Return of the “Lost” Thai food During Coronavirus Pandemic

Sirinya Wattanasukchai




When a sudden craving for Kanom Jeen Nam-ngiao, a Northern Thai dish, struck Siwa earlier this year, she immediately started scrolling down her Facebook page. She wasn’t looking for a food shop to buy the ready-to-eat dish, but rather searching for a vendor in the north who could supply her with a particular ingredient to cook it.

“It’s not that the ingredient I needed is rare, but you need to know where to buy it in Bangkok,” says Siwa, who loves cooking as much as eating. She was looking for dok ngiao or red cotton flower and quickly found an online shop from which she could order the flower and other ingredients, including the paste for the dish.

The tradition northern Thai dish, kanom jeen nam-ngiao.
 Kanom Jeen Nam-Ngiao, The tradition northern Thai dish.

Back in the days before COVID-19, Siwa knew she could get the red cotton flower at Or Tor Kor Market (Marketing Organization for Farmers) and the ingredients she needed for Northeastern or Southern dishes at Huay Kwang morning market. But with the country under lockdown, having everything delivered to her doorstep was much more convenient.

The recent lockdown has had an enormous economic impact. But it’s also undeniable that staying at home has given everyone a lot of free time and that has led to the creation of a platform for the exchange of culinary culture on social media.

Calling herself an adventurous foodie and having tried countless regional dishesthanks to friends hailing from all around the country, Siwa was delighted by a new find – keropok lekor or fish sausage, a traditional Malay fish cracker snack. “I’d never heard of it before,” she says.

Keropok Lekor: Malay Fish Cracker Snack.
Keropok Lekor: Malay Fish Cracker Snack.

Forced to stay at home, many people had so much time on their hands that they turned to computers and social media. Some started to learn how to cook or bake from vloggers and also looked for new recipes or old dishes, to ease the boredom of being “locked up” at home. New digital market places have indeed fed the lust for exciting new delicacies and led to the rediscovering of rich culinary culture from Thailand’s olden days.

“I’d always wanted to try natural sago again but could never find it in the market until a few [Facebook] advertisements popped up during the lockdown,” says Penn, another adventurous gourmet. Growing up with sago, which is made from starch, she never forgot the unique taste and texture of the natural sago she’d tasted in Myanmar a few years ago.

Those who used to work or study in Bangkok and had moved back to their hometowns were savvy both about the technology and the market. With everything closed during lockdown, a huge surplus of ingredients and dishes that were previously supplied to local markets and restaurants started to build up, forcing local suppliers to look for a new way to sell their products. So they started to advertise “the oversupply” from their region on social media. Meanwhile, urbanites stuck in a studio apartment in the city were turning to the same social media for new things to try.

Universities started their own online marketplace while most housing estates tapped into their own closed groups where people can exchange products from their region as well as used items.

Born and raised in the capital, Thee never paid much attention to food although he would try any new dishes once to see if he liked them. During the lockdown, though, Thee discovered a wealth of dishes and ingredients that were not available in the supermarket through the group chat of his housing estate.

His neighbors were from around the country and they brought such items as sator or bitter beans and bai-liang or baegu from the South or durian grown in the volcano soil of the Northeast to Bangkok to sell to others at affordable prices. Those keen on cooking offered regional dishes, namely tam kanun, Northern-style jackfruit salad and gaeng hang-lay, Northern-style pork curry.

Gaeng hang-lay or a Northern Thai-style pork curry.
Gaeng hang-lay, Northern-style pork curry.

“They are not that rare, but the online marketplace has become much more diverse and that has created a selling point,” says Thee, adding that the group usually offered organic produce or home-made dishes.

And while the lockdown provided an opportunity for those living in the city to enjoy new things from different regions, it was also a good chance for those in provinces to offer low-profile but tasty ingredients and dishes.

“I didn’t see any trend but thought it was a great opportunity to show off all the good things we have at home to outsiders,” says Asma from Satun. 

Over the past three years, she’s been offering organic produce, seafood and locally produced goods to people outside her province. About 80% of her customers are in Bangkok and the remainder from provinces with high-spending power, namely Chonburi and Rayong.

Apart from local products like shrimp paste, she’s been selling pook-rak, a deep-fried crispy snack stuffed with fish, online. And it was snapped up really fast during the lockdown.“Anything that could be eaten immediately after opening the package sold well while everyone had to stay home. Anything the customers don’t have to cook or even turn on their stove went fast,” Asma says.

Satun has never made it to the tourism map, Asma adds. Moreover, pook-rak was only previously known among residents of Satun and neighbouring provinces because it was only recently invented to add more valcooked from nutritious and safe ingredients too,” Jay said.

Jay, a Yala native, couldn’t agree more. She started to offer locally grown and produced products, including khao-yam or Southern-style mixed rice with vegetables, keropok lemak and roti, through an online market initiated by her university.

Her hometown is far away from the capital, and has never been a destination for any tourists. “Perhaps, this is the way to tell people that Yala has nice food which is cooked from nutritious and safe ingredients too,” Jay said.

Khao yam or Southern Thai-style mixed rice with vegetables.
khao-yam or Southern-style mixed rice with vegetables.


Sirinya Wattanasukchai

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