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 Miami Beach’s Khong River House.
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Pranee, Khong River’s forager [pictured here with chef Bee], sources the restaurant’s produce orders from a half dozen farms in Homestead, Florida. The farms are small but robust, and she has to work pretty hard to fill their orders–which she drives up to Miami Beach a few times a week in her small red sedan.
Lemon Grass & Holy Basil
Pranee holds out lemon grass, which was so fragrant we could smell the plant from several paces away. Holy basil is extremely important in Thai cooking–believed to have healing powers, the tender leaves are far more aromatic and pungent than Italian basil.
Everyone was really excited about the Chinese watercress, almost impossible to find locally-grown in the states. Here the invasive plant is grown in kiddy pools over tarp-protected ground Pranee, Bee, and Miss Tina (a farm owner), gathered enough for our off-menu lunch at Khong River House , while they all offered instruction on how to prepare the green: “You have to cook it really fast,” Bee warned me. “It’s very easy to overcook.”
Galangal & Sweet Sop
Galangal, a rhizome with a flavor similar to ginger, is an essential ingredient in many Thai soups and other dishes. Sweet sop, also called the custard apple for it’s creamy flavor and texture, is known as
noina in Thailand. When she heard I had never tasted one, Pranee climbed through the brush and halfway up a tree to grab one for us to share.
On my visit, dragonfruit season had just ended (the spiky, snake-like trees flower in brilliant color when in season) but Thai guava were being harvested at every farm we went to. At Miss Tina’s small farm they were tied off in recycled plastic bags to protect from bugs and help keep the fruit from bruising once picked, while at the larger farms, like the one pictured here, they were protected with styrofoam netting.
Jackfruit & Papaya
Jackfruit and papaya grew in clusters in the center of one of the smaller farms we visited, providing shade to a small patio. “This looks just like Thailand,” Bee pointed out. Papaya is often prepared as a savory salad with lime and chile, and jackfruit is commonly used in desserts.
At the last farm we visited, bird’s eye chiles were drying in the sun everywhere, laid out in aluminum trays, tarps, and brightly-colored plastic kiddie pools. The fruity, extremely spicy pepper is used in everything from salads to soups and curries.
We started and ended our visit to Homestead at the
Temple Wat Buddharangsi of Miami. The monks in residence rely on patrons for their daily meal, and we made an offering of herbs, peppers, and fruit before we left.