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Eating a local diet, one where consumers subsist on food grown locally — often within 100 miles from the source — is no longer edgy or revolutionary. It’s common to find restaurants across the United States touting goods from local farms, proving that it is not difficult to eat abundantly but with a small carbon footprint.
Except, of course, if you live in Alaska. The unavailability of fresh produce during the long winters as well as the presumed unavailability of grains makes eating local in Alaska seemingly impossible.
But one small group of people set out to prove that was a myth and spent one year eating better than they ever had.
Planning and canning
Headed by Anchorage couple Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster, the Alaska Food Challenge was a loose collection of Anchorage residents who committed to eating only Alaskan food for one year. Each set up their own parameters. Oster, for example, allowed himself beer from local breweries even though the hops and other ingredients were not local. Esslinger accepted gifts of chocolate and butter on her birthday, and the couple took a vacation to Italy shortly after their first child was born.
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As expected, the Alaska Food Challenge came with some surprises and, fittingly, challenges. The first surprise was the sheer abundance of food available. Esslinger notes that that year was the healthiest she’d ever eaten. Alaska has excellent seafood, including salmon, halibut, crab and scallops, as well as game such as moose and caribou. The couple has a large urban garden, where they grew berries, salad greens, kale, turnips, tomatoes and more.
Chickens, for eggs and butchering, supplied more protein options, and the difficulty of butchering them surprised the couple. “It’s so much work,” Esslinger said. “The industrial system must cut so many corners to process so many.”
The local-eating year was full of discoveries such as that one — certain foods require large amounts of work. The couple realized that even though they had eaten mostly Alaskan before the food challenge, they were still out of touch with many of their food sources.
Other challenges included discovering the amount of planning required to eat locally for a year, as well as planning for a winter of eating. It is almost impossible to grow produce year-round in Alaska because of temperatures and severely limited daylight, and so the Esslinger-Osters harvested more than 1,600 pounds of produce from their garden. In turn, they had to process and preserve all those vegetables. They built a root cellar in their garage, experimented with fermenting and purchased a full-size freezer.
Part of the challenge was simply knowing how much food to put away. “Once you do it and you know how much you need, it’s much easier,” Esslinger said. “Harvest season was exhausting. Not only were we learning new skills like making butter, but we were also trying to put away everything for the wintertime.” Harvest season was a flurry of canning, drying and smoking, but once winter set in, they were able to “take a break and just cook and enjoy it all,” Esslinger said. They were surprised to find that they actually harvested too much food, including garbage bags full of kale.
Barley and wheat came from Delta Junction, about 300 miles north of Anchorage. They bought a mill for grinding the grains, and were able to bake bread all winter. A local creamery provided cream for butter, made in a Cuisinart, and a goat-milk share supplied milk.
The lack of fresh produce over the winter was difficult, Esslinger admits, but when they allowed themselves a salad on Oster’s birthday, they were disappointed by the limp, faded lettuce that had traveled thousands of miles to reach Alaska. Their diet remained varied, though they admit (somewhat guiltily) of tiring of salmon.
The lasting effects of eating local
Esslinger and Oster live in a suburban home on a corner lot, which they have converted into a massive garden. A partially-sunken greenhouse doubles as a chicken coop, and a beehive perches on their roof. They teach classes on urban chicken raising, soil maintenance and permaculture.
Though the food challenge is over, the couple still eats mostly local and organic. They have found that the food tastes better and that in all, the Alaska Food Challenge wasn’t as massive a challenge as even they believed.
However, Esslinger does admit to appreciating being able to buy organic butter at the store.
The garden at Saskia Esslinger and Matt Oster’s Alaska home. Credit: Saskia Esslinger
In a country that cooks European food notoriously poorly and has its own renowned cuisine, it might seem risky and even foolish to open a Western restaurant in a small northern Thailand town that is an hour and a half from a major city. But The Nest at Chiang Dao isn’t hurting for business, and owner Wicha Cavaliero’s commitment to quality cooking and ingredients is only part of the reason.
What makes a great chef and what, in turn, makes a great restaurant? The answers vary, but at the Nest, a few answers are clear: unpretentious surroundings and staff; locally-sourced, organic ingredients; and a commitment to quality, even if it means halting growth.
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Wicha, who was born in Bangkok and received her culinary training at Norwich City College and affiliated internships in the United Kingdom, speaks with an intensity and frankness that might lead you to believe she has been taking nips of sherry back in the kitchen. But this Michelin-trained chef is a serious professional who will not change her style to please diners.
Remote, rural and beautiful
A good example of Wicha’s unwillingness to compromise is The Nest’s location. At the foot of a massive mountain, tiny Chiang Dao is not the first place one might think of when opening a European restaurant. Only a small trickle of tourists makes its way up north to this quiet spot, but nearly all are here to dine at The Nest. She chose the location for its beautiful setting, as well as the opportunities for making an impact on a small Thai town. “I can do more here than anyone else, because they need it,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be me, it could be anyone.”
“I want to bring up my children in an appropriate natural place. That is why this place is called the Nest,” she said. She notes that being in a beautiful, rural location has helped maintain a happy marriage. Stuart Cavaliero, Wicha’s British husband, is an integral part of the restaurant.
“I manage the restaurant and he manages me. Without him I probably wouldn’t have opened. He is more Thai that I am; he knows all the traditions and is very caring,” she said.
Patrons listen to ‘the stars talking to each other’
Though the restaurant has the business to support growth, Wicha prefers to keeps it small and simple. A tile-floored dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows looks out to the mountain, and Wicha notes that expanding the room would erase that view. “I want to see the view, I want to see the mountains,” she said. “I’d rather be happy and poor than rich and not happy.” Thus, the restaurant remains very intimate.
Keeping the operation small is just one tenet Wicha will not break. “The Nest is so popular because we have so many laws and unwritten rules,” she said with a laugh. “We don’t allow many things, such as music.” When I ask her why she doesn’t play music in the dining room, she nods her head towards the thunderstorm rumbling outside. “There is the rain, the bamboo, stars talking to each other,” she said. “I’d rather hear the sound of people laughing. And maybe the music I like, you don’t like. You can’t make it perfect for everyone. There’s only one kind of music that is perfect for everyone — it’s the sound of raindrops.”
Wicha treats her staff respectfully, and it is obvious that they in turn respect her. They move in comfort around her, asking questions during our interview or alerting her to any issues. Wicha is always quick to respond, jumping up to talk to a guest or check on something in the kitchen. “I don’t find my staff, they find me,” she said. She takes local residents, many of them Shan (from Shan state in Burma), under her wing and trains them, which is certainly a big time investment. “It’s easier to deal with people who have will,” she said, adding how proud she is of her staff.
As much of the food as possible is locally sourced. Wicha visits Chiang Dao’s Tuesday market and picks produce from vendors she trusts. She explained that much of the produce is not certified organic, but that local farmers do not have the money for pesticides (or expensive organic certificates). Vendors know her and what she likes.
The menu changes daily and is written on a chalkboard. Breakfast features classics such as farm-fresh eggs and homemade bread. One popular lunch feature is the grilled eggplant sandwich on homemade bun with green salad. Dinner entrees usually include a lamb, steak and duck option.
The Nest started small, with just six bungalows that had no showers or toilets. When a group of hoteliers arrived shortly after opening and had to eat steak under umbrellas, Wicha realized she needed to expand the dining room to its current size, as well as upgrade the bungalows. Today, there are more than a dozen huts, with soft mattresses and thick blankets, as well as a nearby Nest 2 location with a restaurant serving excellent Thai food.
The Nest has received international acclaim, though Wicha seems unaffected. She simply wants a business she can feel good about: “Even if I die tomorrow I can still feel proud,” she said.
The Nest at Chiang Dao, Northern Thailand. Credit: Catherine Bodry
As sanctions lift, income levels rise and the quality of life improves, Burma’s emerging middle class is seeking dining experiences that take them out of the home and market. But these venues do not just appeal to Burma’s middle class, they also showcase local foods and products to the discerning traveler.
What works for locals is a window to Burma travel
The following are easily accessible to foreigners and offer a little slice of the life of a Burma middle-classer who dines out.
Taung Chune Food Centre,Taunggyi, Shan state
Taunggyi is the administrative headquarters of Shan state, and only a 45-minute drive from Nyaung Shwe, the tourist center at the north side of Inle Lake.
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Her menu features Inle mohingha, an Intha version of the country’s famous noodle soup, with two types of fish from Inle Lake. Other local ingredients include wild coriander. “It smells so good!” she said. She also features a small wild aubergine and local Inle rice, which is stickier than other varieties. A house-made red banana vinegar pairs well with locally-produced Shan tofu.
Taung Chune Food Centre is at Yae Htwet Oo Street in Taunggyi.
Aythaya Winery, Taunggyi, Shan State
Also located near popular Inle Lake, Aythaya Winery is one of only two vineyards in Burma. Director Hans-Eduard Leiendecker estimates that 80% of his clientele is Burmese. “The tourism market is not stable,” Leiendecker said. “Our marketing strategy from the beginning was to catch the locals.”
Wines are produced to appeal to Burmese palates, which prefer sweet and soft wines. The land originally produced Italian table grapes, and in one wine variety Hans blends those with a Muscat grape so that locals will remember the flavor of the table grapes and find the taste familiar. Leiendecker points out that Burma is a drinking country, and Burmese who can afford it find drinking wine trendy.
The traditional Burmese food at the restaurant is the most popular cuisine, though Aythaya Winery also serves Chinese, Thai and European cuisine. Newly-constructed bungalows offer views of the stunning vineyard below, a vista that is reminiscent of Old World scenes. It is a worthy visit for travelers to the Inle region.
Like Aythaya Winery, Sharky’s produces Western products using local ingredients. Manchego cheese, fresh yogurt and butter are showcased in a cooler, while prosciutto, “Barma” ham and other merchandise at home in a European deli are displayed in glass cases. Burma’s only certified gelato-maker makes rich gelato in flavors ranging from lemon to durian.
And nearly all of the ingredients are locally sourced. The meat comes from nearby heritage herds, the eggs are local “country” eggs, and Sharky’s showcase item is sea salt from Ngapali beach’s salt pans. Owner Ye Htut Win spent nearly 30 years in Switzerland, which is where he was trained in cheese-making and bread-baking, and also where he learned to appreciate old traditions of treating food.
Though Sharky’s opened a nearby second location, slow, hand-produced food of high quality will always be the goal.
Grab goodies for a picnic or dine upstairs on pizza or local buffalo. The main location is at 117 Dhamazedi Road, not far from Shwedagon Pagoda.
Café de Angel, Yangon
Servicing Yangon’s locals with caffeine jolts, Café de Angelis is likely the only coffee shop in the country that roasts Burmese-grown beans. The menu is ambitious for a local clientele that is solely familiar with instant coffee. All manner of espresso types are listed on the menu, including ristretto and lungo, macchiato, cappuccino, and Americano, to name a few.
Owner Wai Thein was educated in Taiwan, and upon his return to Burma in 2005 he was disappointed to discover the lack of fresh coffee there. He settled that problem by opening his own coffee shop. Farmers were already growning coffee beans in both Shan and Chin states, so when Thein opened his first café in Taunggyi five years ago, he roasted these local beans out back. His shop was successful enough that he opened a second and then third café in Yangon, where a large portion of his business is selling roasted beans and equipment, and teaching customers how to brew their own coffee.
“Locals don’t know how to process coffee,” Thein said. “The shop can be too expensive, so they buy coffee and try it at home.” Thein sells everything from French presses to espresso machines, to customers than include individuals and hotels and shops as far away as Kalaw and Bagan, towns that see a high volume of tourists. At the main Yangon café, travelers will find the rich smell of roasted coffee as well as comfortable booths and wifi.
“The future for coffee here is good,” Thein said. Burma has good, local coffee, with Arabica beans grown in Shan state and Robusta beans in Chin state.
Find Café de Angel in Yangon at No. 24 Baho Road, across from the Chinese Embassy.
Top photo: Inle Mohingha. Credit: Catherine Bodry
On a perch two hours up a washed-out dirt track from Chiang Rai sits Maejantai, one of the most remote villages in Northern Thailand. This village, set high in the region’s densely forested mountains, also produces some of Thailand’s best fair-trade coffee, which is gaining international attention (most notably by the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe, or SCAE) for its smooth, sweet and sour notes.
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Maejantai is home to 32 families of Akha, whose people make up one of just 10 hill tribes officially recognized by the Thai government. Mountain people who are spread across the forested hills of northern Burma, Laos and China’s southern Yunnan province, the Akha speak their own language and are originally from Tibet. Historically, they have been meagerly self-sufficient: They grow or gather almost all of their own food but typically purchase salt and cooking oil. Each home has one solar panel to power a couple of light bulbs. However, as the world around them modernizes, Akha parents want to send their children to school beyond the primary level, and to do so requires economic stability.
Enter coffee. Coffee was first introduced to Maejantai and other hill tribe villages in the 1990s by Thailand’s Royal Agricultural Project as a means to stop opium production. The villagers of Maejantai did grow coffee, but didn’t see their standard of living improve. Though coffee is a cash crop, it is traded as a commodity: middle men buy the coffee at low prices and sell it for a large profit. Because the Akha spoke only limited Thai and had no knowledge of coffee markets, they were often underpaid for their crop. Then the village’s sole college graduate walked back into town.
Creating the Akha Ama brand
Ayu Chuepa, who goes simply by “Lee,” decided in 2007 that he wanted to improve the lives of his hometown’s residents. Coffee was the natural focus. “It keeps well, has a shelf life, is a growing market in Thailand, and is known around the world,” Lee said. Plus, villagers already knew how to cultivate it. In 2010 the Akha Ama brand was born.
But Lee wanted to remove the middle man, as well as produce high-quality coffee, in a model that was sustainable both environmentally and economically. And that required changes to the way Maejantai did things, changes that were not always welcomed. Lee understood the villagers’ reluctance. “They have always lived their lives with practice, not theory,” he said. “I was gone for 10 years, so why should they believe me?”
Lee, who is 28, speaks Akha, Thai and English and has a fit-but-relaxed build reminiscent of an athlete at rest. His wavy black hair is trimmed in a trendy bowl cut. He was born in Maejantai, but had to walk 4 kilometers to another village to attend primary school. With no secondary school in the area, Lee spent six years in a Buddhist temple until he finished high school. He then attended Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, where he studied English with the help of scholarships and government loans. Today he is in the often awkward and difficult position of ushering change into a community that isn’t yet sure how, or if, to accept it.
Starting Akha Ama was not easy, and not just because he needed to persuade villagers to change the way they grow and sell their beans. Lee, who only drank instant coffee at the time, had to study coffee cultivation from seed to finished product, and learn how to be a barista as well as market a product and manage a business. The year he created Akha Ama, only his immediate family participated, producing 2 tons of beans, half of which Lee distributed as free samples. Three years later, 14 of the 32 families of Maejantai cultivate beans under the Akha Ama brand. In 2010, Lee opened the Akha Ama coffee shop in Chiang Mai, the largest city in Northern Thailand, to sell his village’s coffee directly.
A unique strategy for success
What makes Akha Ama coffee excellent is a combination of prime growing conditions and careful attention to processing. All coffee cherries are handpicked when they are ripe, twisted off of branches and deposited into wicker baskets. The daily harvest is taken by motorbike out of the hills and back into the village, where the cherries are soaked in clean water and separated from the beans. Villagers spread the beans out on wide bamboo platforms, letting them dry overnight in the high mountain air.
Once dried, the beans go through one more separation process, this time to remove a thin skin, or husk. They are then trucked to Chiang Mai, where Lee has carefully selected a small, private roaster.
The beans are 100% Arabica Catuai, grown in soil fertilized with cast-off cherry skins. Farmers do not use chemical fertilizers or herbicides, instead relying on other plants for pest control: sesame and lemongrass have unappealing scents, while cabbage draws insects in (and away from coffee plants). Apricots, peaches and persimmon also reduce risks while adding value as other cash crops. Young avocado trees will soon provide shade. The product is a finely balanced coffee that is both sweet and sour.
Lee refuses a mono-culture model, both because it’s not good for the soil and it’s not good for villagers to rely on a single income source. Standing among the mountains of Maejantai, Lee points to the forest, noting that thousands of species live together, and that this diversity buffers the forest against seasonal ups and downs. He hopes that one day Maejantai’s coffee farms will achieve the same balance, environmentally and economically.
Coffee growing in Maejantai, Thailand. Credit: Catherine Bodry