Northern Thailand, particularly Chiang Mai, boasts a long list of exotic ingredients that are indigenous to itself. Chef Phanuphon “Black” Bulsuwan, founder and owner of Blackitch, the 12-seater restaurant on Soi Nimmanhaemin 9, is one of the modern trailblazers of the Chiang Mai food scene who is introducing local produce, either foraged or sourced from sustainable farmers, into his dishes. These creations make up a tasting menu that fuses pan-national culinary cultures, from Lanna (an old term used to describe Thailand’s northern region) to Nordic. As a result, Blackitch has become a testament to the boundless possibilities of unsung local ingredients, and has become an ambassador for small local farmers who wish to showcase their products.
How did Blackitch start?
[Blackitch] started out as a small chef’s table restaurant that only catered to one table a day. Our focus was on Japanese cuisine. In our second year, I had an epiphany. While walking through a local fresh market, I saw a wide range of seasonal local ingredients and realized that these can be substitutes for the imported ingredients I usually work with. I started to wonder if chiang da [a local green] could be used in a stir-fry, and questioned why we prioritize Japanese fish over Thai fish. So I started to travel and met local farmers from different regions, as well as fellow chefs who have the same philosophy with regards to local ingredients. We are in our seventh year and we have come so far. We are still growing with no plans to stop.
What is so special about local produce?
When you walk through the market, you can see that the ingredients that are being sold change according to the season. I’m not talking about a specific duration, like every three to four months; the availability of ingredients is dependent on the weather condition. For example, rainy weather entails the growth of mushrooms, or winter vegetables can grow year-round in cool conditions up a hill. Thailand boasts an incredibly diverse range of produce. For example, we have local rice and chicken you probably haven’t heard of. It’s very upsetting that we are so knowledgeable about imported ingredients like truffles, shima aji [white trevally] or sea urchin, but we know so little about what we have. And I find that very dangerous. There are many Thais who aren’t brave enough to eat exotic Thai ingredients but dare to eat something alien that’s from Japan.
‘It’s very upsetting that we are so knowledgeable about imported ingredients.’
How do you describe your style of cooking?
It’s actually difficult to explain. I would say I cook food that use ingredients sourced from around Thailand, but the style can be anything, from Central Thai, to Northern Thai, to Japanese, to Nordic. You can call it fusion, innovative, whatever you like. But I would rather call it holistic, localized, artisan cuisine. Everything we do here is art. We make our own pickles, our own sauces. We combine seasonality, locality and culture together. We do not restrict ourselves to Thai cuisine. If we put boundaries into our cooking, we won’t be able to create or reinvent new things. Also, I don’t usually note down my recipes, but I do take note of the results of my experiments in hopes that the knowledge can inspire or influence others. That’s how a cuisine progresses.
What are you trying to achieve at Blackitch?
I try to make Blackitch like my home; the customers are like guests that we cook for. So the experience is like having lunch or dinner at your friend’s place. I also want this place to be a kind of a platform where the stories of the ingredients and local farmers can be heard. Sustainability can occur if everyone involved benefits, including the local communities and the farmers. If they profit, the environment and the ecosystem will too.
Have you considered moving to Bangkok?
Many investors have approached me and I was tempted in the beginning. But I asked myself if it was necessary. Had I moved to Bangkok, I would have had to leave my family behind. I also realized that if I want Blackitch to be like my home, people would have to come visit me and I will cook for them. If I moved to Bangkok, I will only be a tourist