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In Bangkok, food is everywhere. It has to be, to feed the city’s
8.5 million people. It’s mostly street food, often made with cooking oil previously used at another restaurant (a bizarre form of recycling), heaps of mass-produced curry pastes and MSG, served in styrofoam boxes and plastic bags, alongside plastic straws and bottles.
But there are at least two people fighting for a more sustainable food culture in Thailand. Meet Bo and Dylan.

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When I picture Bo.lan in my head, I don’t see a restaurant. Instead I see a high-spirited five-year-old boy in a traditional indigo Mauhom shirt, stomping about guilelessly in front of a bamboo-gated garage, being closely monitored by his two-year-old sidekick on a miniature scooter. The boys are half-Thai, half-Aussie. They often spend late afternoons playing under the butterfly pea vines their parents attempt to grow, chemical-free, over an ironwork arch in their driveway in the middle of Bangkok. In the evenings, the boys spend time in the kitchen distracting their dad – an equally high-spirited Aussie called Dylan – as he barks orders in Thai at his chefs. Sometimes one of the boys will slip quietly into the restaurant’s dimly-lit, wood-clad dining room, modeled after increasingly rare traditional Thai houses, only to be swiftly carried back into the kitchen by the restaurant’s head of R&D, their mum Bo (a more efficient alias for her long Thai name). She rewards her boys’ patience with a steaming hot bowl of rice scattered with drops of fish sauce – organic and MSG-free, of course. In a few years’ time, when the boys are a little older, Bo and Dylan will tell them many beautiful stories about the fish sauce they use and the rice they choose and how the seemingly small choices we make about our food can impact our culture and our environment.


An Unsustainable Outburst

In this social media-ridden era, chefs behave in the right way and say the right things to gain Likes and Favourites. A chef’s sense of self-worth is often dependent on their social media popularity. Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones don’t always follow this etiquette. Though a regular on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and recently awarded with a Michelin star, Bo.lan’s image – or, perhaps that of Bo herself – has not always been a conformist or popularist one. Early in 2017, infuriated by an Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants’ sponsor’s use of styrofoam plates and plastic cutlery at one of the pre-award events, Bo lashed out. She stomped on the unrecyclable tableware in front of the media’s cameras. Her simple, angry statement captured the hearts of many, but her language shocked all.

She denounced styrofoam and plastic as non-degradable waste that just goes into landfill. As chefs, working with produce, our land is our future, she said. “Once we start decimating our fertile land, we cannot have food.” She called for chefs to accept their responsibility for food, the environment and our future (something her restaurant Bo.lan has long been committed to) – rather than meekly accepting such waste at a PR-driven award ceremony, and… “If not, f**k you then!”

Bo also spoke out about the hypocrisy of such a well-regarded international awarding body as World’s 50 Best Restaurants failing so miserably to influence their sponsors and set an environmentally ethical example. Seconds after her outburst Bo took her message to Instagram, using the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants logo. The sponsors demanded that the post be taken offline, but Bo wouldn’t back down. She posted an apology for any offence caused by her outburst but re-stated that “[her] beliefs are more important than [her] popularity”.


Curry Paste

Bo hasn’t always been a radical. Born to an upper-middle-class Thai-Chinese family in Bangkok, she was educated in an all-female Catholic school, then at a respectable university, and acquired all the Western-facing values expected of any Thai of her socio-economic class. She took Thai food for granted. In fact, she never even wanted to cook it. “At that time, for a 23-year-old girl living in Bangkok, with everything available on your doorstep, cooking Thai food was so uninteresting. You just put together a meal out of ready-prepared items,” Bo recalls. After finishing a bachelor’s degree in humanities in Thailand, she went to Adelaide to pursue a master’s in gastronomy. There she faced her very first cultural dilemma: an Australian professor asked her to make a red curry for a casual gathering. Not being able to buy curry paste, Bo backed down. “I had no idea. Not just about how to make a curry paste, I didn’t even know what went into it. The professor had to help me step-by-step. He was using David [Thompson]’s cookbook.”

“I was really angry at myself. It was a good type of anger,” Bo continues. “It made me feel a responsibility as a Thai to look again at my own culture and where I stand in relation to it. I am Thai but I come from a Thai-Chinese family. I grew up in a kitchen led by a Teochew mum and a Hokkien dad. Our diet choices differ from what we call a ‘full Thai’ family. We do eat spicy food but not, for example, pla ra [fermented freshwater fish typical in northeastern Thai cooking].”

This new sense of commitment directed Bo to research Thai cuisine in depth for her master’s thesis, looking at Thai curry paste as a product of intercultural fusion, investigating various influences, from Islamic culture to Portuguese trading fleets. “I had to interview a lot of Thai chefs. Like me, none of them knew precisely how to make a curry paste. I got mad at them. This was the state of Thai cooking in Bangkok. Because we are Thai no one can dispute our claim to ownership of Thai cooking, even when we know nothing about it.”

Looking for more practical kitchen experience, Bo went to work at the Metropolitan Hotel, Bangkok under executive chef Amanda Gale. She just happened to be a friend of David Thompson, so when Bo felt she’d learned all she could there, Gale helped her get a job at Nahm in London. “When I arrived at Nahm, everyone was on guard. I was the first Thai person to work there. All the Australian chefs thought this Thai would know everything about Thai food,” Bo says, “but I didn’t. Nahm – and David – taught me how we could make food from scratch and how diverse Thai produce was. We would have fresh madun and makork leaves shipped to London. After a few months, I became David’s taster. The advantage of being Thai was that I knew what a dish should taste like, even if I didn’t know how to make it. That was my contribution to Nahm’s kitchen.”

Bo spent two years at Nahm. There she met Dylan – an Australian chef who had been cooking Thai food for much longer than her. In 2009 they married and returned to Bangkok with a bag full of ideas for a restaurant. They were 28 and 27 at the time.


Bo & (Dy)lan

The restaurant Bo.lan is a conflation of Bo and Dylan’s names and is a play on a similar sounding Thai word that means vintage or ancient. The word also conveys a kind of sadness – the sense of someone or something being judged negatively for not being able to keep up with changing times. It somehow resonates well with the couple’s simple vision of a sustainable Thai restaurant that takes no shortcuts when it comes to the sourcing of ingredients or preparation techniques.

In Bo.lan’s early days there were only five chefs, including the couple themselves, in the kitchen. “Dylan and I would finish cleaning at midnight and hit Khlong Toey Market at 1am,” Bo says. “We barely had any sleep because we had to get ready for the next day’s service.” The couple also intended to pass on their Nahm-inherited way of working to their newly employed Thai chefs – for example, reintroducing the use of pestle and mortar for curry paste bashing and hand-extracting coconut milk from its freshly grated meat. “The first time I walked into David’s kitchen I was shocked to see the chefs making complicated Thai dishes, like nam prik goong sieb, from scratch,” Bo continues. “Dylan and I wanted to carry on this way of working in Thailand because we believe it is the most effective way of producing the freshest and most revelatory Thai food.”

Immediately, their ethos sparked conflicts with their chefs. To the majority of Thai chefs this way of working is ludicrous; to the majority of Thai consumers, it is unnecessary. The chefs who worked with them at the time just didn’t see the importance of it. They would threaten to walk out. “We let all of our chefs walk out once,” remembers Bo. “Then, just the two of us, we cooked for the entire restaurant [of 60 covers]. It was not easy but we managed. In the end, the chefs returned because they feared we would fire them when we discovered we could do it all ourselves.”

The couple believe this regressive attitude to Thai cooking results from the fact that food in Thailand has been so conveniently industrialised. “Thai tastebuds have become f**ked,” says Bo. “We are used to the taste of MSG, Knorr stock cubes and oyster sauce – a combination that leads to unbalanced sweetness and a lingering sweet aftertaste. Once this taste clings to your tongue, you no longer taste the ingredients themselves or the complexity of herbs and seasonings.” Nonetheless, it happens, because in a city where you can become a famous chef running a multi-billion-baht business with ready-made products, there is no need to cook with vision and conviction. “In Thai society, we have all the freshest produce, but we are so ready to industrialise everything. Street vendors these days use artificial lime juice in bottles instead of freshly squeezed limes.” Bo raises her concerns but no one – not even the consumers – ever questions this sort of modern-day Thai cooking.

After eight years, Bo.lan has evolved into a well-oiled educational operation, with Dylan as its executive chef overseeing 12 other cooks across five stations and a few stagiaires from overseas. Each of these chefs takes turns hand-pounding curry paste. “This curry paste bashing has become something of a rite of passage for the chefs working for us. We use 12-15kg of curry paste per week at Bo.lan and more for our casual restaurant Err,” says Dylan. “We stick with this traditional method not only because we want to preserve the old way of working but because it yields better curry paste, which reacts differently when you cook with it. Unlike in the old days [when chefs would rebel], we have chefs who believe in what we do working with us. Say [Kraisorn Chiayaboot], the only chef who has been with us from the beginning, is now our head chef.”

Ethos aside, the food that Bo.lan’s kitchen produces is an amalgamation of Bo and Dylan’s interpretation of Thai food as well as their understanding of and responsibility to Thai society. “Coming from David’s kitchen, and now cooking in Bangkok, we realise there is so much more to Thai food than just the process of cooking. We call our food ‘essentially Thai’ because we not only research the fundamental techniques and taste profiles of Thai cooking, we also question, interact and experiment with it within the boundary of what is deemed Thai,” Dylan explains. “I often ask myself what is my sense of ownership in Thai cuisine. I am a lot more conservative. I want to be true to Thai cooking as much as I can be. Being in Thailand, I’ve also learned that Thai-ness is not set in stone. It’s constantly changing.”

Bo, who is in charge of the restaurant’s research and development, is a firm believer that Thai food is a symbiosis of time, place, behaviours and cultures. In her opinion these form a “framework of Thai taste”. A number of dishes at Bo.lan, like at many other high-end Thai restaurants in Bangkok, are taken from old Thai cookbooks. “I started looking for recipes from old funeral books and ladies’ magazines. The challenge is that all of these old books only include vaguely written recipes.” Bo speaks about the need to understand Thai cuisine analytically: “You can’t immediately cook from them, or claim that you are being ‘authentic’ cooking from them. We have gone through the process of trying to contextualise them and recreating recipes from incomplete or unwritten thoughts.” Bo often consults with Thai food anthropologists and travels throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia to eat and talk with the locals. For Bo and Dylan, this process impacts on their understanding of what Thai food is. “Everything we do, everything we learn, actually makes the question of what Thai is more and more problematic. For example, we always say that Southern Thai cooking is influenced by Islamic cuisine but its influence can also be found in northern Thai food – along the Burmese border.”


The Disappearing People

In 2010, a year after opening Bo.lan and well before gaining her international accolades, Bo was scouted to cook and present on a weekly Thai TV programme Eat Am Are – to date she has recorded 300 episodes. Originally it was a conventional food programme with cooking demos, but Bo has been instrumental in driving the show to spotlight a wide range of pressing environmental issues related to Thailand’s agriculture, changing rural landscape, industrial and governmental policies and disappearing food cultures. With her childlike enthusiasm, sharp wit and encyclopedic knowledge of Thai and Southeast Asian cuisines, Bo takes great pride in retelling stories of people from the most obscure parts of Thailand – be it sustainable fishing practices in a small Muslim community in Thailand’s south, or farmers who make salt seasonally from underground water on the far northeastern border – people who are disappearing from view in this age of globalisation.

“Eat Am Are has taught me about food and our environment and it makes me realise that we all need to do something before it’s too late,” says Bo. “Thanks to the old cookbooks, I have become aware of the biodiversity of produce in Thailand: freshwater fish and shellfish, regional and seasonal fruit and vegetables, and so on. Changing social behaviours – such as a time-is-money attitude – and the industrialisation of food businesses in Thailand mean it’s easy to forget about these diverse ingredients. In Bangkok, biodiversity is disappearing in the restaurant business because it is driven by what seems valuable. We only cook with big fish because diners know they’re high-value and demand them. Thai restaurants and diners favour imported vegetables and ignore, for example, our own hed kon [rare wild mushrooms] because we fail to recognise the value of our own produce. I use Eat Am Are to raise awareness and communicate with Thai viewers. No one else can fix the problems for us.”

This exposure to the state of the Thai food system and its endemic problems also left Bo and Dylan unsatisfied with the produce they were buying in the early days of Bo.lan. “If we buy produce from the food markets, we can never really find out where it’s from,” Bo argues. “Dylan and I are Slow Food-minded. We want to be able to trace the sources of the produce we use. We also want it to be organic and sustainable because we have to make sure the generations who come after us can still be left with an abundance of the clean and safe produce that we have today.”

The biggest challenge is that the concept of Slow Food does not exist in Thailand. “What the West understands as Slow Food is what Thais sometimes call local wisdoms,” Bo continues. This is practical food knowledge that has existed since long before industrialisation and has been passed from one generation to another. Unfortunately, government policies often favour chemical fertilisers and pesticides to boost agricultural productivity, leaving local wisdoms less and less valued.

“Eat Am Are and a few of my personal contacts have helped us locate old-school farmers. Our coconut sugar comes from an organic coconut grove in Samut Songkhram province. The grove is run by two skinny 60-year-old aunties who climb the trees every morning to collect coconut nectar and use traditional hand-whisking methods to turn it into blocks of coconut sugar. They use no preservatives or stabilisers. Dylan and I drive to their farm to collect the sugar because they cannot deliver. We support them – and a few other farmers – so that they can continue their way of sustainable farming.

“The more our interest in organic farming and sustainability grows and the more we talk to farmers, the more alarmed we become. Thailand is a rice-eating nation. We use an unnecessary amount of chemical fertiliser and pesticides on rice crops. So we’ve partnered with Raitong Organics Farm. It’s a family-run rice-farming social enterprise in Sisaket. Its co-founder Lalana (Tui) Srikram comes from a farming family and over the years she and her husband Bryan Hugill have transformed their inherited rice paddies into an all-organic, biodynamic farm. They work closely with local governments and cooperatives to strengthen organic farming networks. These people are the stars of the Thai food industry – not chefs.”

But these two chefs do seem to be making a big difference, or are at least trying to. Bo and Dylan want to make Bo.lan Thailand’s first zero carbon footprint restaurant, with its LED lighting, water-filters and a system that uses heat from the air-conditioning to make hot water. One of the signature recipes at Bo.lan is for bars of soap made from waste cooking oil. Head chef Say performs this task almost religiously every Wednesday. He begins by heating leftover oil with vinegar and aromatics then leaves it to cool to 70 degrees Celsius. He then dissolves sodium hydroxide with water and adds the mix to the cooling oil. The mix is stirred continuously until it forms soap. Later, it is poured into moulds and left for a minimum of six weeks before use. The whole process can take up to three hours. The soaps are used in house and sometimes given to diners.


In March this year, Bo and Dylan will launch the first edition of {Re} Food Forum, an international conference (linked to an ongoing educational platform) on food waste, farming and endemic ingredients with a focus on Southeast Asia. As Dylan says “Two chefs and one small restaurant can’t make a difference. Consumers, local communities, big corporates and governments are those who can instigate changes.”

BO. LAN 24 Soi Sukhumvit 53, Bangkok.

PERM PAITAYAWAT is a food writer and traveller based in London. He is known for his reflective, culture-focused articles as well as for his obscurely named instagram account @theskinnybib

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