‘Ramsar’ flavor under attack

Could the changes in the water current wash away the delectable flavor of fish consumers were once used to? This question might once have sounded ludicrous, but today is an undeniable truth happening to a well-loved Isan[northeast] staple food “Pla-Som-Pla-Daek Sri Songkhram” that gets its main ingredient from the Songkhram River Basin.

There is something amiss as we observe the change in flavor of Sri Songkhram fermented fish as we go on site to explore the food security situation of the locals when the basin is hounded by three significant threats: the fluctuating Mekong currents, Climate Change, and series of Thai-state-driven development projects with questionable sustainability issues.

Nicha Wachpanich and Kamol Sukin, GreenNews editorial team, highlight the turbulence impacting this popular dish in the third segment of this four part special report: “Songkhram [war]” at the Songkhram River Basin Series.

(Photo : GreenNews / Jamon Sonpednarin)

Authentic ‘Ramsar’ taste

Fried until crispy and golden; garnished with fresh chilies, garlic, and assorted herbs accompanied with fresh local vegetables; the well-spiced fried Pla-Som (“sour fish”) goes perfectly well with cooked rice. The blend of tantalizing aroma, zesty-sour flavor, and crispy texture can brighten the gloomiest mornings in an instant.

“Nothing compares to Pla-Som Sri Songkhram!” The unanimous recommendation from local sources was enough to convince us to drive an extra 30 minutes–after a 700-km journey from Bangkok–to the restaurant, located right where the Songkram tributary meets the mainstream Mekong. 

“I didn’t’t expect it to be this good. So delicious,” echoed sentiments from a bunch of tired Bangkok crew who had never tasted Plaa-Som this delicious prior. The first dish was finished in less than five minutes, followed by another request: “One more fried Pla-Som dish, please.”

“Where are you staying? We also have rooms for rent here,” the owner, an elderly woman, mused after we finished our mouthwatering meal.

During our conversation, we realized how fortunate we were to have risked coming without checking if the restaurant was open first. This was the only eatery in the area that was still in business during the pandemic, even though the ban on interprovincial travel had already lifted. The expansion by the owner to offer accommodation services was one survival strategy for this long-established local restaurant to keep their business afloat.  

The old hanging pictures on the walls and a list of signature dishes displayed in the middle of this well-preserved restaurant, with about dozens of tables, spoke volumes to us about the inspiration behind the business. Not to mention the owner’s passion for the “Songkhram river fish” and her son’s love for fishing.

Drizzles of the morning rain started to fade as a ray of sunshine peered through a cloud, yet the gloomy shades of gray remained, as if being in two minds: to rain or not to rain; but our team had to make a prompt decision to leave because we had an appointment with a young fisherman who was tasked to help us explore the Songkhram river on his boat. We intended to observe for ourselves the condition of the Songkhram river today–at the very least, from the delta to the location reported to be where the first dam project of this tributary stood. 

“Hold on a bit. We’ll be able to set sail soon,” the fisherman informed us eagerly. The currents were too strong that morning, so we had to wait until it was safe enough to go out on the boat.

“Few fishermen are expected to show up today. There are no fish–especially in this weather. If we’re lucky, we might run into a couple of fishermen for just a handful of photos,” the boat owner told us candidly, so we could lower our expectations and adjust our plans for the images we hoped to capture.  

“I’ll try flying the drone camera then. Maybe we could make use of the bird-eye view scenery,” one of the photographers suggested as we were waiting to get on the boat. Others took the opportunity to capture images of the scenic delta.

Meanwhile, at a distance a handful of guests could be seen enjoying their coffee at the self-service corner of the restaurant –it seemed as if they were the only customers that day.

A typical holiday morning amidst the pandemic, we thought to ourselves.

(Photo : GreenNews / Jamon Sonpednarin)

Origins of the word ‘Zaap’ 

It would be a mammoth task to pinpoint just how delicious Pla-Som Sri Songkhram is largely because there is yet to be a research conducted on why it is a very palatable local delicacy. A dish to be considered delicious would depend on personal taste, something difficult to gauge, we would assume.

Nevertheless, one reliable reference would be the testimonies of both visitors and locals both of whom would attest to the fact that Pla-Som Sri Songkhram is indeed mouthwatering –a taste distinctive enough to be recognized as the legendary “Pla-Som Sri Songkhram.” 

Now the question that arises from this is: “where did its unique flavor originate from?”

“Fish, salt, garlic, and cooked rice mixed together and fermented until sour.” Both online and offline sources agree on this process of making Pla-Som, an essential part of every dining experience in Thailand’s Isan [northeast] region and beyond. 

What intrigued us the most was remarks made by the locals about the selection of ingredients, especially the fish and the salt– where were they sourced from and what types were used?

“Nam Songkhram fish are born and raised by the Songkhram river. They feed on natural resources in the river where nourishments originate from Pa Bung-Pa Tham (seasonal flooded forest), in which various ecosystems with diverse inhabitants exist. Water quality and the flooded forest play a pivotal role in determining the taste of Nam Songkhram fish, setting them apart from farmed fish in taste and texture. Different types of fish yield different tastes,” a foodie-environmentalist noted. 

“Of course, our fish taste better. They are sourced from the wild. They have less fat than farmed fishes,” remarked a Pla-Som manufacturer in Tha Bo, Sri Songkhram, Nakhon Phanom province.

Originally, preferred salt in making Pla-som was boiled-processed rock salt sourced from the middle of the Songkhram river basin at Tha Sa-at, Sakon Nakhon province. Nowadays, several types of these are in-demand by manufacturers.

“Different kinds of salt from various sources make diverse types of Pla-Daek (salt-fermented fish) because saltiness helps with the fermentation and also determines the breed and growth of natural microbes. Well fermented Pla-Daek must not rot and is never black in color,” ISAN INSIGHT revealed, adding the function of salt in making Pla-Daek or Pla-Ra, a popular type of fermented fish originating in Isan, similar to Pla-Som, but different in that it only uses rice bran instead of cooked rice in the salt fermentation process . 

“Each manufacturer has their own recipe. Some might use special ingredients or techniques that are kept secret because each brand has a unique, signature taste. I can tell,” a housewife in Sri Songkram shared.

Other than that, various ways of cooking also create diverse dishes with different flavors–another contributing factor to its taste and popularity. Data from some cooking websites show up to 36 ways to prepare Pla-Som, the most popular of which include frying, putting it in salads and stew dishes ,and more.

(Photo : GreenNews / Jamon Sonpednarin)

Zaap under threat

“We no longer use Nam Songkhram fish, opting instead for the ones sourced from Thailand’s central region,” a surprising claim by a manufacturer about the current situation of Pla-Som manufacturing in Sri Songkhram.

“They are fish farmed in ponds, Carps and striped catfish, for instance. I usually drive to these farms in the provinces of Ang Thong, Chon Buri, and sometimes Rayong, to pick up the fish and pack them well with ice. Then, I return home and sell them to the villagers who make Pla-Som. I make three trips every week to keep up with the demand,” Attiya Kasemsin, a young man from Tha Bo, shared candidly with us.

Attiya said he decided to quit his factory job and return home to continue his mother’s Pla-Som business. His new occupation often takes him as far as 700 km away from home. Although making long trips several times a week worries his anxious mother, he insists on hand-selecting the fish himself to make certain that he gets fresh, and top quality product to sell at a reasonable price to the residents in the village. 

Sharing his concerns, he continued:“Wild fish in Songkhram river are decreasing at an alarming rate. The number of catches is also unpredictable, what is certain is that it is not enough to meet the demands.”

This is the reason behind Pla-Som manufacturers turning to fish suppliers in the central region, he noted.

“In the old days, we could make 20 kilos of Pla-Som a day using Nam Songkhram fish. Today we can only make a fraction, 1-2 kg max.

“When customers ask if our fish are from Songkhram River, we tell them that they are imported from the central region. We tell them the truth,” said one Pla-Som manufacturer in Tha Bo.

Other than the origins of the fish, another change is in the manufacturing process which is becoming more industrial to meet the growing demands and higher quality standards.

“Two decades ago there were originally just three Pla-Som businesses in Tha Bo [including that of Anchisa Nako]. Nowadays there are around 30,” said Anchisa, a third generation heir who carries on her mother and grandmother’s artisanship legacy in making Pla-Som.

She added that many of the new businesses learned the process of making Pla-Som from the founders, such as her family and others.

One Pla-Som manufacturer described her business as “a factory” with workers who are also her neighbors. Nevertheless, this comes with an increasing cost from having to source the fish from elsewhere, in addition to the string of logistics involved.

Salt used in the production of Pla-Som saw changes as well. From the traditional method [the boiled process rock salt of Tha Sa-at, Nakhon Phanom] is now replaced with salt from Baan Dung, Udon Thani, one of the biggest exporters of salt to the Isan market.

Either harvested through boiling or solar evaporation in large ponds, today salt is shipped by trucks and delivered right at the doorstep of manufacturers.

Another significant change is the emergence of online sales channels, partly contributed by the provincial government’s decade-long attempt to promote Pla-Som as an OTOP (One Tambon One Product) product, coupled by the spread of COVID-19 pandemic which has seen a rise in the number of local products going online.

Pla-Som has today become a well-known souvenir for most Thais and also Isan natives residing abroad, because it comes in a variety of forms, be it whole fish, sliced, or grounded. The industry also contributed to the total GDP of Nakhon Phanom province, 662 million baht in 2020-2021, according to the Nakhon Phanom office of fisheries. 

We discovered that the decline of fish in the Songkhram River affected the local manufacturing of Pla-Ra or Pla-Daek in similar fashion as that of Pla-Som, i.e. there is not enough fish to feed the production. Pla-Daek manufacturers are now hard pressed to rely on farmed Tilapias instead, thus inevitably altering the original taste of Pla-Daek.

“Over the past couple of years, people have made less Pla-Ra. We used to make so much that we could sell the left overs to visitors.

“Sometimes we had to sail our boats to other villages and barter our Pla-Ra for rice. Nowadays, we can barely catch any fish, if we do it is just enough to make a couple of jars for our family.

“This year I only made three jars. A regular customer asked to buy some, but I won’t sell. I’m keeping them for myself,” said Sa-ngiamWongkan, a 63-year-old Pak Yam villager, whose family is one of the few left that continue to make Pla-Ra.

While sharing about the aforementioned worsening situation of fish catches, he said the situation reminded him of the time when, Laos PDR’s Xayaburi Dam started generating power in 2019 and the impact it had on marine life.

(Photo : GreenNews / Jamon Sonpednarin)

Signs of Change

“Fish fermentation is an Isan culture which is facing the test of time. It is experiencing drastic change alongside its culture in a vain attempt to integrate into the wider Thai society,” an interesting insight from Assoc.Prof.Sisak Wanliphodom, an 80-year-old archeologist who studied historical evidence like pottery containers for Pla-Ra with the local community.

He recorded people’s way of life on the river, and discovered that natives of the Songkhram Basin had settled there long before the arrival of railways and roads that connected the area with the development policies from government agencies.

Similar to Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar, fish fermentation culture that we recognize as Pla-Som and Pla-Ra are a method to process and preserve fish for out-of-season consumption. While practices on how it is made and sourced may differ from one country to the next, what remains the same is the fact that it serves as a form of food security for communities.

“ Its healthy natural habitat determines just how delicious the fish can turn out to be, while communities can depend on food security offered by the river,” remarked Dr.Chavalit Vidthayanon, an ichthyologist acquainted with wetlands across Thailand. He studied fish biodiversity since 1983 and contributed in designating the Lower Songkhram River Basin as Wetland of International Importance or “Ramsar Site.”

“In the Songkram river, there are fish all year. The peak fishing period is in the rainy season when fishermen can make good earnings, otherwise they only fish for domestic consumption,” Montri Chantawong, a researcher from The Mekong Butterfly, explained.

“Apart from fish in the river, Pa Bung-Pa Tham is like a food pantry or a supermarket for people of the Songkhram river basin. In bamboo shoot season, they eat bamboo shoots. In insect season, they eat insects. In fish season, they eat fish. That’s community economy,” added Ormbun Thipsuna, president of Network of Council of Mekong River Community in Seven Northeastern Provinces.

Moreover, preserved fish is like saving money for the locals. In the past, when there were more than enough Pla-Ra, people would sail along the river to barter with other villages. Today, in the age of money, each house makes Pla-Ra for self-consumption and sells the rest. Each village have their own regular patrons who share the same preference in flavor.

“I used to sell enough Pla-Ra to send my kids to school. Each year, repeat customers from other regions of Thailand would visit. If I were to raise my kids and send them to school in today’s fishing conditions, I would never make it,” Sa-ngiam, a mother who made Pla-Ra from Songkhram river when fish were plenty, told us while watching her neighbor across the road experiment on how to make Pla-Ra with farmed Tilapias, a possible alternative to the disappearing Nam Songkhram fish.

The existence and transformation of Pla-Som and Pla-Ra Sri Songkhram are inseparably linked to food security of households along the Songkhram river basin and domestic economy; thus, making it a likely crucial determinant for the sustainability of the Songkhram river basin management, a major task for the Thai government to carry on after the area is designated as a Ramsar Site. 

(Photo : GreenNews / Jamon Sonpednarin)

Alternative Answer

“There are problems with Thai carps. We have to import them from the central region to manufacture Pla-Som,” stated the Nakhon Phanom office of fisheries, the authority in charge of this issue, while speaking on the progress and solutions they had come up with. An example of which is caged fish farming.

“The prominent feature of the Songkhram river is that it is the only main water source in Isan that has no dam construction. Thus it should be well protected at all costs,” Dr.Chavalit suggested. 

“If there is to be a development project in the Ramsar site area, it should never impact its ecosystem in any manner. If the project is necessary, there must be Environmental Impact Assessment and mitigation measures put in place first,” advised Dr.Raweewan Phuridet, former secretary-general of the Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning department, who was in office when the Lower Songkhram River Basin was in the process of becoming a Ramsar Site.

Another suggestion involved the setting up of a fish conservation area in each community along the river where local fish are released, and a mutual agreement made in the community to not fish so it becomes a nursery.

This can very likely become a potential solution in sustainably protecting and increasing fish variety. Today, a prototype is being developed at Baan Tha-Bo and Sri Songkhram Temple, where a part of the river is designated as a conservation area .

“ As the Songkhram river basin is an open water ecosystem, there might not be an ecological feature for tourism like Bueng Khong Long, Bueng Kan, which has become a birding site, but an interesting aspect of the Songkhram River is that it could become a route for eco-cultural tourism,” remarked Yanyong Sricharoen, manager of Management of Wetlands in the Lower Songkhram River Basin Project, WWF Thailand.

“Eco-cultural tourism definitely has its market. Tourists today desire to experience the ‘glocal’ ways of life. For example, how preserved fish of the Songkhram river can be traditionally prepared or even ways on how it can be developed into fusion food, etc..”

“Craving the original taste has become a novelty for many today. We cook original Pla-Ra dishes like Kaeng Om (Isan style herb soup) and Jaew Bong (chilli paste), and we also cook fusion dishes, for example, by frying Jaew Bong that has a sauce-like consistency with spaghetti noodles which we than call Pla-Ra spaghetti,” said Sutthiphong Suriya , a man from Baan Tha Khilek who left home to explore local cuisine abroad.

On his return, Sutthiphon pioneered tourism in his hometown by establishing “Bueng Kan Living Community Museum,” a new tourist attraction based on the belief that culture is alive, ever-changing, and can help feed families!

Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’s Earth Journalism Network