By Cory Baldwin / Images by Rolando Diaz
In South Florida, local produce takes on a whole new meaning: With the same micro-climate as Thailand, the area is home to a thriving Thai farming community, which supply fruits, vegetables, and herbs to immigrant enclaves and Thai groceries. Intrigued by the idea of a slice of rural Thailand hiding out within an hour's drive of Miami, I visited a farming community in Homestead, Florida, with chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn—a.k.a. chef Bee—of North Miami Beach’s Oishi Thai and soon to open NaiYaRa. When I visited, I was struck by how fresh and bright the dishes tasted—farm-to-table flavors with a cuisine not normally known, in America, for its use of regional ingredients.
In Homestead, a farm town a short drive from the North Miami Beach neighborhood where Chef Bee runs his kitchen, the Buddhist temple Wat Buddharangsi acts as the cultural epicenter of the Thai immigrant community, hosting cultural festivals and holidays. A frequent visitor to the temple, Bee had cultivated the right connections to call on the Thai farmers to supply his restaurant, recreating the foods of his childhood with produce that was both authentic and local. Intrigued by the idea of a slice of rural Thailand hiding out within an hour's drive of Miami, I asked for a tour—and so I found myself with Miami Photographer, Rolando Diaz, sitting in the passenger seat of Bee's new car with speeding off towards the horizon to meet up with the restaurant's forager, Pranee, at Wat Buddharangsi.
As soon as we arrived, I felt like I was on a different continent. I was struck with a feeling of luck and gratitude: that Bee was introducing me to this strange glimpse of Thailand; that Florida's humid, sunny climate can support this kind of trans-cultural farming; that I got to stand there surrounded by curry leaves, jackfruit, lemon grass, holy basil, and knowledgeable, welcoming farmers encouraging me to smell this, and taste that. We walked by a humble two-room house with peeling blue paint, the air fragrant with lemon grass, and a short walk brought us to field overlaid with a tarp. My tour guides began rapidly speaking in Thai—everyone was excited by a plot of Chinese watercress growing out of plastic kiddie pools. The invasive species has to be closely controlled, and can be difficult to find in the states. "You have to cook them very quickly," Pranee instructed. "Never more than two minutes.”
We visited three farms in Homestead, with Pranee and Bee gathering up herbs, peppers, greens, and mangos for us to eat for lunch, in addition to the bags of watercress we carried with us. Each farm is small but robust, and to keep up with Bee's ingredient needs, Pranee needs to source from a half-dozen different places: She finds fruits from one farm, vegetables from another, and so on. A smiling middle-aged woman who doesn't speak much English, she was a dervish of energy, plucking and bruising herbs for me to smell, and half-climbing trees to make sure she grabbed the best, ripest sweet sop for us to taste. Rows of Thai chiles were laid out to dry everywhere—on tarps, in kiddie pools, in aluminum trays. Mango and lychees hung heavy on the boughs, and though dragonfruit season had just passed, the snake-like vines climbing down the trees still made an impressive backdrop for our morning.
Before leaving Homestead, we returned to the temple, slipping off our shoes to sit by the altar. We made an offering of fruits and herbs to the temple, where the two resident monks eat just one meal a day, and rely on donations for all their food. On the drive back, hungry and a little sun-fried, we chat about how Bee uses his local bounty. "Some people equate authentic Asian food with spicy," he says. "But the flavors are more nuanced than that—they're bitter, sour, salty, and sweet." Back at restaurant, we laid into our haul: quick-sautéed Chinese watercress greens with garlic and chile, a papaya salad made with just-picked fruit, herbaceously aromatic gin cocktails. The flavors are vibrant, colorful, and alive—it almost felt like I was eating and drinking in Thailand. And in a very South Florida way, I was.