Home-grown produce was once a reserve for the rural majority, but thanks to the kingdom’s burgeoning food scene, more Thai and international chefs are digging deeper into Thai roots and turning to local ingredients for inspiration.
Often times, we dine out to escape from the monotonous eat, work, sleep, repeat routine. A cosy ambience, new experiences, and mouth-watering dishes – especially Instagrammable ones – are always an added bonus. Rarely do we emerge from a restaurant experience that covers all of the above while feeling as if we’ve come out of a biology lesson – better-informed about local Thai produce. When was the last time you heard of green snapper (pla krapong kiew), Cassumunar ginger (plai), Martinique ginger (kratue) or Bustard cardamom (raeo), let alone enjoy them for dinner? If your answer was “never”, you’ll want to know Phanuphon “Black” Bulsuwan and Chiang Mai’s hottest chef’s table – Blackitch Artisan Kitchen.
Bulsuwan’s encyclopaedic knowledge of Thai ingredients and cooking skills are impressive to say the least and it’s something that could’ve only been honed through years of extensive research and practice. Driven by a fiery passion to bring local Thai produce to the fore, his love affair with food started in Chachoengsao Province where he spent most of his childhood in the kitchen helping out his grandmother at her restaurant, Suan Ahaan Baan Yai.
“I loved helping out my grandmother and it has definitely helped to shape me into the food lover and chef that I’ve become today,” he recalls. “To this day, my grandmother, who is now 94, still cooks rice for her customers at her restaurant. Her inordinate passion for food has unquestionably rubbed off on me.”
You grew up in Chachaoengsao Province, your mother is from Rayong and you live in Chiang Mai. What’s the story behind this?
My home is actually in Chachoengsao but I love Chiang Mai so much I decided to move there to start an izakaya. The idea didn’t really take off as few understood the term izakaya. I had to change the name to “Japanese dining and pub”. Seven years ago, I was attracted by the idea of a chef’s table and opened Blackitch.
You studied Civil Engineering at university. What part of this is related to cooking?
None (laughs). I actually mastered in Civil Engineering to make my parents happy. Being a chef wasn’t an idea they were comfortable with as it’s not a profession one can expect to make a decent living with. When I got my degree, I decided to do what I’ve always wanted to do, which was to set up a restaurant. I went on a mission to study cooking in Bangkok and Japan.
I love everything about Japan. The food, the culture, the people – they have this understanding of minimalism, yet so much can be expressed with so little effort. I learned how to cook there for a few years and absolutely loved it. You’ll notice that there’s a strong Japanese influence in my restaurant. I also apply Japanese cooking techniques in some of my dishes such as kabayaki (preparing fish by splitting it down the back, deboning and cutting it into filets, dipping them in sweet soy sauce before putting them on the grill). There’s a dish I use which involves hoy gun clams (from the same family as the talub clam) from Chumporn Province in Thailand’s south. The dipping sauce for this dish is made from coconut and fermented soybean cakes (tua nao), which is similar to the Japanese natto (Japanese fermented soybeans).
What has been your proudest moment since setting up Blackitch?
I’m so proud to have been able to showcase local Thai produce and applying them with my cooking. I use cooking techniques from many different countries, but 100 percent of the ingredients I use come from Thailand. We have an abundant supply of ingredients that few people know about (not even Thais) which can be turned into an endless list of new, innovative dishes. The seasonal menu at Blackitch, which changes every two weeks, uses ingredients such as Pradu Hang Dam chicken (indigenous to Chiang Mai), Pet Ratree rice, pla krapong kiew (green snapper), kratue (Martinique ginger), raeo (Bustard cardamom) and pa ruang naam (wild mint). Some of these ingredients go hand in hand with natural vinegar from salee (Asian pear). I thoroughly enjoy talking to local farmers, discovering and learning about new ingredients and envisioning how I can work them into my menu.
What’s the most valuable advice you can give to aspiring young chefs?
Always be curious. Absorb what you’ve been taught but also strive to find your own way. I’ve always had a curious mind and often ask myself: “Why does this have to be this way? Isn’t there another way of doing it?” After I gained more knowledge outside of Thailand, I began to apply them to my cooking by adopting techniques from Japan or using the Indian technique for making fish sauce (garum), for example, to make my own version using spices, coconut palm sugar and tamarind vinegar. This can be enjoyed with pork jowl – the pork, of course, is born and raised in Thailand.
I also want to encourage young chefs to make mistakes. When I first opened Blackitch, I practised a lot to improve myself as a chef and learned by trial and error. When the restaurant first opened, the menu would change daily. We’re talking about nine dishes daily. Times that by 365 and times that by six years and I’ve already cooked more dishes than a hotel chef has his or her entire life. This experience has helped me to come up with inventive dishes using whatever ingredients I have before me. Set high goals for yourself, and you’ll stand out from the crowd.