Everyone’s a gastrotourist these days. No, not a gassy tourist (though I’ve encountered one or two of those over the years)—I’m talking about folks like me who travel for the sake of unique culinary experiences. What, after all, is more important to a globetrotter than cultural immersion—and what is more culturally primal than food?
For years, I’ve counted myself among the growing hordes of gastroturista, bounding from empanada cart to crêperie to okonomiyaki stand, smearing my guidebook with saucy fingers as I scanned the pages for another hole-in-the-wall to hit. Years ago, when Henry and I were tromping around Tuscany, I canceled a visit to see Michaelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia because it got in the way of finding the best bollito misto in Florence.
I don’t spend much on material things (hence the faded, oh-so-unhip jeans and 90s-era footwear), but when it comes to culinary fun, all bets are off. The way I see it, I’m paying for an experience; the food may disappear as soon as it slides down my gullet, but the memories remain. And looking back at the most cherished moments in my life, virtually all of them involve meals shared with my favorite people.
That said, memorable meals don’t need to cost a fortune. In my book, all that matters is that the ingredients are sourced with care, prepared with love…and insanely delicious.
Case in point: one of my all-time favorite culinary experiences took place just a couple of days ago, when the boys and I spent the day at a small organic farm in rural Mae Tha, a hillside community about an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai. Our Saturday was so amazing that I already know I won’t be able to do it justice in this post, but I’ll try my best anyway.
Thanks to our friends at the International Sustainable Development Studies Institute (ISDSI), we were presented with a unique opportunity to visit Bwosai Gantada’s family farm in Mae Tha. Bwosai—a lovely woman with a wide smile and strong hands—greeted us with fresh fruit before leading us around her fields of painstakingly hand-planted and -weeded vegetables. Then, our merry little group picked and gathered ingredients from her lush garden, which Bwosai used to prepare a hearty, multi-dish lunch cooked over open flames. We feasted on vegetables, meat, and rice that were all raised and harvested onsite.
Our farm-to-table field trip was arranged by ISDSI, an innovative Chiang Mai-based institute that runs study-abroad programs focusing on sustainable development. Through ISDSI, we got a glimpse of what American college students enrolled in this experiential program get to tackle as part of the Sustainable Food Systems course: for one week of the semester, enrolled students live and work with farmers and their families who are making the transition from commercial contract farming to sustainable, small-scale organic farming and permaculture. ISDSI has been working with and learning from this particular community in Mae Tha for over 15 years, and has built strong bonds. (If you’re a college student who’s interested in a deeply immersive study-abroad program, do yourself a favor: check out ISDSI.)
Bright and early on Saturday, our friends Amy and Boom—ISDSI field instructors and our chaperones for the day—picked us up for an hour-long drive into the countryside to Bwosai’s farm.
Amy is an ISDSI alum, and worked and lived at Bwosai’s farm when she was a student a few years ago. There, she learned firsthand how a sustainable organic farm is run, but came away with something even more important: a deep, lasting bond with Bwosai and her family.
The close relationship forged between host family and student was evident as soon as we arrived at the farm.
Bwosai greeted all of us warmly, but she gave Amy an affectionate arm squeeze and a grin, like any proud mother welcoming her daughter home.
According to Amy and Boom, one of the greatest drivers of change in Mae Tha in recent years has been the growing demand for organic and local produce in Chiang Mai and elsewhere. The villagers now sell their produce at a twice-weekly organic market in the city, and run a CSA, too (with ISDSI and CrossFit Chiang Mai serving as two of the drop sites for the CSA). At last count, there are almost 60 CSA member households in Chiang Mai alone.
But unfortunately, the growing demand isn’t the only reason many farmers shifted from conventional cash-cropping to organic, sustainable permaculture; many of them made the switch after becoming seriously ill from handling the required pesticides. After a generation of watching family after family suffer through the damage wreaked by pesticide-coated seeds, they decided that enough was enough. The transition hasn’t been without bumps in the road, but over the years, a strong farmers’ co-op has developed to provide support and to share organic farming practices.
Bwosai was one of the first farmers to participate in the co-op back in the 1990s. Her farm has now been organic for about two decades, and her pride in her family’s hard work is palpable.
Upon our arrival, Bwosai immediately noticed that Big-O was covered from head to toe with ginormous angry mosquito bites, and brought out an herbal salve for us to rub on each itchy welt.
With that out of the way, we took a long walk to visit her family’s three plots of farmland. The views on the hike were captivating; in the distance, lush green hills framed the meticulously-groomed rows of vegetables on Bwosai’s family farm.
We all loved touring the fields…
…teetering across bamboo bridges propped over gurgling streams…
…and sinking our teeth into juicy rose apples picked right off the tree.
We’ve been eating a lot of rose apples in Thailand; I’ve found the sweetly-astringent flesh of this crisp fruit to be satisfyingly airy, light, and cooling in the humidity.
As we hiked around the farm, Henry and I were both amazed to learn that all of the crops were planted and weeded by hand. Yes—Every. Single. Plant. It makes me want to never again waste a single piece of food—especially after seeing what it takes for farmers like Bwosai to grow what we eat.
Bwosai doesn’t live on her farm—her home is in the nearby village—but she maintains a covered outdoor kitchen, dining, and resting area near the fields. This was where lunch was to be prepared.
Bwosai’s outdoor kitchen is stocked with all the essentials…
…including a simple wood-burning cooking pit.
Best of all (especially for our energetic boys), the water used to wash dishes and irrigate the plants is pumped using an ingeniously-rigged stationary bicycle.
I usually hate hopping onto stationary bikes—you won’t find me at a SoulCycle class anytime soon!—because I see no point to pedaling to nowhere, but here, spinning actually serves a critical purpose.
When it was time for lunch, we followed Bwosai into the fields again to hand-pick fresh vegetables for the lunch menu of stir-fries and curry.
We cut broccoli off the stem…
…teeny-tiny pea eggplants…
…and a bunch of Thai greens and herbs that I’d frankly never before seen…
When we finished gathering the vegetables, Bwosai laid them on the concrete floor of her outdoor kitchen…
…and we huddled cross-legged around her as she showed us how to prep our vegetables for lunch.
We plucked the stems off the tiny eggplants…
…and reserved the tender leaves and tendrils from the freshly picked greens.
The tough stems and leaves were tossed in a bucket and saved for the pigs’ feed.
With so many people helping out, the mountain of vegetables was prepped and ready for the fire in no time at all.
On the menu? Blanched garden greens served with Bwosai’s homemade nam phrik, a spicy northern Thai dip made with hot chili peppers, garlic, and eggplant…
…wok-fried pork with fragrant alliums and seasonings…
…a bright stir-fry of freshly-picked crucifers and pork…
…and gaeng keh, a traditional Thai curry with pork, vegetables, and flower petals.
After whipping out her mortar and pestle, Bwosai prepared the curry by forming a paste with garlic, shallots, chili peppers, shrimp paste, and fermented fish.
Next, she sautéed the aromatics in oil…
…and added heaping spoonfuls of the freshly-ground curry paste.
She cooked the pork until no longer pink…
…and poured water into the pot.
A couple of twisted branches of lemongrass were stirred into the curry…
…and then Boom tossed in the heartier vegetables.
In the last few moments before the stew was done, Boom added the tender greens to the curry.
The result: a wonderfully spicy pork curry with a dazzling variety of farm-fresh herbs and vegetables.
Bwosai also served two kinds of rice: sticky and white.
I had a serving of each, and finished every last bite. It didn’t escape me that this rice, along with all the other ingredients in our meal—were grown by Bwosai and her family. I was grateful for it all.
It’s hard to believe this amazing spread was cooked in less than an hour, with just a few kitchen implements, and over a single, small outdoor fire pit.
I hate to admit it, but I’m embarrassed now by my reliance on a hodgepodge of kitchen gadgets to get a meal on the table. When push comes to shove, they’re really not as essential as I’ve made them out to be in my mind.
For dessert, we ate fresh fruit picked from the farm: pucker-inducing passion fruit…
…and fragrant papaya.
You never know who you’ll meet in this world and how they’ll change your outlook on life. I’m so honored that I had the opportunity to meet Bwosai Gantada, and to learn from her at her farm.
I don’t care if you think I sound like an insufferable hipster poser from Portlandia for saying so, but I left the Bwosai’s with new friends and a renewed commitment to support local farmers. Now more than ever, I want my kids to know who grows and raises their food.