Samui Wining & Dining
Going Places

Thailand’s herbs are going the way of Thai cuisine – they’re migrating!


p11What are the first things that come to mind when you think of Thai food? Hot and spicy? A wonderful blend of tastes? Lemongrass? Noodles? Curries? Well I suppose that all depends on what type of person you are. I don’t image that your average Hell’s Angel will come up with the same response as a priest from Prague. But, whatever your lifestyle, the chances are that you’ll like Thai cuisine. Over the last 20 years Thai food has risen in popularity to outrank previous favourites, such as Indian and Chinese dishes. Today, it’s rated third only to Japanese cuisine, which has suddenly rocketed in recent years.

Try to imagine Thai cuisine being like a railway train. It goes chugging out into the world, and behind it is a line of carriages. The engine leads the way and the rest follow behind. The ‘engine’ in this case is the first waves of Thai immigrants into the West, who made their mark upon those foreign communities by opening Thai restaurants. Which quickly caught on. And, then, as more and more Westerners chose to holiday in the low-cost, high-pleasure region that is Thailand and fell in love with the local cuisine, Thai cuisine abroad became even more established.

And with so many hundreds of thousands of ready-made outlets in the world – all the Thai restaurants – so the next ‘railway carriage’ followed close behind; in this case, Thai beers. And this was closely followed, in the next carriage, by a range of most pleasant Thai wines. What better to accompany a real Thai meal than genuine Thai wines or beers?

And so it went on. Soon these Thai tipples were finding their way into local and national supermarket chains. And then Thailand started exporting the Thai vegetables, herbs and spices that were so hard to find in the West. Now there were not only all the Thai restaurants looking for fresh supplies, but thousands of eager cooks wanting to ‘go Thai’ at home, too. And, with an established world market of Thai products, the latest ‘carriage’ has appeared on the scene – Thai herbs.

There’s nothing at all new about Thai herbs; just the opposite, in fact. For centuries they’ve been used throughout Thai society, taking on a variety of roles. Naturally, items such as galangal, basil, cumin, turmeric, black pepper and ginger have been used to flavour traditional Thai dishes ever since the ‘Tai’ people wandered out of Southern China and into Thailand, more than a thousand years ago. Now, they’re exported widely in connection with Thai cuisine. But, today, something new has also emerged.

You have to realise that there’s a long and respected tradition of massage in Thailand. And, believed to have strong healing powers, old folk-traditions are still preserved in this ancient art. Together with this, traditional Thai herbs are usually a part of the process – you’ll find them mainly used in warm poultices and wraps. The famous aloe vera plant, for example has well-known abilities to heal cuts and stings and soothe the skin And the turmeric that is more usually enjoyed via Thai curries contains well documented anti-oxidising agents. So, if you add the feel-good factor of Thai massage to the potential commercial use of Thai herbs, what have you got? Answer: a huge potential export industry that’s just about to happen – in some respects, anyway!

Thailand’s Health Systems Research Institute (HRSI) now boasts a five-year plan to put Thai herbs ‘on the world map’. Out of the hundreds of herbs that are in use in Thailand, just 10 have been chosen as having the most potential for export. And these are aimed directly at the spa and cosmetics market, Dr. Jiradej Manorosi, a researcher at the HSRI, revealed recently. Because, although all of these herbs have significant potential in the expanding arena of medicine and food-supplements, it looks like these doors are currently closed to Thailand. “The regulations are very strict, such as the need now for 30 years of trials before being accepted by the European Union,” he explained airily. “So, exporting cosmetics is much easier.”

Well, although the committee’s herbal line-up looks initially promising, one aspect of its marketing strategy might need a little modification in order to appeal to a more global audience. You see, the Thai people obsessively yearn to be whiter than they actually are. A dark skin is the mark of a farmer or a peasant who has to work all day outside under the sun. You’ll find that every little corner shop and convenience store has a whole rack of ointments, lotions, potions and creams that all claim to make you whiter. And, as 4 out of the 10 herbs on the list are proclaimed to be ‘whiteners’, there might need to be a re-think here! Maybe, for the western market, one or two that make you browner could be added to the list, as well?

But, that aside, there is still some way to go before we see Thai herb-extracts on the shelves of our local pharmacies. One of the obstacles is that there is already an established market in this arena from Chinese herbs, which have been successfully marketed for quite a while. The example cited by Dr Jiradej, to support the venture’s potential, is that of paekoei, a blood pressure and circulation regulator which has already generated over half a billion dollars for the German company that produced it. And it’s hoped that Thailand might benefit from a similar income. But, perhaps that’s not such as good example as, after all, it is for medicinal use ...

Which means that what we are likely to see is a lot more Thai herbs and treatments turning up in our local spas. Like Thai cuisine, Thai massage has become internationally established. And they both make full use of those useful and healthy herbs that abound in Thailand. And, right now, it’s the very latest ‘carriage’ in Thailand’s ever-lengthening export train!


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