As we travel - and even as we embrace new ways of framing where it is we call home - we have the chance to partake in many new experiences, culinary very much included. Slow Food International’s identity as a global, grassroots organization that focuses on local food cultures and traditions has positioned it to have relevance to places and people who maintain strong ties to their rural agricultural heritage.
UNESCO Creative Cities: Chiang Mai
With some life projects coming together in the form of a journey abroad for me, some pre-trip research yielded a few paths towards people of influence in Northern Thailand. Chiang Mai is a hotspot for multiple areas of thought leadership. It’s been selected, along with Tucson, Arizona; Alba, Italy (minutes from Bra, Slow Food’s headquarters) and numerous other municipalities as part of UNESCO’s Creative Cities network.
While Tucson and Alba are categorized as Cities of Gastronomy and Chiang Mai one of Crafts and Folk Art, Thailand’s food and beverage traditions have been retained by their own residents with enthusiasm that shows its popularity in the Thai restaurant boom the world around.
“I’ve been grateful to visit coffee farms in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.” Photo by Slow Food Urban San Diego’s Colin Richard. Follow him on Instagram @colinhrichard
I love learning about the story of food: where it came from originally, traditional and regenerative ways it’s continuing to be cultivated, how it’s used in regional cuisine: these are sometimes referred to as “foodways”. The American Southwest, the Mediterranean Basin and Southeast Asia are all renowned for their foodways, and all three regions were represented at Slow Food International’s Terra Madre Salone del Gusto in September, 2018.
This year’s gathering was held in Torino, Italy; like nearby Alba, it lies close to the Slow Food International headquarter city of Bra. Slow Food Urban San Diego Education Chair Julie Diaz represented our chapter at this cosmopolitan event, and thousands of delegates from close to 150 countries have assembled for it in the past.
The event was graced with a number of attendees from Thailand, including those from the ethnic minority “hill peoples” of the northern region that straddles the converging borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Lee Ayu Chuepa, founder of Akha Ama Coffee, was one of those people, and I had the chance to meet with him while in Chiang Mai.
A view of Chuepa’s parents’ polycultural garden, diverse in vegetables and many fruits we in the West know and love, including persimmon, cherry and peach. See Chuepa’s moving TEDx talk. Photo courtesy of TEDx
About Akha Ama Coffee
Chuepa was born in this Mae Chan Tai, in Chiang Rai Province in Northern Thailand. Along with Chiang Mai (both a city, as well as a province) and a handful of others in the area, Chinag Rai is rich in hill people villages and culture. Mae Chan Tai is an Akha (a hill people group, along with Lisu, Palong, Karen and many others) village, and Chuepa grew up here in the humble rural setting without the security and benefits of Thai citizenship, an issue facing the vast majority of hill people.
Thanks to his parents’ great work and sacrifice and his own dedication, he participated in many philanthropic village programs and became the first person from his village to attend university.
In addition to supporting community agriculture improvement projects, Chuepa went on to specialize in coffee, leveraging his knowledge in agriculture and newfound social business expertise to form Akha Ama Coffee. From working with growers, to processing, to roasting and serving top quality cups (espresso to pour over to … you name it).
The opportunity to meet with Lee Ayu Chuepa in Chiang Mai was something I couldn’t pass up. Photo: @colinhrichard
I’d been to the Chiang Mai area of Thailand before to visit with organizations serving hill peoples in the past, and learned of Chuepa’s work through his Slow Food blog post about resilient food production and the preservation of village culture.
Sustainable, World-class Coffee
It was an awesome opportunity two of the several Akha Ama locations (two cafes, offices and their “Living Factory” that educates farmers and occasional visitor groups on coffee processing and commerce), and for Chuepa to fit a brief meeting with me into his busy schedule. Their La Fattoria location is designed with an industrial, urban minimalist feel with wood and concrete, and features products from their village social enterprises.
From their steel straws to delicious bottled cold brew, a welcome treat in the heat of the afternoon in Thailand, they are applying both innovation and hard work that shows in their dedication to sustainability and top quality coffee.
Pour over, cappuccino, and cold brew … Thailand’s craft coffee scene gives any other locale’s a run for its money, and Akha Ama’s locations (packed on my visits) were clearly a hotspot for locals and travelers. Photo: @colinhrichard
Thanks to both cafes brewing craft coffee and farmers integrating coffee cultivation into their farming systems, Thailand’s java scene is growing by leaps and bounds.
A Thai friend of both Lee and myself is halfway through a cycling trip of thousands of miles through South and Central America in search of the best, most unique coffees these continents have to offer. Clearly, Thai passion for coffee runs deep. Lee and Akha Ama have been making strides towards not only empowering the Akha tribe towards being leaders in indigenous coffee enterprise in Thailand, but towards bringing their good work forth as a beautiful story to share with the world.