by Soimart Rungmanee
Chaiburi village in Tha Uten District, Nakorn Phanom province, Thailand is known for its fish production. Two main water sources lie across the village being the Mekong and the Songkhram Rivers. The latter is a tributary that mouths into the Mekong River in the village.
Known as the district of fish, Chaiburi village also specialises in fish products especially Som-pla-do, or sour fish sausage wrapped in banana leaf. This has become a good source of income for producers, labourers, distributors and wholesalers. In previous generations, villagers produced Som-pla-do from the wild capture fish as a process to secure their food. Aunty Da, the owner of Da Som-pla-do said:
“Som-pla has been a local food here for generations. In the old days, we did not have a market to sell so we just made Som-pla for domestic consumption and gave to our relatives and friends who came to visit us here. It was in 1990 that the District Governor supported Som-pla-do as a local product from Nakorn Phanom Province and took it to sell in the provincial festival, (an annual festival organized by Red Cross). In 2003, Som-pla-do had become very popular since it was promoted as a product under the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) policy of Prime Minister Taksin Shinawatra. So people around Thailand started to know Som-pla-do from Chaiburi village.”
Great snakehead fish or Pla-do is an important ingredient so “do” was mentioned in the name Som-pla-do (Som means sour, Pla means fish). Sadly, today great snakehead fish, like most native species are rarely found in the Mekong. In contrast, demand for Som-pla-do has grown. Besides local markets in the Northeast, villagers ship Som-pla-do to sell throughout Thailand and neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. The six producers operating in the village use several hundred kilograms of fish per day.
Due to the higher quantities of fish required for production, the source of fish has changed. Fish bred in cages in central Thailand approximately 600 km away, is shipped by truck to the village twice a week. Asked how long have they been using fish from other areas, Aunty Jik, the first Som-pla-do seller and the owner of Paa Jik Som-pla-do brand replied:
“Wild capture fish is not enough for my business. Also, natural fish is too expensive, so I have to use cheap fish. I have been using cage fish from Singburi for ten years. This fish can replace natural fish perfectly as it is cheaper and has exactly the same taste as their original Som-pla-do. We cannot use fish from local fish cages here as it is not a kind of fish for Som-pla-do. Rather, fish from the cages here is sold as fresh fish and it costs 70-80 Thai Baht per kilo. It is too expensive. The fish I have ordered to make Som-pla is only 30 Thai Baht per kilo.”
Besides ordering fish from central Thailand, Som-pla-do business owners also reported that they needed to import banana leaf from Laos.
“How can we get enough banana leaf within our village if we produce more than 1,000 pieces of Som-pla-do per day? Our lands are occupied by rubber rather than banana. I generally ordered banana leaf from Laos or from villages in Sakon Nakorn Province”, said Aunty Da.
The story of Som-pla-do and how villagers in Chiaburee Village are adjusting themselves to acquire ingredients and equipment reflects the change in the food commodity chain that originally starts from the river and ends up with consumers. In this case, the commodity chain for Som-pla-do involves a number of stakeholders which include fish farmers in central Thailand, banana leaf traders in Laos and nearby province, shipping companies and retailers. In addition, it is a good example of the limitation of wild capture fish to the high demand for fish from both producers and consumers. Cheap fish produced in cages in central Thailand might be a good solution for Som-pla-do business in the Northeast. However, the case reminds us about the current food supply chain where very little food comes from truly local sources, even this local fish product that is still regularly advertised as “Som-pla-do from the Mekong fish”.