Why this journey is so important.
When we decided to start making Thai curry paste, it really was out of frustration that there wasn't anything that tasted authentic. There were plenty of products on the market that tasted "ok", or at best "good", but not authentic enough. I couldn't really see my kids, now all grown up, spending time in the kitchen with a pestle and mortar trying to recreate mum's paste, so I thought this was a neat way for them to have it whenever they needed it, without the hassle. It was just a bit of fun to start with.
"It was just a bit of fun to start with."
For the next 8 months, I travelled back and forth to Thailand seeing different producers small and large. What I saw astounded me, it was not what I expected at all. The small producers made wonderfully fragrant and fresh curry paste, which they sold locally and reminded me of my own childhood making authentic Thai curry pastes at home, meanwhile larger producers were "packing out" their products with ingredients that did not look as fresh or vibrant, even those with organic credentials! They seemed to skimp on the more expensive elements like Kaffir lime rind and various spices, choosing to add more salt, lemongrass and garlic, content to offer a sub-authentic product; worse still they didn't peel some of the ingredients or added parts of the plant that I would have normally thrown away or used in a stock. Worse of all they added strange ingredients that bear no authenticity to the "Thai" in their title. We have even found some adding orange juice concentrate in Yellow Curry! All this to attract the international export markets with basement prices, their "we know best" attitude to what they wanted me to accept, as opposed to what I knew was right, was contemptuous.
"We have even found some adding
orange juice concentrate in Yellow Curry!"
That was it, I was pretty angry at this point and bitterly disappointed, even Thai manufacturers selling within Thailand were cutting corners; how was traditional and authentic Thai paste going to survive this commercialisation, would it abandon all its therapeutic benefits that make Thai cuisine so exceptional.
Now it wasn't about the fun, it had turned serious and I felt inspired and motivated to do something about it, my quest is to save the real Thai Curry Paste, would this be my time to shine?
Having got over just how bonkers this all was, I turned back to the small producers who were selling the real stuff locally. They were so enthusiastic to help, but they didn't have the equipment necessary for an international operation that would allow me to import and sell it into the UK, it was difficult to know what to do. So, there lay my challenge, I had to find a producer that was not so big, that understood my frustrations and was willing to work with me to replicate my own recipes using only ingredients that I would buy and add to my paste as if I was making it at home. I want to give my customers no less then I would give my own family.
"I want to give you no less
then I would for my own family."
After several trips and many meetings later, I found a producer close to my home province of Trang, my birthplace, that wanted to help me achieve this goal. Over the following few months, we worked together to replicate the aroma and flavour of my recipe while using a modern facility, with cleaning, pan roasting and blending technologies to ensure we had a product that could be imported and sold safely.
Having gone to great lengths to make sure that the ingredients were prepared as if making the paste at home using only the best raw ingredients, for example, mother turmeric, I was faced with another dilemma. Do we sterilise or pasteurise?
"...prepared as if making the paste at home"
After testing, we felt that sterilisation was just too aggressive and affected the natural aroma and taste, the downside was that pasteurisation would only give us a 18-months shelf life rather than the 24-month shelf life of other products. It was a compromise worth taking, it tastes so good, why would you want to keep it that long anyway?
I was satisfied that we had created a blend that captured my love for the real tastes of Thailand, undiluted by years of commercial alterations, and staying true to the proportions that bring maximum benefit, not just in taste, but in therapeutic properties. Being close to my hometown my local family were there help maintain my high-quality standards, conducting source inspections for every batch we make. I want to make sure that we deliver the best product we can.
"What! No Shrimp Paste"
While the use of shrimp paste in Thai cuisine is commonplace, you won't find any in our products, even though most other brands include it. What! No shrimp paste, I hear you shout! Don't panic, this was intentional; it is in keeping with our desire to offer an authentic product. In Thailand, shrimp paste is not normally included in the blend of fresh raw herbs and spices sold in Thai markets, it is something that is added at the time of cooking, or while making the paste for immediate use. Other than allergy concerns, or to meet vegetarian requirements, I believe that blending shrimp paste, or fish sauce, together with the other ingredients compromises the freshness of this otherwise raw blends of natural goodness. Adding shrimp paste, with it's distinctive and strong odour would taint the otherwise fresh herb and spices (Samunprai - see further down), it shouldn't be there as a marinade, it's too strong for that. There are good reasons why shrimp paste is added at the time of cooking, and when you consider the inevitable time the ingredients are combined during transit, you get a better appreciation of why we have excluded it. Adding fish sauce, which is readily available in local supermarkets is an acceptable substitute, it isn't the same I will concede, but it was a compromise worth taking for those that cannot get hold of shrimp paste.
"Adding shrimp paste, with it's distinctive and strong odour would taint the otherwise fresh aroma and taste of the other ingredients"
Now comes the business bit, I'm no businesswoman (not yet at least), so I enlisted the help of my family, and here we are today. With the Mae Jum brand, it empowers me to do what I believe in, to make a real difference to those that care about the things I care about. I am realistic, I'm not expecting to revolutionise the Thai Curry Paste market, but if I can make a difference for you, then it would have been worth it.
"...but if I can make a difference for you,
then it would have been worth it"