KUE-PO (FISH CRACKERS) OF DATO VILLAGE
Dato is a village in Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province and has a long history as well as an interesting geography. There is a sandy ridge that extends out into the sea, dividing the Gulf of Pattani into “the outer sea” and “the inner sea.”
“The current inhabitants here came from the opposite side (Sabarang),” one participant discussed the beginning of the settlement in Dato. Initially, the area was used by people as a temporary shelter when they sailed in the outer sea and the in inner sea. Over time, the makeshift shelter became permanent. Since the time of the traditional state, the history of this community traces back to hundreds of years. One of the archaeological evidence is the To Pa Yae Tomb in the village. In terms of local cuisine, the Dato village boasts many unique seafood recipes. Although “tupasutong” (squid stuffed with sweet glutinous rice) is well known today, very few people have ever tasted “tupa-ikae” (fish stuffed with sweet glutinous rice) that is cooked only during important festivals in Dato.
Dato, an antirely Muslim community, has around 200 households. Originally, it was a fishing village, but nowadays, around 100 households have switched from fishing to making kue-po or fish crackers as their main occupation while the rest remain fishermen. Their livelihoods and careers show that the economic life of this village is highly dependent on the abundance of marine resources.
Gulf of Pattani: Source of seafood supply chain and the arrival of “Ai-ngo”
Harvesting spotted babylons in the outer sea is an interesting economic activity of the village. Villagers will catch the babylons and sell them to middlemen who are Malays in the village for 250-300 THB per kilogram before the middleman will sell them at around 350 THB per kilogram. The demand for the babylons is quite high and the market is still large covering the southern border provinces of Thailand, Hat Yai, and Bangkok.
Fishermen in Dato only fish in the inner sea. They do not venture far offshore due to the small size of their boats and traditional fishing techniques. Yet, the fish and shrimp they catch are abundant and diverse enough to ensure food security for the people in the community. The fish, particularly in the inner sea, exist in great variety, for example long-tail tuna, greenback mackerel, horse mackerel, short-bodied mackerel, big eye fish, pomfret, mullet, red mackerel, Spanish mackerels, and sea catfish.
As for the threadfin fish, “we see them only occasionally. There are few around here,” said one of the participants, reaffirming the theory of “Jae Mo” of Bang Tawa that each fish species has its own habitat, and that the threadfin fish are abundant in the Bang Tawa neighborhood, not in the Gulf of Pattani.
The abundance of fish species is a key resource of food production in many southern border provinces, at Mahachai Market in Samut Sakhon Province in the Central Thailand, as well as in Malaysia. Many fishmongers buy fish from fish piers in Pattani to sell to various food manufacturers/operators in other provinces. At the same time, many Dato households are among those who process fish from their “backyard sea” into new food products, especially fish crackers or kue-po which are exported to Malaysia by tons.
Many fish species in the Pattani Bay have their own seasons that alternate throughout the year. However, although the Pattani Coastal Aquaculture Research and Development Center has been continuously releasing aquatic species into the sea, including fish and shrimp in the outer sea, and crustaceans in the inner sea, commercial fishing practices have altered the way the villagers fish at the expense of the natural resources. For example, in the last 5-6 years, a folding fishing tool called “Ai-Ngo” has been developed which has significantly reduced the number of marine lives. And while this fishing tool is illegal, it is still widely used.
The steadily declining number of aquatic animals has resulted in uncertain daily yields, thefluctuating daily incomes, and longer hours spent at sea. These circumstances have forced the villagers of the Dato community to adjust their livelihood. Although many people still practice fishing for their household consumption, the number of people engaged in fishing has greatly reduced and turned to conducting a small-scale seafood processing business, which has since spread throughout the community. Some produce kue-po while some find jobs outside the village as contract workers.
Historical dynamics of kue-po
Making kue-po or fish crackers has become the main occupation of the people of this region, replacing traditional fishing careers. The Dato community has created its “local brand” which has planted a good image in the eyes of consumers and strengthened the market with a word-of-mouth that “the best fish crackers are from Dato.” Many fish cracker makers in Dato are between 20 to 67 years old, most of whom are over 30.
The reputation of Dato fish crackers rests on its originality and consistent taste. “The Dato people produce a lot of crackers but never enough to meet the demand,” said one participant. The production of fish crackers is a household industry. There are no factories. All of the production takes place in the village 4 Ban Dato. Each business relies on family members, relatives, and people from the other three villages in Laem Pho Sub-District as workforce. The kue-po business is therefore a source of income that, although not very large, is stable for the people of Laem Pho sub-district. However, some large producers can guarantee the income of up to 3,000 – 5,000 THB/person/month for fish cracker workers.
The fish is 15 THB per kilogram and the kue-po production requires 80 kilograms of fish per day. The taste of kue-po varies according to the recipe of each household. “We do not reveal our recipes. It’s just like that,” said one participant. Regarding the selling price, it is various depending on the grade of the product. “A higher amount of MSG and fish meat means a higher grade of products. The lower grade products will have more tapioca flour, less MSG, and a loose texture.”
If the raw material of kue-po is derived from the abundant natural resources in the sea, the production process is developed from the interaction between different cultures. When Malaya fell under the British colonization (probably around 1824-1826), a number of people from that area migrated to settle in Dato. The local saw the Malay immigrants make flour from sago palms and turn it into a breakfast they enjoyed with tea. Against the backdrop of famine in that era, the local adopted this culinary technique from the Malay immigrants and started mixing sago flour with fish and salt to form long fish balls. The Dato people used a high mortar to ground fish meat and mix it with flour, a technique practiced since the Cold War era. One participant relayed a story that “There were Vietnamese immigrants fleeing the Vietnam War to settle in the community and instead of using a mortar, they kneaded the flour and fish by hand saying that it was more convenient and easier.”
The “cooking” process also has its own story. In the past, the villagers would roast kue-po in hot sand brought from the outer sea. Later, they started to cut the fish batter into pieces and grill or fry them in oil, or even cook in the microwave. “Frying” is a cooking method from China. In the old days, people in this area only knew about boiling and grilling (and roasting with sand). The cultural blend has resulted in new cooking methods that have become local standard practices, such as the making of kue-po, which have been passed down to the present day. The seasoning and mixing of the fish batter have been taught in the family through learning and experimenting and “estimation” without a written recipe.
The historical dynamism of the flavor is not less interesting than the other elements of the kue-po story. In the past, the only seasoning was with salt, but nowadays, the “snack culture” favored by the new generations focuses on rich and diverse flavors. Many kue-po manufacturers, therefore, adapt to the trend by seasoning kue-po with various condiments, such as seaweed, basil, black pepper, tom yum, paprika, shrimp paste, etc. The changing and more diverse flavors reflect the dynamic of the gastronomic status of kue-po from the “simple staple food” of the local fishing community since the traditional state, to “famine food” in the era of Malay immigration, to the status of “snack” today. In other words, kue-po has undergone the process of ‘snackization’ and has become a side dish for drinks and conversations in teahouses. One can see them being stacked next to other snacks in grocery stores.
In short, the kue-po’s production today has been greatly transformed. Some of the kue-po producers use fish from their backyard sea, but most of them buy fish, usually small mackerels, from Pattani fish piers. The sago flour is replaced with tapioca starch. At present, for some households, the kue-po production is no longer a standalone economic activity but is done in parallel with catfish farming. Those households would only have to make a little further investment in buying a few first catfish but not the catfish food because they can use the discarded fish meat from the fish cracker production. Although some households choose to invest more in renting catfish ponds, the returns are still substantial and provide a relatively good income for the family. Participants said “Catfish are sold at a good price and are a source of income along with kue-po selling. Some fish mongers come to our farms to buy catfish themselves.”
Kue-po of Dato is similar to Budu (dark-colored seasoning water from fermented fish) of Saiburi in at least one way: it can be classified into two categories according to the size of the establishment, namely, “kue-po kampong” and “factory kue-po.” The markets of these two kue-pos “do not overlap.” Kue-po kampong is homemade kue-po which is the focus of this research. Factory kue-po is the industrial kue-po manufactured under a certain standard and is more rigorously controlled than kue-po kampong.
Kue-po kampong has a wide market both at the community level and at the provincial level covering the southern border provinces. Uncooked kue-po fish batter is sold at community flea markets while fried/grilled kue-po is placed side by side with a variety of meatballs in meatball shops and teahouses. An interesting discovery is that although most people believe that the best kue-po only comes from Dato, shop owners who sell ready-to-eat kue-po to consumers and consumers themselves do not know which Dato households the very kue-po they are selling or eating came from, and vice versa, not a single participant in the conversation was able to tell where their kue-po ended up. Some shook their heads and guessed “Probably at a tea shop.” Some replied, “I don’t know because I did not deliver them myself.”
This second answer reveals that before the products end up in consumers’ hands, they have to go through such a long journey untraceable by either the producers or the consumers. The player that lengthens this journey is “middle fishmongers” who operate in the southern border provinces and will buy kue-po from regular sources by directly contacting the producer households of their choices. Another player is Malaysian middle fishmongers, who are usually Malays living in the southern border provinces and own Tom Yum Kung bistros in Malaysia. Only a handful of kue-po makers in the community sell their products online through their Facebook pages.
The manufacturers of “factory kue-po” are striving to raise the quality of production more seriously than the manufacturers of kue-po kampong. Some of the reasons may be that these producers own or have access to adequate funding, including space, production facilities, capital, knowledge, and connection with the government. The access to financial capital has been a controversial issue in the local community because entrepreneurs do not have equal access to government support. Those who have access to the support will also gain access to a wider market and generate more income through a gateway called food quality standards. Some participants revealed that when certain operators, after receiving an approval from the FDA thanks to the support from the local government, would pull the ladder and never contribute to elevating the overall entrepreneurship of the community. This phenomenon is a reflection of a high competition among household entrepreneurs. Some operators received funding to upgrade their production but continued to operate in the same way as a family business without trying to distribute the benefits of the development to members of the community in any way.
In the eyes of many local people, the kue-po market, although free, is rife with severe inequality (free trade, but not fair trade). The kue-po business is different from the salted threadfin fish business in that the latter was formed in a fishing community where all households were “suppliers” and not “food processors.” The establishment of the Sri Baru Group thus improved the supply capacity of the community as a whole. Although such an upgrade was made possible by a key factor, the relationship with the government. (It must not be forgotten that Jae Mo’s husband is the secretary to the president of the Sub-District Administrative Organization in the neighboring area). On the other hand, the Dato village consists of households who are already food processors and have competed in the free market from the beginning. Problems of inequality started to rise when some households began to raise the quality standards to differentiate themselves, and one of the contributing factors is the relationship with the government, which provides privileges to some operators but negatively affects the solidarity of the community.
A case study of a factory kue-po that has a positive effect on the community business is a factory located outside Dato and Laem Pho communities. One example is Dok Kaew Community Enterprise, whose kue-po is an OTOP (One Subdistric, One Product) product of Pattani. Under the leadership of “Ms. Rose” or Rosmaline Kittinai, this community enterprise is located in Talubo Subdistrict in Pattani. Ms. Rose started by discussing the concept of kue-po production with many stakeholders, such as the President of the Pattani Food Association and the Food Institute of Prince of Songkla University, until she came up with a guideline for flavors, marketing and packaging. In particular, the Food Institute supported tools and equipment in the early stages of the project. The production of this enterprise employs approximately 10 people in the community. According to a survey of the kue-po supply, this factory was successful in making a difference in the kue-po business by being meticulous in every aspect of the production and offering many more flavors, including spicy roast minced meat, as well as various shapes of kue-po, such as the slab shape, the traditional shape, and the stick-like shape or fries shape. The texture is crispy and soft, and the product can last longer. By going into details at every step, the group saw its production cost rising higher than kue-po kampong, which means that exporting the products to outside market is more profitable than selling in the local market. Today, this community enterprise is able to penetrate many different markets and have a wide range of trading partners both at home and abroad, such as Malaysia, Australia, Cambodia, etc.
Although the target customers of kue-po kampong and factory kue-po do not “overlap,” broader market access means more revenues for both groups. And it is the hope of almost all kue-po households in Dato to be certified with even the minimum production standards and supported by the government and other sectors such as the FDA and the Halal seal. The first thing that these local producers can do in order to jump into a wider market with a more intense competition is to unite in the form of a community enterprise.
Focus group discussion
Rosidah Samang. Dato Village, Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province, February 21, 2021.
Suhaila Salae. Dato Village, Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province, February 21, 2021.
Jaemidoh Dahlah. Dato Village, Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province, February 21, 2021.
Jaetimoh Dahlah. Dato Village, Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province, February 21, 2021.
Maroning Salae. Dato Village, Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province, February 21, 2021.
Assari Daeboh. Dato Village, Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province, February 21, 2021.
Dahlah Jaetae. Dato Village, Laem Pho Subdistrict, Yaring District, Pattani Province, February 21, 2021.
This story is the first 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 views expressed within this publication are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily carry the endorsement of the UNDP.