25 Apr A Thai Palette of Chocolate
MADE IN THAILAND
A THAI PALETTE OF CHOCOLATE
By Catherine Vanesse
26 April 2019
In the wake of the kingdom’s gastronomic boom, for the past two years artisans have launched themselves into the production of 100% Made in Thailand chocolates and are gradually establishing their presence in the international market.
The benefits of chocolate are numerous: it stimulates memory and concentration, is rich in magnesium and antioxidants, it promotes sleep, and helps with meditation…
Thanks to the presence of three substances known for their psychotonic effects: theobromine, caffeine, and phenylethylamine, a molecule of the amphetamine family associated with euphoria such as what one feels when one falls in love. It also possesses all the properties of a natural antidepressant. It’s therefore not a surprise that 14% of men and 25% of women feel a compulsive desire for chocolate. Despite that, the Thais only eat 120 grams per year, far from the eight kilos per year consumed in Belgium.
For all those who were nourished with the best chocolates in the world beginning in their infancy, as others do with cheese and wine, diversity and quality can very well be missing in the land of smiles, at a first glance. But for about the past two years, the number of artisan chocolatiers in Thailand has been growing, with, on the one hand, international brands such as Royce, Melt Me, Godiva, Mrs. Flowers Chocolates, or Duc de Praslin (Gallothai), and on the other Thai brands that offer bars which are 100% Made in Thailand such as Mark Rin, Siamaya, Kad Kokoa, Aimmika, Paradai, Shabar, Xoconat… From Bangkok to Chiang Mai, we have followed the cacao route.
From the Pod to the Bean
The first traces of cocoa bean production go back at least 3,000 years. Originally from Mexico, the culture of cocoa developed after the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in the 16th century, before reaching the Philippines thanks to the Spanish in the 17th century, and then establishing itself in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. It thus seemed logical that it would eventually arrive in Thailand, but it only did so at the beginning of the 20th century.
Little information is available on the history and development of the cocoa market. The Chumphon Horticultural Research Center, founded in 1960, did not start its first research until 1974 in order to obtain pods with a higher production of cocoa butter, and a higher overall yield as well as better resistance to disease. It thus created a variety of Foresto, the Chumphon Hybrid N° 1.
In 1989, Swiss chocolate giant Barry Callebaut opened a factory in Thailand and offered a real market for growers until its closing in January 2016. Among its consultants figured Doctor Sanh La-Ongsri, founder of Mark Rin Chocolate.
An Associate Professeur at Maejo University (Chiang Mai), Doctor Sanh spent almost 30 years studying the details of cocoa, tea, and coffee in Thailand. Through his research, he refined a hybrid variety that is a cross of the Foresto and the Criollo bean, the Trinitario “I.M.1 ”, which is particularly well suited to a climate marked by a dry season with very cool nights, and which has a strong flavor, a low acidity rate, and a high yield.
There are two great families in the field of cocoa: Foresto and Criollo. The first represents 90% of global production. If we were to make a comparison with coffee, we would speak of Arabica. “Foresto is more complicated to ferment, it’s difficult to bring out the aroma of cocoa. Industrial chocolate generally offers a mix of Foresto and Criollo, Criollo provides more flavor while Foresto offers more significant production. With our Trinitario, we have both pronounced flavors with a low acidity rate and greater productivity” explains Dr. Sanh.
With a cocoa bean harvest estimated at about a thousand tons per year, Thailand remains far from countries such as Malaysia (10,000 tons), Vietnam (50,000 tons), Indonesia (100,000 tons). Plantations are currently located principally in the provinces of Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Chumphon, Ranong, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chantaburi, Lamphun, Chiang Mai and Nong Khai. The kingdom could thus see its production grow in the next few years following the recommendations of the government to farmers to plant cocoa in order to diversify their sources of income. The cacao tree can be easily planted among other crops such as durian, mangosteen, or coconut palms.
From the Bean to the Bar
When Doctor Sanh performed his research on cocoa plants and trained farmers to ferment cocoa beans, his wife Kanokked La-Ongsri began producing chocolate in 2002, before creating the Mark Rin brand in 2012. “In the beginning, we didn’t want to sell but rather to continue the research. With practice and experience, offering a finished product enabled us to support the farmers,” explained Irin, their oldest daughter who joined the family business after her studies, and whose first name mixed with her brother’s inspired the label. “People talk about the bean to the bar to gather all the local chocolate artisans. For us it’s more from the plants to the chocolate bar,” adds Dr Sanh.
A few weeks after the opening of a café that will serve chocolate-flavored beverages and of a Museum of Cocoa, Irin confirms that chocolate production has exploded in Thailand in the past two years, with the appearance of Siamaya and Aimmika in Chiang Mai and of Paradai and Kad Kokoa in Bangkok, two brands that won awards at the “International Chocolate Awards – 2018 Asia-Pacific Competition ”, as well as Xoconat, Shabar and 60+. “From my point of view, this boom did not start before because the quality of beans was not good enough in Thailand, the farmers lacked the necessary knowledge to grow the trees or to ferment and to dry the beans. With the Internet, the younger generation is more open, they want to learn all the time. Thailand is also experiencing a gastronomic explosion” adds Chef Remy Janicot of Kad Kokoa.
“The ‘Bean to Bar’ trend started in the United States and Europe about ten years ago. Thailand did not have a chocolate culture, but it had a gastronomic culture, it just took a bit more time before getting here” insists Neil Ransom, cofounder of Siamaya.
In discussing this with various chocolate artisans, they all try to explain way the recent interest in cocoa in their own, without really being able to draw any conclusions. Through passion, they all got into a market which was considered to be open. “Artisanal chocolate in Thailand is a niche market and all the chocolate one finds so far has turned out to be pretty surprising. Comparing oneself to them enables us to ask ourselves questions and to continue to evolve,” explains Chef Remy.
On the other hand, Siamaya makes its wish to not just remain in a connoisseur segment clearly known. “Many chocolatiers make “single origin” bars with beans that come from a single place. At the beginning we thought of doing the same thing, but we quickly realized that this market only reaches 20% of the population. We therefore chose the rest of the market by offering a quality chocolate that is 100% Thai, in order to compete with foreign brands imported to large areas. We have eight flavors, some more traditional and others created for Thai customers,” Neil Ransom reports.
Books, YouTube, and experiments, these are the tools of Mister O or Phurich Tanawut, chocolatier and associate of Paradai. Chef Remy compares chocolate to wine: its regions, its harvests, or its fermentation. The flavors are different, consequently you have to improvise, try things, change or adapt your recipes. “The first time I wanted to make chocolate, I roasted the beans in a pan before crushing them with a pestle in a mortar” laughs Phromwiharn “Mister O” Bumroongthin, founder of Aimmika, a 100% vegan chocolate.
“For a quality chocolate, there are three factors to consider: the variety of the trees, the fermentation, and the production of the chocolate” adds Dr. Sanh. “The artisan chocolatiers can take advantage of the various flavors of chocolate and adapt based on the quality of the beans, their origins, or of fermentation. On the other hand, on an industrial level, the flavor of chocolate may not vary from one time to another. They want standard quality with little acidity and bitterness.”
The common challenge remains offering a high-quality chocolate. For this, two steps are crucial: fermentation and drying. Invited by Kad Kokoa, the team of Latitudes plunged their hands into pods to extract the beans. The odor of cocoa filled the room while Chef Remy explained how to distinguish good fruit from bad, texture, odor, color. From 300 kilos of pods, one will obtain almost 40 kilos of beans that will have to be dried while controlling airation, humidity, and temperature, before roasting them with variable results: the flavor, the acidity, and the bitterness could in fact turn out to be very different. The role of chocolatier then consists of adapting his recipe to offer a good bar of chocolate. Kad Kokoa exploits this variation to its advantage, offering 70% chocolate bars labeled as a function of the provenance of the cocoa beans: Chumphon, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Chantaburi, Nan or Chiang Mai. Paradai works in a similar manner, using only cocoa beans from the province of Nakhon Sri Thammarat,
For Mark Rin, Siamaya and Aimmika try to create standards and train farmers in fermentation, drying, and storage. Mark Rin works with a network of 3,000 farmers for an annual yield of 200 tons of cocoa beans and 1,500 kilos of chocolate per month. It is currently the largest producer (Kad Kokoa 500 kilos, Siamaya 270 kilos, Paradai 170 kilos, Aimmika 120 kilos).
From Bar to Palate
The other challenge consists in finding a balance between flavors to respond to the expectations of Thai customers, a very critical audience whose experience with cocoa-based products is often limited to drinks or snacks containing a low percentage of cocoa or to industrial chocolates. “Too bitter, too acidic, too sweet. At a drink level, it has been a nightmare to find a balance in terms of flavor,” explains Chef Remy. “We could have decided to make 70% bars, but we opted for 75%. It’s darker, stronger, deeper, and above all not too sweet. Most of our customers are Thai, and we had to take this into consideration even if at the beginning we were targeting a foreign audience,” adds Phurich Tanawut. “Each week, people tell us what we have to make: darker chocolate, without sugar… of course we listen to their suggestions, but there are thousands of ways to make chocolate, thousands of possibilities in terms of flavors. Our mission is to elevate the experience. We want to offer chocolates that we love above all,” concludes Nei Ramson.
Dark chocolate at 75% and 85%, cocoa milk flavor, Thai tea flavor or with Indian spices, chocolate with chili peppers, moka, or milk. Siamaya offers 8 different flavors without just staying with dark chocolate. They offer a varied product line that enables them to reach a wider public while maintaining a very local specificity. Produced in Chiang Mai, Siamaya is currently the only Thai brand available in Rimping supermarkets. At Latitudes, we succumb to the coconut milk and chili chocolate.
Nestling a few steps from the monument to democracy in Bangkok, Paradai combines a shop where one can sip a very good hot or chilled chocolate and an observatory where one can watch the artisans in the workshop. The brand made the decision to only use beans from Nakhon Sri Thammarat to offer bars ranging from 72% to 100%. Don’t miss tasting their pralines, a delicacy.
Currently, Mark Rin supplies its chocolate wholesale to restaurants, chocolatiers, and pastry shops. In parallel, they have launched the “60+” brand, a boutique-café in Bangkok managed by handicapped people trained in the production of chocolate bars, a way to combine taste with ethics. With the opening of their boutique-café-museum in Chiang Mai in April, Mark Rin should soon be offering his own bars – we can’t wait!
Located in Bangkok, Kad Kokoa emphasizes the different origins of cocoa beans. Chantaburi chocolate is more sour while that of Prachuap Khiri Khan is more fruity, Nan offers more roundness, and one will perceive a touch of hazelnut in Chumphon or of berries in that of Chiang Mai. All possess the same percentage of cocoa, 70%, and one can have fun discovering different flavors while discovering the workshop and sipping a “signature” hot chocolate.
The Aimmika workshop is located in the vegetarian restaurant Im Aim which is also owned by Mister O. Here too, we stay with dark chocolate: 72%, 80%, 90% and a sugarless version with Chantaburi beans. If the sugarless chocolate (which we can compare to the 100% one) is harder to get for a bar tasting, on the other hand, it reveals itself to be perfect in a hot drink where it reveals all its finesse. Another particular feature of Aimmika is that it offers its brand in a version for monks which people can buy and offer as donation. Let’s not forget that one of the virtues of chocolate is to help with meditation…