Kingkorn Narintarakul na Ayutthaya has long been known for being fastidious when it comes to food.
Like all passionate foodies, Kingkorn isn't hesitant about travelling long distances to try recommended restaurants or even buy ingredients such as fish sauce, rice and shrimp paste from their original sources.
Her dining habits are far from relaxed. The deputy director of Biothai, a non-profit organisation advocating sustainable agriculture and food security who is also known as an expert on indigenous rice varieties, she sometimes brings her own cooked rice to restaurants _ mostly native strains from places such as Ubon Ratchathani or some special strains from Cambodia.
She is also fastidious when it comes to vegetables. Frequently assisting the Foundation for Consumers watchdog by inspecting chemical residues in organic vegetables sold in markets, Kingkorn always ensures she has a fresh supply in her kitchen.
Her definition of epicureanism goes beyond taste buds and the bon vivant lifestyle.
Kingkorn Narintarakul na Ayutthaya.
Last year, Kingkorn set up a campaign called "Kin Plien Loek" (Food For Change). The campaign promotes "food literacy" _ knowledge about environmentally-friendly food production, local wisdom on food preparation and ingredients and healthy eating habits _ among middle-class consumers. It also encourages consumers to cook their own meals and dine on local food as much as possible as a way to preserve biodiversity and patronise small scale farmers and small business.
"We found that people pay a lot of attention to dining. They care about chefs, new restaurants and trying new international cuisine. But I found Thai consumers tend not to ask questions about the actual food they eat," she said, referring to the campaign's workshop that often challenges consumers to think about the food production cycle.
To spread knowledge about sustainable agriculture and environmentally-friendly food production among consumers, Kin Plien Loek has organised a number of public events, the latest one being held two months ago at Bangkok's Santi Chaiprakarn Park on Phra Arthit Road. The event comprised cooking workshops as well as exhibitions on several aspects of food, sustainable agriculture and food-related local wisdom.
The campaign itself also worked in collaboration with the Thai City Farm project to promote urban agriculture as a way to increase food security in the cities. As part of the campaign's activities, a series of books on food literacy will also be launched next year, focusing on the variety of flavours _ sour, sweet, bitter and salty _ in Thai ingredients. These activities are designed to raise awareness, especially among urban consumers, regarding the food they eat.
"When people buy smartphones and gadgets, they do research and cross check prices and features. But how many of them ask questions about the food they put into their mouths _ such as where the vegetables came from, where and how chickens are fed," said Kingkorn.
Three months ago, Kingkorn started a Facebook page called "Kin Dard Jarit" (Food Snobbery). Images and comments posted on the site are not about the latest popular restaurants or famous dishes cooked by celebrity chefs. On the contrary, the photos are of local dishes that reflect the biodiversity of ingredients as well as raw materials such as fish sauce made in coastal hamlets or good shrimp paste.
Soy sauce made by ‘Auntie Lorng’ in Chiang Mai province.
"This Facebook page is just my response to friends who teasingly call me a food snob," said Kingkorn. "I don't mind that term because once in a while you need to be snobbish about certain things in order to maintain standards. People nowadays overvalue the idea of simplicity, but most times they confuse simplicity with sloppiness."
What upsets Kingkorn more is that local wisdom about food and the availability of local ingredients as well as plant biodiversity across the country are all gradually disappearing.
A few months ago, she drove to Laem Singh in Chanthaburi province to buy a very good home-made fish sauce fermented by fishermen. It turned out that her regular seller had discontinued production and other fishermen were following suit.
''Overfishing and pollution have put stress on local fish populations. Fishermen no longer produce fish sauce from fresh fish. Now most fish sauce is made in a factory,'' she lamented.
On the surface, Kingkorn appears a fussy eater. But painstaking and elaborate choices about food are part of her efforts to promote food literacy. She said Biothai is trying to woo middle-class consumers to support biodiversity and small-scale farmers by using food literacy programmes and is trying to sound the alarm that Thailand, a major global food producer, is becoming another food factory owned by a few rich companies that control the whole cycle of food production _ from farm to table.
''Thailand has tried to be the 'Kitchen of the World', but instead we are in the stage of so-called 'food fascism'. Our food choices and food production bases are monopolised by a few big companies,'' Kingkorn said.
Shrimp paste, or kapi , made by ‘Grandfather Klae’ in Phetchaburi is justly famous.
Food and food consumption have a greater economic impact than people realise. A 2010 study by the National Statistics Office revealed that food accounts for 32% of household expenditure. For urban dwellers who purchased ready-made meals, the figure rises to some 45%.
''Food is really a big issue. We spend at least 30% of total income on food but we are becoming less conscious about food producers and the origin of food,'' Kingkorn said.
''Thailand still has plenty of food and remains a major food production base. But most food production here is controlled by a few giant companies.
''These companies dictate what we should eat and set standards on hygiene that will become our acceptable standard. If these companies insist their food production is hygienic, we will believe them. They use advertisements and marketing gimmicks to change our perception about ourselves and our food and eating culture. Thais are made to believe this packaged food is fit for our modern lifestyle.''
Through her campaign, Kingkorn hopes consumers will become more aware and start making their own choices about what they eat.
''Food is not an individual experience. It also involves business and production,'' she said.