Travel + Leisure (USA)

Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

In northern Thailand, Chris Schalkx meets and photograph­s the chocolate makers who are leading the country’s craft-cacao movement.

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AFTER ALMOST a decade of eating my way around Thailand, where I moved from the Netherland­s in 2013, my tongue is no stranger to the briny bitterness of the curries of the north or the tamarind tang of southern gaeng som, the sour fish soup. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I had my first bite of something I’d not yet tasted in the Thai terroir: chocolate.

On a steamy morning last November, I flew from Bangkok to

Mae Taeng, a district in the mountains between Chiang Mai and the border with Myanmar, to trace the source of an ingredient that has become a kitchen staple for Bangkok’s top pastry chefs: Kad Kokoa’s single-origin chocolate. Guiding me were Bangkok-born Paniti and Nuttaya Junhasavas­dikul, Kad Kokoa’s founders, who are proudly spearheadi­ng the country’s burgeoning bean-to-bar movement.

The three of us scrambled along the muddy half-mile trail to one of the company’s cacao farms (Kad Kokoa operates four farmer co-ops). As we went, Paniti recounted how, in 2017, he and Nuttaya left their successful law careers to carve out a sweeter path in the world of chocolate. It was a bold move, as Thai cacao was underappre­ciated at the time.

“Most Thais found our craft chocolate weird,” Nuttaya said. “They were used to the sweet and bitter flavors of the commercial stuff, and ours was too fruity. When we shared our plans to make it, friends told us we were crazy.” But they persevered.

Now their chocolate is sold in Japan, Thailand, and the U.S. and has won awards in competitio­ns such as the Asia Pacific Internatio­nal Chocolate Awards and London’s Golden Bean.

At the Mae Taeng farm—a tangle of some 800 cacao trees on a hilltop surrounded by coffee groves and birdsong—Paniti cracked open a banana-yellow cacao pod. Inside were rows of seeds covered in a fleshy pulp. After each harvest, the seeds are dried and fermented under banana leaves, then shipped to Kad Kokoa’s chocolate lab in Bangkok’s Sathorn district.

A few weeks later, I visited the lab, which hosts workshops and tastings and will soon be joined by a cacaocentr­ic bistro in the Sukhumvit area. I watched the seeds being roasted, graded, and crushed into nibs, then mixed with organic sugar—and nothing else. This mixture is then machine-ground for 48 hours until it becomes a velvety paste. Next, the chocolate is tempered, poured into molds, and cooled. Kad Kokoa uses most of the chocolate in its signature

Kad Kokoa’s founders are proudly spearheadi­ng Thailand’s bean-to-bar movement.

single-origin bars, though some ends up being combined with experiment­al ingredient­s such as Chantaburi black pepper or salted tamarind.

“Just like in Burgundy, where one Pinot Noir can taste different from the one grown across the road, cacao varies in flavor depending on the soil and weather conditions it’s grown in,” Paniti explained as he handed me a piece of the 70 percent chocolate from Prachuap Khiri Khan, a province wedged between Myanmar and the Gulf of Thailand. Swirling each bite around my mouth like a sip of wine, I got a tart hit reminiscen­t of unripe banana, mellowed by undertones of coconut. The chocolate from the red-soiled farm in Chumphon, a province farther south, tasted richer, with a subtle hint of plum, while the bar from the high-altitude farm we had visited near Chiang Mai was floral and almost honey-like.

After the tasting, Paniti told me that Kad Kokoa’s mission reaches beyond simply making delicious products. Cacao was a cash crop in the 1970s, but after the Western corporatio­ns—who were buying the beans—started moving to cheaper locales, many farmers let their trees wither. With Kad Kokoa, the couple hopes to revive the industry by buying from the small-scale farmers still growing cacao on their land. They buy beans at a fair price and bring in specialist­s to educate the farmers about growing and fermentati­on methods. “Even though we’re still small,” Paniti said, “we’re building an ecosystem where everyone benefits.” kadkokoa.co; farm tours available by appointmen­t.

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 ?? ?? From far left: A rice field in Mae Taeng, where Kad Kokoa operates one of its four cacao farms; cracking open a ripe cacao pod; a chocolate pastry at Kad Kokoa café, in Bangkok.
From far left: A rice field in Mae Taeng, where Kad Kokoa operates one of its four cacao farms; cracking open a ripe cacao pod; a chocolate pastry at Kad Kokoa café, in Bangkok.
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 ?? ?? From left: A tasting at Kad Kokoa café; company founders Nuttaya and Paniti Junhasavas­dikul.
From left: A tasting at Kad Kokoa café; company founders Nuttaya and Paniti Junhasavas­dikul.

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