once the thoughts of imminent execution left my mind, I kept repeating the question, “How can this really measure anything useful?” With this number of wires, electrodes, and monitors, my range of motion was limited. Add to that the unfamiliar bed and pillow and the fact that I usually fall asleep on my side before rolling over onto my back, and I was carrying more negative, skeptical thoughts than usual. I had been offered a mild sedative if I thought I would be unable to sleep, but declined it. After not too many minutes, however, I did manage to drift off to dream land.

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Sometime in the middle of the night, I awoke for about thirty minutes. I was thirsty and had to stretch awkwardly to reach a bottle of water on the bedstand. Instead of fully quenching my thirst, I merely sipped because if I subsequently needed to use the toilet, I would need to call the technician and be unplugged first.

I slept a restless few more hours before finally waking at 5:30. It didn’t take long before I decided that I had had enough of this experience and wanted to get up. I was surprised when the technician, perhaps reading my brain waves, entered the room about fifteen minutes after waking to unwire me without me having to ring for him.

Afterwards, I showered and changed into my street clothes, letting the nurse know I would skip the included breakfast and was ready to be discharged. By 6:30 I was home, taking care not to wake up Tawn who was enjoying a peaceful, snore-free night.

A few days later I returned to the hospital for my follow-up meeting. While I didn’t feel like my night had produced a representative sample of my sleeping habits, the doctor was confident of the test results. He explained that I suffer from a condition known as “regular snoring” and that I have no sleep apnea. All of the measures – blood oxygen, brain waves, sleep modes, etc. – we within a normal range. Whether I do anything further to treat the snoring is up to me, but it is posing no health risks at this point.

In retrospect, I have to give the Bangkok Hospital staff high marks for professionalism and attentive service. While I think the package might be a little steep at about US$500 (Why do they need to x-ray me, for example?) the experience was a positive one. My doubts about the effectiveness of the test may linger, just slightly, but at least I know that my health is in no immediate danger.

 

Tearing Down a Shophouse

Each city has its own development  rhythm. Buildings are constructed then subsequently modified or added on to. Sometimes the buildings are torn down to make way for newer buildings. In some cities (think Florence, Italy) the rhythm is very slow. In other cities (Hong Kong!) one can be surprised by how staccato the rhythm is. Here in Bangkok, it is somewhat in between, though closer to Hong Kong than Florence.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a pair of shophouses adjacent to the Thong Lo Skytrain station (the one at the mouth of our soi) were being demolished. The process took several days and was done largely by hand – laborers with sledgehammers started at the top of the building and deconstructed it, floor by floor.

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Interestingly, they are not removing the entire row of identical shophouses, just these two. The demolition process exposes the intimate way in which the buildings are connected: ghosts of the back stairs can be seen on the wall of the remaining shophouse. People are apparently still living next door to the demolished buildings: laundry is hanging on the roof area and tarps have been raised to keep the dust out.

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The demolition also exposed a large open space that I never knew existed behind these buildings. It looks like there may have been a small pool back there. As of yet, there are no signs announcing what is to happen with this space. The house to the left is a large private home on a lot covered with a pond and lots of old trees. Behind the open space is a large but shadowy hotel (the orange building) and to the right is an apartment complex (in green). I would guess that these shop houses probably date to around the 1960s so they are being replaced within three generations.

I look forward to seeing what development happens here. It seems too small for a condo – lord knows we have plenty of those sprouting up all around Thong Lo station! – but stranger things have happened.

 

Visiting Adams Organic Farm in Thailand

A chance meeting with an American expat whose family is in the seed business leads to a behind-the-scenes tour of an organic vegetable farm in Korat province.

Full video here; story follows:

When I moved to Thailand a bit more than six years ago, organic produce was a rare sight. The more western-oriented supermarkets would have small sections – one or two shelves in a single refrigerated display case – featuring lonely looking organic vegetables, often flown in from foreign shores.

Today when I visit the produce section of the market, the organic selection makes up as much as about one-tenth of the available real estate. Many of the organic items are grown in Thailand, although imports are still present. The range of organic produce is wider, too: apples to arugula, okra to onions.

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I am pleased that organic produce is gaining traction in the Thai market. I am also confused, though, at the number of “near” or “faux” organic products being sold. With labels like “pesticide safe”, “hygienic”, and “INSERT LABEL HERE” and no clear oversight and regulation, I am never sure just what I can safely eat.

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Curious and confused, I took advantage of my recent introduction to Tim Chung, an American who is now living in Thailand to help manage his family’s organic farm and fresh vegetable operations. Tim extended an invitation to visit Adams Organic’s farm in Pak Thong Chai in Nakhon Ratchasima province – about a three-hour drive from Bangkok.

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This is one of Adams Organic’s two locations. They also work with more than 20 organic rice farmers in Yasothon province in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, to grow organic vegetables in the dry and cool seasons. This works out well because rice does not grow efficiently during those seasons and vegetable production generally dips during the rainy season, which is prime rice-growing time.

Adams Organic started in 2009 as an offshoot of a commercial organic seed producer, AEL, whose roots stretch back more than four decades. According to Tim, they saw a growing demand in Thailand for fresh organic produce so started experimenting with the idea. They now produce about six tons of vegetables each month for retail sale.

The Pak Thong Chai farm is about 30 rai (or 12 acres). The farm grows a variety of organic vegetables, including tomatoes, zucchini, salad greens, melons, squash, cucumber, eggplant, garlic, and shallots. Some of these are grown in open fields and others are grown in net houses.

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Net houses are similar to green houses except the sheeting is permeable so its effect is more to keep the insects and other pests out than to regulate the temperature. In addition, the very fine mesh of the netting provides protection from predators (including insects) that would eat crops and potentially carry unwanted diseases. Along with some additional dark sheeting, the nets provide a bit of relief from the strong sunlight and regular rain showers.

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To enter the net houses, you step in a box of ground limestone. This helps reduce the risk of soil-borne disease being brought in. There are also sprayers for hand sanitizer. The two sets of double net curtains help restrict the entry of insects.

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Another organic pest control methods is the placement of sticky yellow flags, which attract the insects and then trap them once they land.

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Additionally, inside the net houses you find plastic containers of sulfur powder. As the sun heats the sulfur, it gives off a gas that repels certain insects and also discourages the growth of microbes and fungus. Despite all those efforts – a testament to how abundant the ranks of insects are – there were still some insects inside the net house, but none that were causing a significant problem to the crops.

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An interesting side effect of these efforts to minimize insects is that pollination of the plants has to be done by hand.

In addition to not using pesticides, growing organic also means that you cannot use herbicides. The farm has several techniques to minimize the number of weeds, which are harmful to the crops because they compete for water and nourishment.

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Before planting, the freshly plowed fields are covered with black plastic sheeting. In colder climates this would be done to help warm the soil and wake it for a late winter or early spring planting. Here in Thailand, the black plastic super-heats the soil, killing off many of the seeds of other plants that may be in the soil already.

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Seedlings of the desired crop are planted in holes cut into the plastic. As the crops grow, the plastic sheeting minimizes the number of competing weeds by cutting off any sunlight to them. Hand-weeding is also necessary while the crops are young. As the crops grow older, though, grasses and less-invasive weeds are allowed to grow side-by-side with the crops.

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To conserve water, a drip irrigation system is used. This ensures that the plants receive a regular supply of water that is focused on the area immediately around the plant, reducing waste.

As I learned during the visit, farming is a cyclical practice: the nutrients that you take from the ground must be replaced. In conventional farming, this is done with petroleum-based chemical fertilizers. With organic farming, the cycle is sustained in a variety of ways. For example, fields are planted in a rotating basis to ensure that soil quality is not diminished. For example, fields that grow tomatoes might then be plated with zucchini and then allowed to lie fallow before tomatoes are planted again. Different plants take and return different nutrients to the soil, one reason that the industrial agricultural practice of planting huge expanses with a single crop season after season, so called “mono-crops,” is so damaging.

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Additionally, the farm makes its own compost from trimmings and the remnants of plants after the fruits and vegetables are harvested. These trimmings are allowed to ferment and be biodegraded in plastic barrels before being worked back into the fields with organic steer manure. They are in the process of constructing a vermiculture – worm-based – composting system, too.

One of the challenges when growing organic is keeping your fields from being contaminated from outside sources. To counter this, Adams Organic maintains an awareness of what is grown on neighboring farms and ensure that their fields are set back sufficiently from the property borders to maintain the organic quality of their produce.

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Our final stop on the tour was the packing house, a small warehouse that includes sanitary processing rooms and a chiller room. Produce is picked almost every day and the workers inspect, trim, and package the vegetables. The packaged vegetables are then stored in the chiller room before being delivered three times a week to Bangkok-area stores by refrigerated truck.

Their produce is available at ten locations of Tops supermarkets, several Foodland locations, and four Gourmet Marketplace locations (associated with the Mall Group). They also have a retail storefront on Soi Saladaeng and they are working towards a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture program where you pay a subscription rate and receive weekly deliveries of the freshest produce.

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One of my big questions about organic food in Thailand is the extent to which it is reliably organic. On our trip, we were joined by a US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) certified inspector. Adams Organic is regularly inspected not only by US-licensed inspectors, but also inspectors for the European Union, Japan, and Korea. The inspections occur not because their food is currently exported (all of it is sold within Thailand) but because their original and primary business is growing organic seeds, which are exported for sale.

Tim explained that it is difficult to give a general statement about organic providers in Thailand. The only way to be completely certain is to have your own chemical test kit and test different brands to see for yourself. Of course, that isn’t practicable. Most organic brands use a variety of farmers to provide their produce. The key, he explained, is to have good quality control to ensure all the products are grown by farmers who strictly follow organic practices.

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While the market for organics is expanding, the retail price for organics is relatively low compared to Singapore and Hong Kong. This is good news for Thai consumers but creates a challenge for organic farmers. The retail operation is not yet profitable for Adams Organic, but they see this as a long-term project. Proper positioning now will give them the opportunity to develop the market and build a sustainable, profitable business in sustainable, healthy produce.

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Many thanks to Tim and the folks at Adams Organic for letting me take a behind-the-scenes look and share it with you. From left to right: Flerida, Tim, me, Ken, and Chow.

 

Sunsets on Ploenchit

Yesterday evening I finished a meeting over by Ploenchit BTS station just after sunset. The sky was a beautiful color – particularly pink in the east – and I stopped to take some pictures that turned out rather nice. I thought I’d share them with you.

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The first thing I noticed was the pink sky in the east, a reflection of the setting sun in the towering clouds on that side of the metropolitan area. This view is looking along Ploenchit Road, which turns into Sukhuvmit Road as soon as it crosses beneath that expressway. The Skytrain line runs down the middle of the street and the next station is Nana. Traffic is still pretty light after the new year holiday last weekend.

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Turning around and looking northwest, you can see Wave Place on the left and a new condo, both of which face Witthayu (Wireless) Road. The pink sky in the east is reflected in the windows of Wave Place. Immediately to the right of the condo, just poking out the right side of it, is the Baiyoke 2 Tower, the tallest building in Thailand. The LED lights at the top are showing a Thai flag: red, white, blue, white, and red stripes in that order. In the foreground is one of the remaining old properties that lie along Ploenchit Road, holdouts against the development that is taking over this area.

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A few minutes later I climb up to the Skytrain station platform and take another picture looking east. The pink sky is gone and it is actually dark purple at this point. But because I used an exposure of about 1/13 of a second, the sky’s color appears lighter.

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Looking due west, you can see a train departing Ploenchit station for Nana. Behind it is Mahatun Plaza, one of the older office buildings in this area, and the brand-new Park Ventures tower, about which I wrote yesterday. The side-view of the building is meant to evoke the wai – the polite Thai gesture of greeting where the palms of the hands are placed together, fingers points skyward.

 

Burning Calories One Step at a Time

One of the newest buildings in Bangkok is Park Ventures, a beautiful structure that has opened on the corner of Ploenchit and Wireless Roads. The builders have marketed Park Ventures as “Bangkok’s first eco-plex” – whatever that means. Perhaps more green-washing than reality or maybe a legitimate stab at reducing the carbon footprint of the modern office building, hotel, and retail complex.

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That said, I was bemused by the steps leading from the footpath to the main lobby. They are marked with the number of kilocalories one ostensibly burns with each step. Looking at the progression – 0.6 kilocalories per step – it looks like the fourth step may have been corrected from 2.0 to 2.4. (That may just be an optical illusion from this angle, though.) Best of all is the Thinglish admonition: “Use calories lose no electricity.” Perhaps they meant “waste”?

 

Food in Bangkok: The Bibimbab

Recently a new Korean restaurant opened near the mouth of Sukhumvit Soi 24 immediately across from the Emporium. It is called The Bibimbab and its menu focuses on the classic Korean one-pot meal which features a ridiculously hot stone bowl filled with rice, vegetables, meat, and chili paste, which you then mix together before eating. Tawn and I visited for dinner two weeks ago.

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There are those cuisines with which I am extremely familiar and there are other cuisines about which I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to. Korean is one of the latter. I always enjoy eating Korean food but I often feel a bit lost, uncertain of what I’m doing, how I should order, and whether the food I’m eating is very good or just passable by Korean standards. Bear that in mind as I talk about the restaurant, please.

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The Bibimbab is an attractive place to passers-by. The restaurant is airy and bright. The logo is colorful and modern. It is the type of place that is designed to appeal to people like me: those who like Korean food but don’t know much about it. That fact alone should probably make me nervous, right?

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We visited on a weeknight a few weeks after they opened. The tables were full and new customers were arriving and filling seats just as quickly as they were vacated. The interior looks a bit like a fast-food restaurant although it provides table service. The menu focuses on bibimbab, fried rice, and soups. They do not offer any of the “grill it yourself” dishes that are popular at many Korean restaurants.

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The restaurant’s branding and social media marketing is very up-to-date. They clearly want you to connect with your favorite bibimbab restaurant via your smart phone, tablet, computer, etc.

How To Eat Bibimbab

Their website actually offers useful information for the novice Korean food eater including helpful cartoons illustrating how to eat different dishes as well as general Korean food eating etiquette tips. Above is one an example of one of those helpful cartoons.

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Your meal begins with complimentary banchan. These are the side dishes (often erroneously referred to as kimchi, I learned – which refers only to the fermented vegetables) that accompany rice in Korean meals. Just by writing this entry, my knowledge about Korean food has expanded! The restaurant refills these throughout your meal. While the staff was busy, they were helpful and friendly.

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An overview of our meal. We ordered two dishes and shared them. Along with the side of rice and broth that came with one dish, we had a very hearty meal for two people, coming in at about 500 baht or under US$17.

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Our first dish was the jeyook bibimbab, rice and vegetables with spicy stir-fried pork. This was tasty. One of the nice things about bibimbab is the crispy crust of rice that forms at the bottom of the bowl. When it is time to eat it, there’s a nice crunchiness to it, a textural contrast to the rest of the dish.

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We also ordered dakbokkeumtang – spicy chicken stew with vegetables. While this wasn’t the spiciest Korean soup I’ve had – I remember a date years ago who took me to a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, serving me a spicy tofu soup that nearly dissolved my tongue – it was spicy enough. Flavors were good and I couldn’t help but think that this would be perfect food for chilly weather… if only we had some chilly weather in Bangkok!

Overall, I was satisfied with The Bibimbab and imagine we’ll go back from time to time. The prices are reasonable for dinner, the portions generous, and the food is tasty. The question about authenticity is one I can’t answer, but at some level you have to ask whether authenticity is more important than simply enjoying the food.