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Thailand, land of smiles… and chocolate

Thai chocolate is relatively new, but beans are grown in four provinces and many chocolatiers make their own bars.

Thais are chocolate lovers, there are many chocolate products in stores, but until now cocoa came from foreign countries.

In recent years, the selection has been enriched with a newcomer to the scene: Thai chocolate.

“We currently use chocolate from four regions in Thailand,” says Sukhothai Bangkok Hotel’s pastry chef, Antonio Yang.

He admits that chocolate produced by European brands such as Lindt and Valrhona is still the most popular, although change is afoot.

“Thai chefs have understood that they have an excellent product there and they are trying to incorporate Thai chocolate into their recipes,” he adds.

Later, during a foray into the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, a hub for independent businesses, I stumble upon a shop and cafe operated by Paradai, a Thailand-based bean-to-bar brand that scooped three medals. Gold at the 2019 International Chocolate Awards.

The cafe’s shelves are stacked with colorful bars, such as 82% plain chocolate, made with cocoa from the coastal province of Trang and wrapped in paper adorned with images of sea creatures.

Arne Riehn is another Bangkok chef who raves about Thai chocolate.

He is the pastry chef of IGNIV, which opened at the St Regis Bangkok in 2020 and earned its first Michelin star a year later.

IGNIV restaurants honor Swiss culinary techniques, although the dishes at the St Regis have an Asian twist; ponzu, kimchi and coconut are all present.

The highlight for me is the Thai chocolate soufflé.

“The Thai chocolate scene is quite young,” says Riehn, who buys 90% of his chocolate from the Kad Kokoa brand.

“The owners invited us to their cocoa farm in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, western Thailand, and none of the team – all from Thailand – had seen a cocoa plant.”

Thailand’s largest artisanal chocolate brand, Kad Kokoa was founded by two former lawyers.

It has a cafe – built with wood from the cocoa plantation – and a production facility (which customers can visit) in Bangkok’s Sathorn district.

Kad Kokoa is known for its innovation, with a product portfolio that includes bars, candies, chocolate kombucha, chocolate sauce and cocoa tea, many of which can be purchased in the United States and Japan.

It supplies dozens of Bangkok restaurants and hotels – collaborations that in many cases involve bespoke products and are mutually beneficial, generating feedback on new ways to use chocolate.

Riehn’s dishes contain cocoa grown in Prachuap Khiri Khan province, south of Bangkok, and Chanthaburi province, near the Cambodian border.

Thai chocolate is used to create the confections in the Candy Store – an elaborate display found in IGNIV restaurants.

After their meal, customers choose chocolates from the confectionery to accompany their coffee.

“Prachuap Khiri Khan chocolate has a crisp, classic flavor, and we use it for chocolates,” says Riehn.

“We use Chanthaburi chocolate, which has more acidity and fruitiness, for cooking.”

Diners aren’t the only ones enjoying this trend.

“Until now, everyone used chocolate from abroad,” says Riehn.

“No one thought of approaching the farmers to offer them something else to do with their harvest, but now they realize they can get higher quality chocolate for a lower price.

When we have a better product here, why not use it?

The chef admits Thai chocolate can be harder to work with – citing its stickiness – but says that’s where collaborations with innovative brands such as Kad Kokoa come in.

Another chef embracing Thai chocolate is Riley Sanders from Texas.

He is the founder and executive chef of Canvas, a Michelin-starred restaurant housed in a beautiful house in Bangkok’s Thong Lo district.

“My big idea was that we weren’t going to focus only on Thai food, but were going to focus on local produce,” says Sanders, who spends his free time exploring Bangkok’s markets and remote areas of Thailand, in search of lesser-known ingredients.

“When we opened six years ago, Thai cocoa was not common.

I didn’t even know it was available, but now there are about ten big producers from different regions.”

Sanders, whose tasting menu includes 22 “bites,” rather than dishes, is keen to use Thai chocolate in a way that pays homage to the country.

“Typically, the classic flavor combinations are strawberry and orange.

But we have all these ingredients that are unique to Thailand.

Take roselle, or hibiscus flower.

It has this wonderful floral quality, and one of our bites is made with roselle meringue and Chanthaburi chocolate.

“Another bite combines white chocolate from Chiang Mai with coconut and caviar, and it’s almost salty.

People think chocolate should be sweet, but it’s not.”

At the BKK Social Club, at the Four Seasons hotel in Bangkok on the Chao Phraya River, the thirst for innovation is of another order.

The bar, which won Michter’s Art of Hospitality Award at Asia’s 50 Best Bar Awards in 2022, is renowned for its story-driven cocktails, where Thai cocoa features prominently.

One of the most popular drinks is The Hand of God, inspired by Diego Maradona’s controversial goal for Argentina against England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup and made with Ocho Reposado tequila, from Campari, malbec and cocoa.

There’s also the sea bass version of the Pisco Sour – an ultra-smooth concoction made with pisco, lime, vanilla and cocoa.

“Cocoa is incredibly versatile,” says beverage manager Philip Bischoff.

“It works well with dark spirits, as they often have hints of cocoa, but also with citrus flavors.

There are endless ways to play with him.”

Another chocolatier pushing the envelope is Natalie Suwanprakorn, founder of Xoconat.

Most of its cocoa comes from Chanthaburi, and its chocolate is known not only for its quality, but also for its eccentricity.

Take for example the Badass Bar – a thick slab filled with coconut, marshmallows or peanuts.

Natalie is also known for her use of unusual ingredients (shrimp flakes and shallots), but she points out that the diversity of Thai gastronomy is perfectly suited to her cocoa.

“Thai desserts are made up of several flavorful elements.

Think khanom mo kaeng, an egg custard topped with fried shallots.

Or khanom bueang, which contains shrimp,” she explains.

For those involved in its cultivation and production, Thai chocolate is more than just a dose of sugar.

“Thainess or khram phen Thai is of great importance to Thai people,” says Suwanprakorn.

“Cocoa should reflect the landscape, and growers believe in the synergy between the cocoa tree, the landscape and the culture in which it is grown.”

“We are incredibly proud of our cuisine and our culture, and our chocolate, grown among mangoes, durians, mangosteen, lemongrass and jackfruit, represents us.”

Source: South China Morning Post



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