An enterprising duo brings the first ever Probiotic Chef’s Table to Bangkok
We’ve all come to accept the fact that “organic” produce—free of chemical additives and harmful pesticides—is much better for our health than processed foods and/or those harvested on an industrial scale, but it’s hardly the last step on the road to full dietary recovery. Lately there’s been a major buzz around probiotics, described essentially as “microorganisms that are claimed to provide health benefits when consumed”. And earlier this year, Bangkok welcomed its first Probiotic Chef Table restaurant, proving that super-healthy food can also be super-tasty.
The primary pair behind this operation are Chef Bunn ‘Ik’ Borriboon, a familiar presence on Thai TV cooking shows (Master Chef, Iron Chef Thailand, Independent Kitchen, etc), and Japanese native Takashi Hirasawa, founder of Bangkok health-food supplier Lacto-Life. They’re both firm believers in the power of probiotics, and as a team Chef Ik handles the cooking while Takashi, the project leader, describes his role as “fermentation master”, since almost all probiotic food items involve fermentation of some kind.
Fermenting is a fairly universal concept, with examples as diverse as kimchi from Korea, sauerkraut from Germany, pungent fish sauce from Thailand, yoghurt from all over Central Europe, and both miso soup and sake from Japan. For Takashi, the techniques he uses are mainly based on traditional Japanese fermentation—which farmers there have been practicing for centuries—but in his Bangkok kitchen laboratory the ability to experiment allows him to attempt to ferment almost anything, using a special slow heat dehydration process.
“Fermentation can be applied to any food,” he says, “but it doesn’t always mean it will be tasty.”
To properly understand the dietary role of probiotics and fermentation you have to be willing to take a bit of a science lesson, and Takashi is an excellent teacher; explaining not only the concept of probiotics, but also prebiotics and biogenics (the biomolecule), and how they all work together in our digestive system.
“In probiotics,” Takashi begins, “we are always talking about microorganisms. Probiotics includes the bacteria and other microorganisms, and prebiotics is food for these microbes—as certain vegetables, for instance, contain things that feed certain microorganisms. The third component is called biogenics, which is something created by probiotics. When the bacteria die they release a lot of beneficial things, such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and DNA and RNA.
“The food that we serve contains live beneficial microorganisms; bacteria, mold, and yeast—we use all of them, but mainly lactobacillus.”
Also known as lactic acid bacteria, lactobacillus is good for gut health, and has been said to improve intestinal flow and benefit the entire digestive system. Many overall immunity issues are also related to having good bacteria in your gut, and it was a fanatical interest in health improvement that led the principal investor behind the chef’s table project to seek out Takashi and his probiotic prowess.
This very wealthy investor also happens to be a high-ranking executive at Isuzu Thailand, which is why the probiotic Chef’s Table dinners are held in a stately modernist mansion that is located directly beside the Isuzu dealership on Wattana Tham Road (just south of the Thailand Cultural Centre). Set well back from the busy street, and hidden behind a grove of leafy trees, this lavish abode is the executive’s actual home. However, the spacious kitchen—as well as a high-ceilinged, circular room overlooking the swimming pool, dominated by a large, ornate dining table—is the probiotic playground of Takashi and Chef Ik, and the setting for their chef’s table lunches and dinners.
But what’s the food here actually like? Upon visiting the pair, one blazing hot afternoon—on a day when no chef’s lunch or dinner was scheduled—I am greeted with a refreshing cool glass of pink lemonade made with plum enzyme fermented syrup and sweetened with organic brown sugar. It’s the same soothing refresher that starts off the 5-course lunch (B1,900) or dinner (B3,000) set menu.
As we discuss the science of fermentation, Chef Ik brings out a wooden platter with two large slices of hearty homemade sourdough bread, both topped with vegan cashew nut cheese and surrounded by an assortment of pickled items—eggplant, cucumber, red radish, and daikon. On one bread slice lies and array of marinated cherry tomatoes with fragrant basil, and on the other slice cured salmon, lightly torched before serving to give it a smoky essence, sits atop thin slices of boiled egg. Everything on the platter is probiotic in some way. Even the bread dough is made using the pair’s own lacto premium fermentation liquid solution instead of water.
Next up I sample a leafy green salad with tofu—all deliciously fresh and drizzled with black sesame dressing—while for beverages I’ve moved on to a glass of the satisfying mixed fruit punch, slow fermented for about three days. There are seven different fruits in the drink, but it’s hard to tell where one flavour begins and another ends as they’ve virtually fused together into one spectacular citric synthesis.
As I scan some of the other items available on the sample printed menu lists—sous vide chicken with umami vegetable sauce, germinated brown rice, sauerkraut salad, short fermented Australian rib eye—I savour a small glass of the slightly alcoholic home-brewed organic plum cider (which ferments for about two to three months). Chef Ik also informs me that organic wine is available during the regular chef’s table meals, priced at B250 a glass.
Before our discussion wraps up, a colourful dessert platter is prepared containing three probiotic treats. The bright green matcha tofu pudding is light and pleasant, the dark chocolate ball filled with fermented cashew nuts and coconut oil is predictably sweet (but not drastically so), but it’s the tart and tangy fermented plum soy yoghurt sorbet with pickled fruits that would make me ask for seconds.
“Fermented soy milk is one of the best probiotic ingredients,” Takashi adds, “so we make soy yoghurt from it.”
Having sampled just a small portion of what this kitchen is capable of producing, I still leave the table feeling well fed, but thankfully not heavy or bloated. The fare is all quite light, in fact, and much of it is vegetarian so I feel extra healthy too.
Like the organic food revolution, the fermentation revival proves once again that the ways of the past can show us a lot about what’s best for our future. In generational terms fermenting only fell out of fashion recently, when refrigeration became universally widespread, so the ancient wisdom has not yet disappeared entirely.
“To do fermentation at home is nothing special for Japanese people,” Takashi points out. “In my grandma’s generation, everybody did it.”
For those interested in making their own probiotics at home, these fermenting fellows also conduct informative four-day workshops each month. And there are plans afoot to set up a delivery system for people who want this kind of healthy food on demand, plus separate projects involving probiotic cosmetics and skin care items, as well as hydroponics and aqua-culture (fish farming).
NOTE: The next public Probiotic Chef Table takes place on July 14th, although private lunches and dinners for groups up to 12 persons can also be arranged. Call 063 954 9942 for more information.
By Bruce Scott