BUDU OF NAM BO
Budu is not just food but a way of life. If “pla ra” (fermented fish in the Northeastern Thailand) is the identity of the Isaan people and “nam pu” (fermented fish in the Northern Thailand) belongs to the northern people, then “budu” is the culinary identity of the seaside communities in the southern border provinces of Thailand. Budu is a way to preserve small fish by marinating them in salt. Sai Buri or Muang Sai is the most famous production site of budu. Budu from Saiburi is known as “Hile Budu” which means budu that can be kept for a long time even after the scent is gone.
Budu of Saiburi is similar to kue-po of Dato in that it can be classified into 2 types according to the size of the business, namely budu kampong and factory budu. This research focuses on the first type of business. If kue-po is Dato, then the authentic budu (kampong) is “Nam Bo.” Although Nam Bo Sub-district is located in Panare District, it seamlessly connects to the area of Saiburi District and it could be said that the production of Nam Bo budu occurs in the same cultural landscape as Saiburi.
In the context of modern development, the production of budu in Saiburi has become almost entirely industrialized. The only few producers who make budu with a traditional method can be found concentrated in the Nam Bo community, Panare District. The original fermentation method will help preserve budu without the use of preservatives. Participants said that the key difference was that “the factory budu doesn’t taste like the original budu.” And when the researcher asked them to describe the taste of a delicious budu, one participant replied, “things like this, only consumers will know.” Her answer means that in communities where budu consumption has been practiced for generations, community members will have their own ideal budu taste, developed since a young age through family socialization. This group of people will know what flavor to look for and which flavor is “good.”
Consumers in the southern border provinces have been familiar with the traditional budu flavor since childhood. This opens up an opportunity for an original budu brand called “Budu Nam Bo Kanah Beya” which takes pride in its original recipe and its location in Nam Bo Sub-district, which is well recognized as the birthplace of budu. “Budu Nam Bo Kanah Beya” sells well in various communities and uses around 100 fermentation pits to produce budu per year.
Budu production and people
The production of Nam Bo budu remains traditional according to the ancient recipe. Two main ingredients are fish and salt. A slightly different aspect between the production of today and in the past is the fish. In the past the fish used to make budu included fish freshly caught from the sea and also seafood leftover from household consumption. Over time, the purpose of budu production is no longer to preserve the food, but it has become a kitchen table staple. Nowadays, people produce budu for budu’s sake. One of the participants specifically mentioned the meticulousness of the production process to achieve the special taste of budu. After the local discovered that budu made from small fish tasted better, they are now more careful in selecting fish to make budu, not just fish of any sizes or leftover seafood like in the past. During this transition, it was assumed that the villagers began switching to anchovies and prioritized freshness. They would catch fresh fish from their front yard sea and ferment them straight away in jars and using coconut shells as covers.
At present, budu is part of the Malay food culture in Thailand’s southern border provinces extending to northern Malaysia. The budu production, including budu kampong, has shifted from household production to a commercial one, resulting in twists in the production. The main ingredients remain anchovies and salt as in the past, but the fermentation container is changed from jars to fermentation pits in order to make a larger batch at a time. The fermentation in jars still exists but mainly for household consumption. In addition, anchovies are now sourced from different places. Villagers found that they harvested fewer and fewer anchovies from their front yard sea and had to sail farther beyond the capabilities of their small traditional fishing boats. At the same time, the number of small fishing boat operators in the community is declining as a result of the shift in careers in which younger generations have gradually abandoned traditional fishing. These are the conditions that force the villagers to use larger ships to obtain the main raw materials for the budu production. “We have to go farther. In the shallow sea near the shore, the fish is gone,” said one participant. Hence, the anchovies they use today are from large ships of their “big fisherman allies,” in other words, the wealthy people in the community.
This change is a challenge faced by traditional fishing communities in both the Gulf of Pattani and the Gulf of Thailand that depend on the same ecosystem, as well as communities along the sea in Nakhon Si Thammarat Province. The challenge is the depletion of marine aquatic resource which is a result of the massive expansion of commercial fisheries in recent decades and the industrialization of seaside cities. In addition, we can often see news articles about the releases of industrial waste and pollution into the Na Thap Canal which has many branches that drain into the Gulf of Thailand at the mouth of Bang Na Thap, Chana District, Songkhla Province, turning the water black. In addition to the industrial factories, shrimp farming emerged along the canal network. These shrimp farms pump water from the canals into the shrimp ponds and release the waste from the ponds back into the canals. This surely affects the water quality and the estuary brackish water ecosystem, but the extent of the damage is still unknown. The phenomenon in this area and beyond requires scientific and transparent study to understand the effect of changes in land use to accommodate commercial and industrial development. The study result will help lay down a resource protection scheme to ensure food security for many dependent households.
If cultural changes result in the villagers selectively using anchovies to make budu and if a shift from household production to commercial production results in the villagers modifying fermentation equipment, then environmental changes result in a new type of salt used in budu. Originally, the Nam Bo community used salt from the Pattani Bay to ferment fish, but decades ago there was a big storm at Laem Pho, especially in the Dato Village, which had a permanent effect on the taste of the salt. Many community producers, since then, decided to buy salt from salt trucks. The participants said “We don’t know where those salt trucks come from.”
The decision to use imported salt and the new sources of anchovies reflect the change in resources and the environment, together with the shift in the economic relationship and the purpose of the production because villagers want to produce larger quantities of budu. For these reasons, the dynamic of the budu production from past to present is a result of a contextual change affecting the entire system of the community in terms of culture (food), economy (budu’s market) and natural resources (environment).
One participant, a budu kampong producer, said that her budu production cost about 10,000 THB per fermentation pit. She would order 10 large containers of anchovies from a wealthy boat operator (tao-kae), each container weighing 50 kilograms. Then, she would marinate them with 5 sacks of salt (that came from an unknown place) and hired local people to do a “manual job” of mixing the fish and salt for a wage of around 200 THB per pit. The number of workers hired depends on the quantity of fish obtained. Mixing fish with salt is a supplementary income source for people in the community, but it is not regular and the wage is not stable.
The duration of fermentation depends on each operator. The “factory budu” usually takes around 6 months, but the “budu kampong” takes an average of 10 months. One participant who was a budu kampong producer, while explaining this difference between the two budus, and even without directly saying it out loud, made it clear through her eyes and expression that this is what made budu kampong taste better and more “authentic” than the factory budu.
After the fermentation is done, the next step is to sell it. Nam Bo budu and budu kampong are not yet approved by the FDA and do not have a brand (except for only some operators). Budu is sold in retail and wholesale manner, packed in clear plastic bags, just like chili paste, krill paste, fermented fish, pimp paste, red eye chili paste, and many other food items in fresh markets. If not put in a bag, it is packaged in a bottle or a metal container. “Some sellers buy budu from producers and simply put their brand stickers on it.” One participant added that she wasn’t angry or thought that this kind of behavior was unusual. The price of factory budu varies depending on the grade of budu. A high-grade budu has an average price of 200 THB per jar. Consumers do not care who the manufacturer is. “Knowing that the budu comes from Nam Bo is enough.” Nam Bo budu is very famous. In the past, manufacturers would travel by boat to sell budu in the city of Pattani, but after World War II, roads were cut through to the community according to the infrastructure development guidelines in the First National Economic Development Plan (1961-1963 and 1964-1966), the Second National Economic and Social Development Plan (1967-1971), and the Third plan (1972-1976). Since then, the operators have switched from water transportation to land transportation, which greatly reduces costs.
Since the image of a product is more tied to the location than the producer, it is understandable why some entrepreneurs who already have secured a local market do not attach much importance to stamping the brand onto their products: the Nam Bo Village is already an excellent local brand. However, this does not mean that the budu kampong from the Nam Bo Village is always superior to the budu kampong from elsewhere because the taste is subjective and is the result of socialization starting from the very basic unit like family. One of my students from Pattani but having been studying and working in Bangkok for 10 years, said that “I rarely return to my hometown these days, but I always ask my family to send budu. For me, the only taste that is pleasing and reminds me of the time when we had a meal together at home is the taste of Bue Jo budu.” This statement not only confirms that taste is subjective, but also reflects that food is a thread that connects the “exodus” preventing them from drifting away even though they are far from home.
Diagram 6: Shows the relationship between people in the Production within the Budu Nam Bo supply chain, Ban Na Bo Subdistrict, Panare District, Pattani Province
Diagram 7: Shows the relationship between people in the procedure for distribution within the Budu Nam Bo supply chain, Ban Na Bo Subdistrict, Panare District, Pattani Province.
The origin of budu: the Malay influence in the Nusantara world (the Malay Peninsula)
There is no definitive evidence of the origin of the name “budu.” However, among many pieces of information collected by Pumari Attaratsatian, the assumption that “budu” is an Indonesian word meaning “fermented fish” appears to be the most credible in my opinion. “…When the Indonesian city of Yawo was fallen long time ago, the Yawo people fled the city by boat and caught small fish along the way and fermented them in jars as a food supply throughout the journey until they came ashore at Paseyawo Subdistrict in Saiburi District. With them, a fish fermentation method arrived at the Saiburi community…”
The above assumption has become more convincing when I verified with a local, Mr. Aa-nat Pongprasert of the Looker Group, and found that “Yawo” is a Malay word referring to “Java” and “Pase” is a Malay word for “sand.” The meaning of the name, combined with what the local people say, confirms this assumption that people from Java came to settle in “Paseyawo,” but the reasons for the migration differ slightly. These people might not be fleeing the war as mentioned earlier, but “…it was a long time business between the Javanese and the local in this area. The Javanese also had sand on their boats to keep them heavy and prevent them from swaying by string wind and waves upon arriving near the shore. When going ashore, they unloaded the sand so it formed a ridge. The topography of a curved river here is also suitable and convenient for mooring boats. Slowly, this place become a refuge for fishermen and merchant ships and the sand brought by the Javanese boats was called “Javanese sand” or “Paseyawo”. Older people in the community said that there lived a “Kubor Toyawo” (a Yawo elder) who was a living proof of this immigration. It is said that he was the first one who came to settle down as the Paseyawo community. Where or whether this old man is living is still a matter of investigation.
“Muang Sai” and “Paseyawo” seem to have had a close tie with the Javanese people of Indonesia since the ancient time because of the maritime routes that connect them economically. Politically, the fact that the Javanese were able to seek refuge in Saiburi showed that this area was a “safe space” for them. In terms of society and culture, we are able to learn a lot through budu and many more cultural elements. For example, there was an ancient sea worshipping ritual called “Boon Alao” in Saiburi which consisted of slaughtering cattle and pouring their blood into the sea as offering, or a ritual before sailing that was similar to that in the Javanese culture of that era. These rituals came to an end when Islamic beliefs entered the Malay Peninsula.
Budu-ization: Budu’s dynamic from past to present
The method of making Budu has been passed down from generation to generation. Each recipe has different details, just like the recipes of Da To’s kue-po. “Each recipe is each family’s secret. It is an etiquette not to be curious about it; otherwise conflicts may arise,” said one participant. Budu recipes are preserved through household practices and seasoned according to the taste of each generation. This is both a uniqueness and a challenge of budu kampong since younger family members are less interested in learning how to make budu, leading to a concern that the culture of budu making might soon disappear.
After discussing with many participants, we could draw one conclusion that the expansion of budu consumption and the growing market in the southern border areas is a result of the urbanization in Pattani and the southern border provinces, including Hat Yai District in Songkhla Province. The budu culture was originally limited to fishing communities, but when people from those neighborhoods left their home for jobs in cities, they took the budu culture with them. At the same time, the development of infrastructure has brought closer areas that once seemed to be far apart, facilitating interactions between communities. With the changing social context, the budu culture and the demand for budu increased. “In the past, if someone made 20 pits of budu, people in the village got excited, but now we do 100 pits like it’s nothing,” jokingly said the owner of “Kanah Beya, the authentic budu.”
On the other hand, the popularization of budu has transformed this culture into a “public property,” not limited to the seaside communities as in the past. And as with almost every cultural element and value in the world – Islam, human rights, democracy and Budu – they do not simply occupy a space in people’s minds because in there some values have already existed, which means that new cultural concepts have to be adapted to the people’s existing worldview. Therefore, it is not uncommon for us to witness many interpretations of Islam, many versions of democracy, and many definitions of human rights. All of these confirm the essence of human nature: our differences, and this is why we need to learn to understand one another. Likewise, as budu becomes known to a wider public, it is subjected to adaptation to the tastes of different people. This phenomenon led one of the participants to say, “The very essence of budu, the salinity, is changing.”
Eventually, the budu-ization has split budu into several versions. We can begin with a simple classification of “salty budu” and “sweet budu.” The salty budu is the original version. The sweet budu is simmered in palm sugar to use as a sauce for khao yum (Southern food with fish meat, kaffir lime leaves, galangals, lemongrasses, red onions, roasted coconut and chili powder mixed together), as known as “khao yum budu” or “krill water for khao yum.” Some factories even make ready-to-eat khao yum budu.
However, the salty budu does not have a single version but at least “3+1” versions. The first three versions are common budu, which are “the clear budu, the opaque budu, and the thick budu.” The clear budu is the top layer water and has a clear yellow color like fish sauce. When scooping, one must be careful not to stir the fish meat that settles on the bottom of the pit; otherwise, the water will lose its clarity. The clear budu is also called “the cream of budu” and the most expensive, about 120 THB per kilogram, and is loved by most consumers. One liter of concentrated clear budu can be diluted to make 20 liters of fish sauce. Next is the opaque budu. While having a nice yellow shade like the clear budu, this version has a bit of fish meat in it, thus making the water a little opaque. The thick budu is gray and has more fish meat than the first two versions. People like to have it with hot steamed rice and boiled vegetables.
The “+1 version” is “budu taelae” which is the remaining fish meat at the bottom of the fermentation pit. Entrepreneurs from Kelantan-Terengganu like to reuse these remains to make a new batch of budu by mixing it with water, flavoring and coloring.
As mentioned at the beginning, besides budu kampong, we have the budu factory or industrial budu whose taste is quite different from the original one, but it can reach a wider market thanks to certified production methods and packaging that helps preserve the budu for a longer period. The factory budu, therefore, focuses on foreign markets, such as Malaysia or “displaced Malays” who work in Bangkok, including the Malay who carry the factory budu with them on the way to the Hajj ceremony in Saudi Arabia.
Budu kampong focuses on the community markets in the southern part of Thailand and the northern border provinces of Malaysia, and is usually marketed as “organic budu.” The new generations are trying to modernize budu with two interesting approaches. The first approach is “budu fusion.” By fusing budu with contemporary cuisine, they are trying to introduce budu kampong to a wider public and enhance the taste of budu to be comparable to other premium dishes, such as by adapting budu into steak stock or salad dressing. These adaptations were showcased at “Chum Food Festival 2020” in Saiburi where visitors could sample different culinary cultures of ASEAN countries and Thailand.
The second approach is to upgrade budu kampong with industrial standards in order to reach a wider market. A group of young people behind this approach is the “Saiburi Budu Cluster” or the “Paseyawo Budu Farmers Group” formed in 2008 and consisting of 82 budu entrepreneurs from four community enterprises in four districts namely Saiburi, Panare, Mai Kaen, and Yaring. According to the group, the production of local budu is still lacking direction and cohesion. Now that the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SBPAC) has a policy to strengthen the local economic system, the Saiburi Budu Cluster, led by Mr. Sama-e Patan, has begun building connections and links. The vertical link consists of upstream producers to downstream such as fishermen, salt farmers, packaging manufacturers, etc., and the horizontal link spans to relevant industries, service businesses, trade associations, educational and training institutions, research and development institutions, as well as the government sector.
This enterprise network aims to upgrade budu in terms of product, packaging, career management, production system, quality control, and market, based on the principles of cooperative and cluster management to “put budu on every kitchen table across all regions of the country.” With this strategy, the Saiburi Budu Cluster has developed many budu recipes, such as budu stir-fry sauce, three-flavor budu sauce, sweet budu dipping sauce, budu black pepper sauce, and ready-to-eat budu for consumers with a modern urban lifesyle who like convenience and speed. Simply tear the sachet and eat with hot steamed rice.
The journey of budu is changing according to the social context of each era. Budu seems to have penetrated into the lives of more people, not limited to the people of the Malay culture. Entrepreneurs, as well as the younger generations, are trying to enhance their proud identity of Budu with different ideas and strategies. Still, when one thinks of the root and wants to experience the original flavor of budu, they only have to go to Nam Bo, and ask for budu kampong.
Focus group discussion
Entrepreneurs of budu kampong in Nam Bo. Ban Nam Bo Subdistrict, Panare District, Pattani, February 22, 2021.
Aa-nat Pongprasert, phone call interview. June 18, 2021.
Rattana D. “หรอยย…อย่างแรงส์ ด้วย บูดู” (Super tasty with budu), Krungthepturakij. Accessed on June 1, 2021 on https://www.bangkokbiznews.com/news/detail/718586.
Attaratsatian P. “Hile budu: Delicious budu of Saiburi,” Rusamile Journal 33(1), January-April 2011, 70-74.
“7-decade-old Kampong Atas Wooden Mosque in Saiburi, Pattani,” Muslim Thai Post. Accessed on June 18, 2021 on http://islamhouse.muslimthaipost.com/article/20257.
Kosem M. “Budu,” OK Nation. Accesed on June 1, 2021 on http://oknation.nationtv.tv/blog/print. php?id=488917.
This story is the third of mini series on “Food Dialogue for Social Cohesion” written by Mr. Arthit Thongin as a part of the independent research under the Southern Thailand Social Innovation Platform initiated by UNDP.
Disclaimer: The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed herein are entirely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of UNDP. UNDP cannot guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this work. The boundaries, colours, denominations and other information shown on any map in this work do not imply on the part of UNDP any judgement of the legal status of any territory or the endorsement or acceptance of such boundaries.