BANGKOK: Presidents and prime ministers began to gather in Bangkok on Thursday for the two-day Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ meeting, which begins on Friday and marks the culmination of a week of international APEC summits.
The coming days will reveal exactly what these world leaders bring with them to the negotiating table. For now, Arab News has learned what host nation Thailand will bring to the table when the leaders sit down to eat: A healthy fare of sustainable, halal fine-dining options.
The palates of the leaders attending the APEC forum are, of course, shaped not only by the culinary traditions of their countries — from Australia and the nations of East Asia, through Russia to the Americas — but also by personal preferences.
Thailand entrusted celebrity chef Chumpol Jangprai with the delicate task of finding the perfect variety of foods and flavors to satisfy the leaders of the 21 APEC economies during their annual summit.
“We have original cuisine, we have royal cuisine, we have classical cuisine. All of these parts will come together on the night of the gala dinner,” he told Arab News at his Bangkok restaurant R-Haan, which has two Michelin stars.
The chef, who is also an ambassador for a UN platform devoted to the prevention of food loss and waste, said he has sourced all the ingredients for the dishes from local producers, as he takes pride in using only authentic Thai ingredients that reflect the country’s various culinary traditions.
Free-range chickens, for example, come from Yala in southern Thailand, lobsters from Phuket island, sun-dried threadfin fish from the Muslim-majority Pattani region, beef from Sakon Nakhon in the north east, and jasmine rice from Thung Kula Ronghai in the north. Organic vegetables have been sourced from community-based enterprises across the country.
If some leaders are not keen on certain options, or allergic to them, their individual needs will be met.
“If a leader doesn’t want or like something, I have to create (the dishes) one by one to cater to them,” said Chef Chumpol. “I’m creating more than 21 items.”
With nearly four decades of experience, however, coming up with such a large number of dishes was not as daunting challenge as it might seem. He started cooking alongside his mother at the age of 11. When he was 18, he moved to Denmark to become a chef at the famed Blue Elephant restaurant in Copenhagen. In the years that followed he spent time working at other top fine-dining establishments in Brussels, Paris and the Middle East.
“With my journey of cooking for 39 years, I’m really confident and, with my team, we have prepared for this event,” he said.
Thailand is a Buddhist-majority country but everything that is served to the world leaders will be halal.
“All food for the APEC delegates is halal,” the chef said. “We have to make it most suitable and most comfortable to all delegates.”
Not only are all the ingredients halal-certified but the preparation and cooking also follows Islamic dietary guidelines to ensure that all the guests will be completely comfortable with it.
Among the diners will be the leaders of Muslim-majority APEC countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was invited to attend as a special guest of the Thai government.
The crown prince’s presence represents a historic occasion as it marks the full resumption of ties between the two countries after a gap of more than 30 years.
The dishes that Chef Chumpol will prepare for the crown prince include tom kha and massaman curry. The former is a traditional Thai soup based on chicken broth, coconut milk and mushrooms, while massaman curry is a rich and flavorful Thai fusion delicacy that combines influences from the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and the Malay archipelago.
“With the curry, we are connected by the same cultural roots,” said the chef, who during his university years studied politics and diplomacy. “On behalf of Thai people, we are really grateful for the announcement of the reopening of the relationship.
“I think food is the best diplomat in the world … I think food is the center of everything; when we eat food together, we chat together and that is our culture.”