20 September 2017
If you are a regular reader of this blog you already know that tomatoes have been a popular topic mentioned here and there as an aside in the bigger contexts of street demonstrations and visiting Bhutanese boyfriends. For those who follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/BKKEXPAT) there has been a lot of chatter about tomatoes in Cambodia. This is the "back story."
I cannot remember a time when really good tomatoes were not a part of my life. I grew up in the Mendocino County wine country of Northern California. Like all of our neighbors we had a huge garden, where we grew all kinds of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers. Heirloom tomatoes were the stars. From June into early October we had an abundance. What we could not eat were canned or gave away. In my childhood I watched the early years of "California Cuisine," a farm-to-table culture that is now an integral part of California living. This time of year--late September--we would be madly trying to give away boxes of tomatoes, often to neighbors who had boxes they were trying to get rid of themselves. Somehow, I cannot now imagine that here and now.
One thing I did not really expect when I emigrated to Asia was that there are some things from the life I left behind that I truly could not live without. One of the big things for me, aside from underwear in my size, has been Mexican food. To this day, people bring me corn tortillas, which are the only major components of Mexican cuisine I have not been able to duplicate here, thanks to Diana Kennedy's book The Art of Mexican Cooking. People have brought me pickles from The Pickle Guys and even a Junior's Cheese Cake (you will know about such things if you are from Manhattan), and even slabs of Velveeta but I have not been able to bring myself to ask anyone to bring me a decent tomato. I am always thrilled when people arrive with gifts of cheese or tortillas, and that's enough.
Tomatoes here are, well, crap. If you put a bunch of dogs together for long enough you will end up with litters of 50 pound brown dogs. And such are the tomatoes in Thailand, mongrels grown to produce marketable sized fruit un under sixty days. Most are grown in greenhouses, in holes drilled into blue PVC pipes through which water with artificial "nutrients" pass, practically insuring that they will be flavorless. Most are picked green, then gassed to turn them red (the only color here), so that they can last up to 14 days on the shelf before they are sold. This is the tragic state of tomatoes in Thailand.
Facing a lifetime without decent tomatoes I decided 15 years ago to grow my own. "Are you crazy? You can't grow those things in Thailand," people often told me. Why not? They are a tropical fruit that that first discovered in the rainforests of Central and South America, so of course they would never do well in arctic Southeast Asia.
I first began to experiment with heirloom tomatoes on Figo Farm, near Siem Reap, the town where tourists stay when they visit Angkor Wat. Figo was my restaurant there until about 12 years ago. I loved it but it was a very expensive hobby that eventually ended abruptly when my business partner's fortune suddenly evaporated. But that's another story. My staff and I had regular recreational outings on Sundays to the farm we started in a dry rice paddy, some of the worst soil I had ever seen. But we managed to grow some tomatoes. Rath, who was our bartender and the inventor of the Figo Cocktail, was the most interested in tomato growing back then. More about him later.
The photo on the right is one of my favorite pictures of Rath. It was taken at Figo's second farm near Phnom Kulen in 2005. It was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The family who owned and lived on the land as forced to sell it from next to nothing by a government official.
After the demise of Figo I continued to grow tomatoes at home. I live in a 10th floor condo on a corner with balconies facing South and East. The problem is, my balconies do not get enough sun. Tomatoes like full sun all day. At one point I was growing as many as 100 seedlings a month obsessively, so I decided to become the "Johnny Tomatoseed" of Thailand and give plants away along with a little "How To" book. Over a span of about three years I gave away thousands of plants. Both of Bangkok's English Language newspapers wrote stories about me, thereby officially anointing me "Mr. Tomato Thailand." After absolutely none of these people who received precious plants free gave me a single fucking tomato I declared an end to this project and began growing chilis from seeds I brought from Bhutan. I gave Rath all the tomato seeds I had left.
Rath runs our business in Cambodia now. I first met him when our then-manager and I had lunch in the Siem Reap restaurant where he was waiting tables. I had a pair of unusual sunglasses, which I told him I could use to see through his clothing. He ran away and watched us eat through a crack in the kitchen door. A few days later I went back to offer him a job. We have been friends ever since. He is one of my most important companions on this journey I am taking through life. I call him my son, because that is the kind of relationship we have. Much to my surprise he has come to take tomatoes seriously since I gave him his first seeds to play with. He has been studying up on tomato-growing since then, and about a year ago he began a test-program on the farm near Siem Reap that I wrote about in February this year.
About two months ago we decided to shift our tomato project into third gear. Last weekend I delivered various supplies and about 2,000 seeds, for almost 40 different heirloom tomatoes varieties in all.
In case you do not know, an "heirloom" tomato is an authentic variety that is open pollinated, meaning that they can only pollinate with themselves or with identical plants. When the Spanish first took them to Spain from the New Word they were thought to be poisonous. Eventually, they were declared aphrodisiacs so, of course, everyone wanted them. The original genetic material traveled from the jungles of Mexico and Central America to Spain, then with Jesuit priests to Italy. From there the plants spread as far as Siberia and Japan (again thanks to Jesuits). Over four hundred years they evolved into hundreds of different cultivars (unique varieties) due to their original wild cultivars, then differences in climate, soil, and natural selection to fruit of every size, shape and color you can imagine, except for blue. Black tomatoes? There are quite a few, actually, mostly from Siberia and Japan.
On Saturday I met the other two people involved in the project; Soeng, who is investing a little money in this project, and Sopheap, our farmer whose land we will use. After telling them my vision, including an overview of cultivation requirements and techniques, and the marketing strategy I have formulated, they asked if I wanted to see the farm. I had no idea that was not a simple ride to the edge of town. It's 40 km away, mostly down rutted, unpaved roads. The road is lovely until the cut-off to Phom Kulen before you reach Bantey Srei. Instead, you turn left and keep driving until you at the foot of Kbal Spean. Along the way I fell in love with Cambodia all over again. I love the countryside, the people living there and the things they are doing, and mostly the amazingly vivid colors that surround you at the end of the "green" (rainy) season. The countryside smells sweet and green like a freshly mown lawn. I think it is my favorite time of year to visit Cambodia.
We are planning on growing 1,000 square meters under plastic initially. These guys have it all planned out. The soil here looks good but is being studied, and the water is as clean as God made it. The farm is free of major pests, including the two-legged kind. We will be growing tomatoes grafted onto the roots of other nightshade plants--eggplant and potatoes. They are stronger and less vulnerable to the nasty things that live in soil.
One unexpected treasure Rath discovered along the way was a tomato I have formally named "Cambodia Rose." This cultivar brought by French settlers to Cambodia in the 19th century was very common in rural gardens and city markets, but nearly completely vanished during the time that the Khmer Rouge controlled the country. Rath guesses that only a few dozen people have continued to grow it deepin the countryside since then. He found some "volunteers" (plants that grew from seeds that were not intentionally planted there, and were most likely transported there by birds) growing in the boonies. This small, pleated, blush red-to-pink fruit has slightly orange shoulders. It's a real survivor. Compact plants grow fruit that grow to about 1kg and are so sweet that you will want to eat the entire tomato at once.
I am expecting our first crop in December, mostly destined for restaurants in neighboring countries that can sell a $20 tomato salad. I am not interested in retail sales since most Thais will not understand heirloom tomatoes. Indeed, precious few have been privileged to taste a "real" tomato in their lives. But we will be making tomatoes available to friends who, like me, who miss them very much.
So my dream of fifteen years is finally coming to life. I'll finally get to eat tomatoes I have missed for years, introduce people to something they have never experienced before, and we'll all make some money along the way. Considering all of the dreadful things happening in the world, from hurricanes, to ethnic cleansing, to the mess that is Washington, this is a happy moment.
Suu Ky Goes to the Dark Side
The news is horrifying these days, and all of the horrors are not coming from the White House. You have undoubtedly become aware of the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. That troubles me a lot.
Before we go any farther, you should know that it is safe to go to Myanmar. All of this needless burning, death, rape and exodis is nowhere near places that tourists visit. If you are enjoying holiday at Cox's Bazar, on the world's longest beach in Bangladesh, that is another story. Myanmar is still a fantastic place to visit, despite the military, which remains very much in charge.
If you have been following us for a long time you know that we were sending guests to Myanmar when it was considered evil to do so. We received enough hate mail from The Burma Campaign to paper a wall. We did so because Myanmar is worth visiting and because we believe strongly that tourism is an agent of change with financial benefits that trickle down to every-day people. In the nearly two decades I have been at this, I have seen how tourism has helped shape the futures of China, Vietnam and Cambodia. It provides jobs and new ideas, and helps to dissolve isolation. More than once in our newsletter we have unapologetically stated our contempt for the government and our belief that sending visitors there is one small gesture we make to bring about a better future for Burmese people.
While the burning of villages and slaughter of Rohyngya who have lived there for many, many generations is a horrifying crime against humanity, I am equally troubled that a celebrated woman who earned a Nobel Prize for her work to bring democracy to people who lived under a military dictatorship seems to have gone over to the dark side. As the de facto leader of the government of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi has not only evaded criticism of the military's ethnic cleansing, she pretends to be unaware of it. At the end of the day she is an accomplice in the burning of villages, rape, the slaughtering of infants and theelderly, and the landmines planted along the Bangladeshi border. In a let-them-eat-cake speech she delivered to international press yesterday, she said that the "The security forces have been instructed to adhere strictly to the code of conduct in carrying out security operations, to exercise all due restraint and to take full measures to avoid collateral damage and the harming of innocent civilians" and, in essence she said, 'what are those Ronhingya complaining about?'
Regardless of whether she is pandering to powerful military or to the radical Buddhist clerics who have incited violence against Moslems repeatedly over the last few years, Aung San Suu Kyi has become someone who we can no longer admire. She no longer stands for the ideals that were acknowledged by the committee that awarded her a Nobel Prize for peace. She no longer deserves that prize. If she is so far out of touch with the realities of the crimes being committed in her own country by the military that she cannot do the right thing by returning her Nobel Prize, I sincerely hope the Nobel Committee will revoke it.
Recommended Reading: http://nyti.ms/2wwDat6
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