Food Fight

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I have been a fan of authentic Thai cuisine ever since I visited that country in 2001. At the time, I had a short-term contract as an entrepreneurship development expert with the United Nations Development Programme’s Africa Bureau in New York. My assignment was to accompany a group of African women entrepreneurs on a study tour of the textile industry in Thailand and Malaysia. Naturally, when I received an invitation last September to attend Thailand’s “Kitchen to the World” campaign to promote Thai cuisine in New York, I jumped at the chance. There were sure to be samplings from the best of the best local Thai restaurants.

 

I was not disappointed. It was an all-arms-on-deck affair at the Plaza Athenee Hotel in Manhattan, with Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s 45-year-old female head of state, leading the charge in person. Flanked by commerce and tourism officials, she sold the packed room on a message that Thailand is committed to feeding a hungry world, contributing to global food security and improving the health of consumers worldwide. “The issue of food security is becoming more important and we will play our part. That is why Thailand launched the ‘Kitchen to the World’ campaign,” the prime minister said as she kicked off Thai Restaurant Week-New York. “Our goal is to find ways to produce more food and food products that meet international standards and are tailor-made to meet the needs of our customers. We will produce quality food products that will benefit the health of consumers. Food safety is our top priority.”

 

In a world where small business has finally gained respect, here was proof that a small nation can creatively position itself to be a major player in the global supply chain. Linking the promotion of Thai food with a concern for global food security and consumer health was slick. Global demand for food and food products is skyrocketing. Food exports worldwide totaled $1.3 trillion last year, up 20 percent from 2009. Thailand is one of the world’s top exporters of processed food and leads the market for canned tuna, frozen seafood, canned pineapple, rice and chicken. Altogether, the Southeast Asian nation exports more than $20 billion worth of food products annually, from frozen shrimp to coconut water. “For Thailand, food and agricultural exports are not only a key export and industry, but also an important part of our cultural heritage,” the prime minister said at the Plaza Athenee, where she awarded the coveted “Thai Select” seal of authenticity to 11 restaurants in the New York/New Jersey area. New York has one of the largest concentrations of the 491 Thai restaurants in the United States that serve authentic Thai food made from authentic Thai ingredients.

 

More than a year ago, Pierre Thiam, renowned Senegalese chef and pioneer of African culinary tourism, seized on the same notion that food is not just about energy intake but also about cultural heritage and health. African cuisine’s ubiquitous palm oil, for example, is rich in beta-carotene and vitamins A and B and is believed to have cancer-fighting qualities. But while the Kingdom of Thailand has thrown its full weight behind its chefs, food processors and farmers, Thiam is still pretty much alone — promoting African cuisine with a small band of believers. “This fight can’t be the chefs’ alone. It will take the combined efforts of governments, entrepreneurs and tour operators,” he says. “It’s a daunting effort, but it’s well worth it.”