by Chaiwut Poungsuwan
On 28th December it was announced that UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural and scientific arm, has declared Phuket town part of the world’s Creative City Network as a ‘City of Gastronomy’. Those unfamiliar with the expression will be interested to know ‘gastronomy’ refers to what has hitherto been described in English as ‘gourmet food’. Our good friend at Radio Thailand, well-known Thai-language correspondent Chaiwut Poungsuwan, covered the event in detail, and made the following report (translated by yours truly, Marque A. Rome):
The award was announced at a joint news conference called by Phuket governor Jamrern Tipyapongtada, Phuket town mayor Somjai Suwansupapana, and deputy mayor Dr. Kosol Tang-utai on the third floor of Phuket town’s municipal office building. They noted that the award constitutes “good year-end news,” describing it as a big — and important — present. It something for Phuket people, and every Thai, to be proud of.”
Gov. Jamrern, who is a Phuket native, said: “I believe this award shall result in expanded economic activity, with entirely new kinds of tourism investment resulting. For example, because of it, Phuket is now a place people ‘must’ come to sample the cuisine and purchase new kinds of souvenir foods displaying the island’s special character. It will also promote the island’s important fish products industry. Perhaps, in future, schools and institutions will be established where people come to learn the art of cooking — which agrees exactly with the provincial development plan.”
The latter emphasises sustainable tourism development based on marine destinations and those of historical import.
“Furthermore,” continued the governor, “it is in line with policy set by Gen. Prayut Janocha, prime minister and chairman of the National Council for Peace and Order, who wants to enhance sales and build value from the country’s tourism destinations, thereby increasing income for the nation so that everyone lives — and eats — well.”
[Translator’s note: Former army commander Gen. Prayut led the popular royalist coup d’etat that toppled the elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra on 22nd May, 2014 and set up a military junta, the NCPO, to govern in its stead. Phuket, with all the southern provinces, is regarded as firmly royalist. Except in Bangkok, governors are — and always were — civil service members appointed by the Interior Ministry, not elected. The civil service and the ministries they staff were not affected by the coup, except in so far as their chiefs were replaced by military appointees.]
Gov. Jamrern noted that UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network (which includes many aspects of creativity, not only cooking, goes hand-in-glove with designation as a World Heritage Site in the categories of Nature and History: “It differs merely in that it involves ‘intangible culture’, mixing modernity with creativity and cultural fundamentals. The project was established in 2004. Only cities and towns are considered for the award, because only they have the diverse bases necessary to drive economic, social and environmental development in a sustainable manner.”
UNESCO designates Creative City awards in seven categories: literature, film, music, folk arts and crafts (Chiang Mai has applied for consideration in that category), design, ‘media art’ and gastronomy.
“Presently,” said Gov. Jamrern, “116 cities world-wide have received designation — 18 as Gastronomy cities. Phuket is proud to be one of those 18. We are the first in Thailand and the first in ASEAN (the Association of SouthEast Asian Nations) so designated, after an effort lasting about three years.” He said the process was initiated and pushed by Phuket town mayor Somjai, “with support from the ministries of Culture and Education, from Rajabhat University Phuket, and from many, many private individuals. I personally, as a native Phuketois, and on behalf of the people of Phuket, take this opportunity to offer them our thanks and to express the hope that this project will continue to develop, fully and happily supported by the provincial office and every other sector, public and private.”
Other cities so far receiving Gastronomy desgnation by UNESCO are: Belem and Florianopolis in Brazil; Bergen, Norway; Burgos and Denia in Spain; Chendu and Shunde in China; Ensenada, Mexico; Gazientep, Turkey; Jeon-ju, South Korea; Ostersund, Sweden; Parma, Italy; Popaya, Columbia; Rasht, Iran; Tsuruoka, Japan; Tucson, Arizona; and Zahle, Lebanon.
Phuket town’s Mayor Somjai said city hall received word of the award in a letter from UNESCO director Irina Bokova dated 11th December: “We are now entitled to use UNESCO’s name and logo in our food promotions,” she explained.
Bokova stated in the letter that she personally awarded Phuket the coveted designation, and that four-year reviews would be made to ensure that standards are maintained.
The mayor expressed her thanks to those whose efforts resulted in the city’s successful campaign, especially former Ministry of Culture, Office of Arts and Culture director Mrs. Prisana Pongstadsirikul; Rajabhat Phuket University chancellor Asst. Professor Dr. Prapa Kayee; Dr. Adul Nakaro, also of Rajabhat Phuket University; Mrs. Sawitri Suwansathit, an adviser in the Ministry of Culture who headed the team that considered Phuket’s application report to UNESCO; Mrs. Duriya Amtawiwat, director of the Office of International Relations, Office of the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Education, where the report was prepared in the application effort’s final stages; and deputy mayor Dr. Kosol Tang-utai, “who chaired the city’s working group and laboured unstintingly for three years to achieve this award.”
“I want also to thank all the people of Phuket who together have maintained the city’s unique character with regard to local food and culture,” which she said is “founded in diversity.” The mayor said the city office had worked towards the award not just for those within the municipal office’s 12 square kilometre area of responsibility, “but for all of us in Phuket, because we are all brothers and sisters.” She noted that the island is home to a variety of cultures and religions “which have dwelt together in progress and peace for 150 years under the benevolent protection of Thailand’s great monarchs.”
Somjai cited the inhabitants of Phuket’s ‘old town’ (centred round Thalang Road) as examples: “The city government’s policy has been to preserve their culture of food, drink, clothing, and architecture, with results that are apparent in a beautiful mix. These were forged into a basis succeeding generations developed to produce more income; and the value of that basis is today recognised internationally with Phuket’s designation as a world Creative City by UNESCO.”
In designating Phuket a Gastronomy City, Mayor Somjai explained, UNESCO considered a variety of factors, including status as a popular tourism destination, known for its natural beauty, beaches, surrounding islands, unique character and local food. Regarding the latter, the island is famous for cultivating fish and seafood, such as Spotted Kao fish, Sea Cicadas, and abalone, for its duck (‘ped teht’), and for goat meat and milk. The province has become so gastronomy-conscious that nearly every festival includes a local food exhibition. Passed from generation to generation by word of mouth, Phuket recipes are peculiar to the place and cannot be learned by outsiders except through instruction from members of the families that created them. Uniquely Phuket recipes and ingredients include: soya bean flour; fried cashews; dark soy sauce and the Oh-Aew iced sweets.
Environmental preservation and sustainable development are thus important survival strategies for Phuket. Moreover, co-operation between government offices, the private sector and educational institutions has produced a varied menu of commercially available foods, such as souvenir dishes tourists can take to friends back home; juices of cashew and durian; salty ice cream; and variously flavoured cashews. In this regard, the shop Porntip Phuket recently was presented the Japanese Award for distinguished comestibles.
Mayor Somjai noted that restaurants and shops serving high quality cuisine, food festivals, and a willingness to exchange information with interested foreign organisations have won the island a reputation for good food — especially that of the type described as ‘gastronomique’ in French. She said this is valuable economically, and that food promotions, when combined with Phuket’s already famous hospitality and good manners, cannot fail to attract expanded, and profitable, interest contributing to the nation’s prosperity.
Related to the city’s new status as a recognised world centre of gastronomy, Phuket joined last year in events with Jeon-ju in South Korea and Ostersund in Sweden, both members of UNESCO’s gastronomy club (the former considered the ancient home of Korean cuisine, the latter a popular winter playground). This year, the city will send a delgation to Xiamen in China’s southern Fujian region (whence so many of Phuket’s ethnic Chinese have family roots) and to Penang in Malaysia, famous for its Indian and Chinese restaurants. The city will also play host to a meeting and seminar for members of the international network.
In sum, the mayor sees Phuket as a centre of creativity not only in the arts but in science, as well, and foresees “sustainable” development in both areas for the future. Though in the past, she said, the island was populated by immigrants from various places who differed greatly in their antecedents, “today we are all Phuket people, and it is that diversity which has won us recognition as a City of Gastronomy in UNESCO’s Creative City Network.”