As a host for food programmes, Pornsak says his taste buds have been trained to be adventurous.
Intrepid host and globe trekker Pornsak Prajakwit has a treasure trove of food stories waiting to be discovered. The poster boy for one of Channel U’s top-rated variety programmes, Food Source, which spans four seasons and counting, is currently on the move, again, collecting more stories through his encounters with the ordinary man on the street for an upcoming and brand new programme that explores the origin stories of bentos (home-packed meals) in different countries around the world -- Food On-The-Go.
Food plays an essential role in his life – both literally and figuratively.
Pornsak’s first brush with fame came right after his hosting stint on Food Source in 2010 and in the very same year he went into F&B and opened his first Porn’s sexy.thai.food eatery with a friend which has since been expanded into a mini Thai food kingdom.
While the programme brought him tangible success, the real magic of Food Source, according to Pornsak, is going to places he’d otherwise never gain access to as an ordinary tourist, the invaluable experiences and educational food lessons.
“I never knew that lady’s fingers grew upside down or that the flowers from dragon fruits only bloom past midnight – and it only lasts for a short moment before the break of dawn. We went to the farm at 3 am and the flowers only started to bloom at close to 4 am,” shared Pornsak during a phone interview with Toggle.
According to Pornsak, filming one season of Food Source takes up to one year so as to cover all the ingredients available in spring, summer, autumn and winter. From L-R: working at the burdock farm, fishing for fresh seafood and learning about dried squid.
Meeting farmers from all walks of life have taught him to appreciate what’s on his plate, he said.
An encounter which left a deep impression on the Thai-Chinese artiste was when he interviewed a burdock famer in Tainan, Taiwan, who spends almost 20 hours a day working in the fields and who – till this day – still prefers cultivating the root vegetable by hand instead of using machinery as it “destroys the look of his babies”.
Said Pornsak, “When I spoke to his wife I learned that you get nothing but soil and rotten stuff during the first three to four years of growing this vegetable. So why does he continue doing it? His wife started to cry as she told me of her husband’s dreams… while burdock isn’t expensive stuff like bird’s nest, he spends all day thinking of ways to successfully grow burdock and it is this pursuit of perfection that keeps him going.”
The same tenacity and drive are mirrored in Pornsak when it comes to jugging work and family commitments. Not one who rests on his laurels, he’s always on-the-move, shuttling between countries for TV projects while tending to his 92-year-old dad who resides in Thailand and F&B business. Even when he’s on holiday, he’s constantly on the lookout for interesting concepts and thinking up new recipes to experiment with at Porn’s.
Pornsak tells us long breaks are few and far between which is why he takes every opportunity he gets to visit his dad on day trips – “taking the first flight out of Singapore at 7.40 am and a night flight back from Bangkok at 7.30 pm.”
Pornsak and his dad at their favourite food haunts, clockwise from top left: At his dad’s favourite meatball noodle store in Bangkok, having a Teochew porridge meal (his dad’s favourite) together, beating the heat with ice cream and café hopping in Bangkok.
With less than 24 hours to spare in the city, the adorable father-son duo (they recently teamed up to perform at the Lions Charity Show) spend what little precious time they have together by visiting his dad’s favourite food haunts, café hopping or hanging out with his dad’s Teochew opera gang.
While he calls his dad a “typical Teochew man” and a patriarchal figure who has never done any household chores or entered the kitchen to do the dishes, Pornsak spoke fondly of the first lunchbox his dad made for him, when he was 5 years old, after his mum passed away.
“It tastes horrible lah. It was chao ta char kway teow with eggs and some unrecognisable vegetables. It was weird but it was something that he did which surprised me a lot.
“It’s a very memorable, not tasty, yucky but sweet bento,” he laughed.
The food aficionado shares with us his Tom Yum Goong recipe, insights from his travels, and talks about how different societies cope with food wastage. Find out more on the next page!
Food On-The-Go debuts April 7, 9pm on Channel U.
Watch past episodes of Food Source Season 1, Season 2 and Season 3 on Toggle.
More Huat’s On My Plate stories:
Cooking up good vibes with Rozz
Kym Ng’s journey to domestic goddess-hood
Waste not, want not with Kate Pang
Going Thai with Pornsak (L-R): Coconut ice cream and look choop, which is Pornsak’s favourite and a “super affordable” Thai dessert.
Toggle: You picked up cooking at the age of 6, what’s a Thai dish that our readers can whip up at home without having to purchase too many ingredients?
Pornsak: That would be Tom Yum Goong. But it’s not easy to make because you have to spend time cooking this dish. Its ingredients are easy – lemongrass, lime leaves, Thai “bird’s droppings” chilli, which is very small but very good for Tom Yum because it’s not just spicy, it has a certain sweetness to it. That’s the right type of chilli to choose and use, not the normal ones found from the zichar stall.
The thing is what a lot of people fail to do is you need time to slowly brew the lemongrass stock. You don’t just throw everything in and add a few prawns and expect it to be done because you cannot get the flavour of the lemongrass. A good Tom Yum Goong can take up to 40 minutes.
Ed’s note: Pornsak’s Tom Yum Goong ingredients list can be found on the next page!
How has learning about the origins of ingredients changed your perception towards foods?
When I went to a rice farm in Thailand, a farmer asked me: ‘How do you eat rice?’ I told him I usually just eat it with vegetables, meat, or fried rice or congee. Then he asked again: ‘No, how do you eat rice? What do you do when rice enters your mouth?’
He told me he starts off every meal with a spoonful of rice in his mouth and slowly chews it to enjoy the flavours – taste the starch, feel the goodness and taste the sugar. And when you are chewing, take a deep breath and you can smell the fragrance and aroma. I’ve never tasted rice or saw rice in this light before. I’d like to say to him, thank you teaching me how to eat rice.
20 steamboat meals in 10 days for market research: Pornsak says his Left Profile boss Michelle Chong (pictured above in the top left and right) is the best steamboat buddy because she knows all things steamboat – from the four-tier steamboat to beauty hotpots.
What do you think is one ingredient that is cost-saving and at the same time allows a person to cook different dishes?
I think I’d place my bet on eggs – you can have boiled eggs, steamed eggs, scrambled eggs and you can even do dan hua tang (egg drop soup) or eggs benedict. You see in Porn’s, we have eggs in Pad Thai, eggs in fried rice and we even do Thai omelette like tahu telur style and put the omelette in hot boiling oil.
As someone who travels widely, especially for food programmes, what is the most exotic dish you’ve ever eaten?
The sperm of the puffer fish! It’s poisonous and has killed only five people in the past three years (laughs). It’s very creamy and tastes like a mouthful of egg white – saturated half-boiled egg whites. I’ve also tried puffer fish sashimi but I don’t think it’s something to die for. Look choop or luk chup (a traditional Thai dessert) is something to die for (laughs).
Experiencing the life of dabbawalas in Mumbai, India, and learning about the country’s food culture for a brand new variety show called Food On-The-Go.
You’re currently filming about lunchboxes around the world (Food On-The-Go). What is the deepest impression you’ve had so far while working on this show?
In India, there’s this profession called the dabbawalas (dabba means lunch box and walas are the people who deliver them), they are delivery boys specifically for lunch boxes. There’s this programme whereby if, for example, your mum cooks a bento, has it delivered to the office and you cannot finish all the food prepared, you can tell the dabbawalas to give the remaining food to children on the streets or homeless old folks or people who are in need when the collect the tingkats (tiffin carrier). It’s a very good programme to cut food wastage in their country.
You recently went round trying over 20 different kinds of steamboat in Singapore – are you planning to expand Porn’s and set up a steamboat joint too?
Yes, we’re trying to do steamboat but I’ve become more particular about ingredients ever since I did Food Source and I need to get both the right kind of ingredients and the right pot for Thai steamboat. Even if you do Thai Mu Kratha (or Mookata), you need a very good kratha (the golden wok). I’ve already got the recipes to marinate the meats, I just need to find a good wok now.
Helping out at Porn’s eateries -- he currently has three sexy.thai.food and two Thai boat nodee joints in Singapore.
One way to reduce food waste is to redistribute edible but soon-to-expire food or ingredients, how is Porn’s taking steps to reduce food waste?
For the first few months after we established Porn’s, I have to admit that we were not sure how much meat and seafood we needed to prepare. We had a lot of excess food for our staff to take home. But gradually we began to know how much food we needed to prepare for the dining crowd and it varies from Monday to Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and we’d need more for the weekends. Now, there’s not so much food wasted because we are able to better gauge the quantity of food required.
What do you think about F&B establishments practising food recycling and food donation?
I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t donate food. In Thailand, it’s a very common practice – food that you cannot sell out at the end of the day, they pack it and send it to an old folk’s home, an orphanage or street dwellers. I think in Singapore there’s more to consider… That is why we are taught to cherish food when we are young. There’s this folklore in Thailand which my mum, who is Thai, shared with me when I was young: A rice fairy Mae Khwan Khao (Mother of Rice) would come and scare you in the night if you don’t finish your rice to the last grain.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Don’t throw away food that is still good -- unexpired, unopened and non-perishable food items that are still in good condition, including excess Chinese New Year goodies, can be donated to orgnisations such as Food Bank Singapore and Food From The Heart which run food distribution programmes that benefit needy families and charities in Singapore. Drop it off at the “bank boxes” located around the island or at their respective warehouses. Click here for more information.
Pornsak’s recipe for Tom Yum Goong
Estimated cooking time: 40 minutes
Step 1: Add the following (bring to boil)
2 litres of water
8 stalks of lemongrass
1 inch chunk of galangal
8 kaffir lime leaves
6 Thai "bird's droppings" chillis
Step 2: Add the following
300g button mushrooms
Step 3: Add the following
8 tablespoons of Thai fish sauce
10 tablespoons of Thai lime juice