Chef Phanuphon “Black” Bulsuwan – the fermentation wizard and the art of fermenting
Fermentation is having a moment in Thailand right now and it’s not in any way, shape or form being a new approach in cooking; fermenting food has long been exploited in the kitchen since ancient time dated back to over thousands of years ago. But to talk about those who brought new light to the fermenting world, you can’t leave Chef Phanuphon “Black” Bulsuwan‘s name unsaid.
Famed as a fermentation wizard of Thailand, Chef Black of Blackitch Artisan Kitchen, a 16-seater restaurant in Chiang Mai with a focal focus on hyper-local and hyper-seasonal produce which he uses to bridge together multi-cuisine slash modern cooking with Thai culinary heritage.
The Civil Engineering student turned chef is also self-taught. And among learning from foraging and his childhood growing up in a restaurant-owned family, Chef Black obtained a knack for fermenting food on his own through travelling the length and breadth of Thailand and Japan and reading his way through countless cookbooks.
And not only does his food is scrumptious, but it also aims to educate. Chef Black curates his menu based on his intention to shed light to the importance of sustainable agriculture and, most importantly, the misconception of fermentation and the extra oomph of umami and health benefits it gives to your food.
We got to sit down with Chef Black and talked about his insights and thoughts into food and fermentation.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
The term that would best describe my style of cooking is “Holistic Localised Artisan,” which is a cuisine relying on artisanal traditions and locally-grew produce. Most of the time, my food is inspired a lot by Japanese cuisine but all cooked with hyper-seasonal and hyper-local ingredients sourced from farmers and fishermen who are committed to producing food in sustainable ways without damaging the environment and ecology. I’m also not limited to one type of cooking so you’ll see a lot of blended elements from indigenous Thai and western fare along with scientific cooking techniques.
What inspired you to get into fermentation?
I grew up in a restaurant-owned family and growing up we made a lot of fermented food like shrimp paste, fish sauce and vinegar to use in the household. I wasn’t, however, interested in the process so much until I opened a restaurant and wanted to create a soy sauce or miso that I could proudly call my own.
So I started learning from my family, went on to explore more through reading, experimenting in my kitchen by using fresh food waste, and even discussing to university professors who have a true understanding about the science of fermentation.
In doing that I learned about in-depth fermenting process and obtained the knowledge of knowing which is good for our gut or wicked for our health because first and foremost, I need to become the master of what I serve in order to educate diners and people around me about fermentation.
What is the heart of fermentation in your opinion?
The heart of fermentation lies in your understanding of each fermented product. First you need to know what to ferment and what are the benefits or purposes on fermenting it?
Each fermented food is unique, beneficial and special in their own way and relies on different techniques in which to make it. All fermented food also has to be under controlled environment, so fully understanding the ingredients you use will give you a safe slash scrumptious results.
What are the wonders of cooking with fermented food?
All fermented food is made by using natural elements surrounded us like bacteria, yeast and microorganisms as essential ingredients. It also yields wonderful benefits since fermenting process causes the breakdown of molecules and nutrients in your food which will make it easier for your body to absorb and digest.
As a chef, fermented food also adds this depth of flavors to a dish. For example, when using salt and shoyu – despite both elements give this salty taste to your food – you’ll immediately notice the difference of the complex sensations shoyu gives in which salt doesn’t.
With such a unique and new way of interpreting food, has there been any challenge that you face with your style of cooking?
There’s not much of a challenge, really [smile]. I’m quite clear with my intention and purpose in cooking and that is to introduce all of these great Thai ingredients and the art of fermentation to the new generations and foreigners.
So for me, this style of cooking I do has been nothing but a push forward. The true happiness for me also comes from helping these sustainable farmers who are constantly trying to enrich the country’s food chain. So to be in this life I’m living, being able to learn and telling this wholesome stories to people everyday, I am very blessed.
I guess the only challenge for me now is that there’s never enough time in a day to do all the things that I think will benefit the food community more and more.
There is a belief carried around about fermented food not being safe for eating, what do you think of that? And how do you think you can help to change people’s views or propel them towards a better understanding of fermentation?
I used to be one of the people who thought fermented food was harmful and not safe because that was what a lot of Thai people. Despite its funky look and smell, is actually very beneficial to your body and your gut. But again, one thing you need to keep in mind is that fermented food has both benefits and harm depending on which type and kind.
Not all fermented food are created equally; some fermented food are more beneficial when you have so little of it and something shouldn’t even be fermented. So I always encourage people to study and know what they eat if they seek to strengthen their health with fermentation or practice this way of cooking at home.
What are the ways you think home cooks and restaurants can help to promote fermentation in the kitchen?
I think people need to first know how delicious fermented food is and how easy it I to make it. Most fermented food can also easily be made by yourself at home. The good part is that you can use all that bits and scrapes of pristine produce no one wants because you can really turn them into a tasty jar of fermented product that will last you for a very long time. This way, you really pay respect to the food you’re eating as well as reducing food waste and cost in the kitchen.
Any advice for a beginner to fermentation?
Be willing to try out the process and taste the fruit of fermentation because most importantly, you need to know if you enjoy its process as a whole. Nothing about it is easy but once you get into it, fermenting food can really be a pleasurable and enlightening thing. It will also prove overtime to be easy and simple after you keep practicing the art of fermentation.
Thank you Phanuphon.