BANGKOK: Thailand is renowned for its vibrant street food and luscious tropical fruits, but Rachanikorn Srikong is on a mission to make a new addition to the menu – cheese.
Vivid green rice paddies and fruit orchards cover the kingdom’s countryside but dairy accounts for a tiny proportion of agriculture and cheese has not traditionally been part of the Thai diet.
Rachanikorn is part of a small but growing community of cheesemakers attracting attention from top chefs in Michelin-starred restaurants in the capital Bangkok.
After growing up in rural Thailand eating little dairy, she had to learn from scratch what good cheese should taste like.
When she started out some seven years ago, she felt “like a blind painter”, unable to judge the quality of her work.
“I ‘paint’ very beautifully. People say: ‘Oh yeah, your cheese is very delicious.’ But I am blind, I cannot see my picture,” she told AFP.
“My mother never fed me with cheese when I was young. She fed me tofu with rice,” the artisan added.
From a herd of around 30 goats, Rachanikorn produces 15 varieties of cheese, some with a local twist, such as coatings of bamboo ash, wild rice and pandan leaves.
The 47-year-old studied cheesemaking books and “read until I could smell it”.
But ultimately she found her connection to the punchy flavours of goat’s cheese through the pungent, distinctively Thai condiment “pla dak” – fermented fish paste.
“I grew up with pla dak. That is the way I understand how fermented food gives us umami amino acids,” Rachanikorn said.
“That umami makes you happy and relates with what your mother fed you in childhood… your brain will connect the smell with this umami, with love.”
‘Fail, fail, fail’
On her small farm in Nakhon Pathom, an hour’s drive from Bangkok, Rachanikorn lives in a modest wooden hut, but her herd enjoys a palatial double-storey barn under the shade of trees, carefully positioned to catch breezes.
Making cheese in Thailand, where the weather is hot and humid almost all year round, is no easy task.
“If I use the culture from Europe or France the bacteria suffer from the hot climate,” Rachanikorn explained.
The early days were hard and she “had to fail in every way you can fail”, she said.
Even after one success, “the second, third, fourth, 10th (attempts) – fail, fail, fail, fail”.
But as a self-confessed “science nerd”, she relished the challenge of getting bacteria to behave, and persevered.
After weeks of careful preparation, she hand-delivers her product to more than 10 high-end restaurants in Bangkok, including four with Michelin stars.
The best thing about cheesemaking, according to Rachanikorn, is making “people smile”.
“Life is good, cheese makes it better,” she concluded.