SALTED FISH OF BANG TAWA
Bang Tawa is a sub-district in Nong Chik District, Pattani Province. The landscape is a coastal plain adjacent to the Pattani Bay, where a large number of plankton can be found, resulting in the abundance of fish species in this area and an ideal breeding ground for various economic marine lives . Thanks to this biodiversity, the area has earned the nickname “the uterus of the sea” (Sao Bang Khae 22, 2018). Interestingly, this coastal plain also sees a large stream of fresh water flowing all year round, thus its name in the Malay language as “Kwa-Lor-A-Ye-Ra-Ta-Wa” which means “a freshwater estuary.” Later, the name was shortened to “tawa” which means “freshwater” (Bang Tawa Subdistrict Administrative Organization, 2021). Therefore, “Bang Tawa” signifies an area adjacent to the sea where a stream of freshwater flows.
This unique geography is a key factor in the success of the district’s salted fish product. Among a great many local produce of the southern border provinces, the Bang Tawa community has hailed the salted threadfin fish as the most valuable and outstanding based on the fact that the fish live in three waters: saltwater, freshwater, and brackish water. The natural blend of these waters gives the fish meat a unique flavor which cannot be replicated by any farming methods.
It can be said that the three waters and the fertile ecosystem of the Pattani Bay are the most important natural resources that influence the economic life of the Bang Tawa community, a small sub-district made up of 464 households, 80 percent of which rely on coastal fishing as the main source of income.
Fishermen’s wisdom at the Bang Tawa Sea
Going back to 2017, few people ever heard of the name “Bang Tawa.” Most of the fishermen here engage in a one-step economic activity in which they simply “catch and sell” fresh seafood. They brave the sea using not the official version of a nautical map published by the state which indicates the official territory, but a local fishermen’s sea map that shows the sea routes and marine life hotspots along the coastline stretching from Nakhon Si Thammarat to the Pattani Bay. With the estuary as the baseline, the local fishermen use the duration of “kor-lae” boat sailing as an indicator of the habitats of various marine species as follows:
- 1 hour from the estuary, they will find threadfin
- 2 hours from the estuary, they will find Spanish mackerel.
- 3-4 hours from the estuary, they will find long-tail tuna.
- And if they stay close to the shoreline, they will be able to get some shrimps.
Their sea map is a result of experiences passed down for generations in the form of oral literature and experiments that have led the local to the best place to catch each specific fish species. In the sea around Songkhla, mullets are the dominant species, but when it comes to Bang Tawa, the best fish is threadfin fish.
The perception of Bang Tawa fishermen of the marine ecology is tied to the concept of “rizq” (Rizq encompasses wealth, family ties, spirituality, our faith, intellect, health, and everything else that are beneficial to us and can help us fulfil our duties and obligations to serve and obey Allah, and care for this earth.). They believe that the abundance of marine natural resources and nutrients in each water is a “rizq” that makes each fish species and marine life special and creates a source of income for their families. This perception and concept render most of the fishing practices environmentally friendly. Legal fishing gear, such as floating nets, is used to sustainably preserve the resources that feed their families so that the “fish around here are available all year round and more abundant in January and March,” as one villager said.
Although each fishing trip depends on the condition of wave, wind and weather, a typical departure time for fishermen here is around 5.00 p.m. and they will return to shore at dawn to sell the catch to fresh seafood business operators in the community. “The process of harvesting marine life” is meticulous and reflects a long-term cultivation of wisdom and skills that make working on the boats each night carry on naturally. The fishermen often refrain from sailing during the moonlit nights because there are often very few fish in the sea. In contrast, in dimmer nights, the fish are more abundant and it’s worth going offshore. Nature, the relationship between the earth, the moon, and the tide, seems to have outlined a perfect schedule of work and breaks for the fishermen.
Turning Crisis into Opportunity: The Beginning of Sri Baru Salted Threadfin Fish Community Business
Before 2017, when talking about salted fish, many people would think of Tak Bai brand or the original salted fish of Tak Bai district, which is a 5-star OTOP (One District, One Product) product well known in Thailand and abroad. Salted threadfin fish is known for its expensive price. The price of the fish after being dried and salted is 1,600 THB per 1 kilogram. The taste is said to be superior to other types of salted fish, and this is why threadfin fish is praised as the “king of salted fish.”
The uniqueness of the product led to high demand. Although the popularity of salted threadfin fish of Tak Bai birthed many local businesses, considerable incomes and employment opportunities for the local communities, the supply was never sufficient to meet the high demand in the market due to the shortage of the threadfin fish in the Tak Bai and Narathiwat waters.
Bang Tawa and its three-water ecosystem is an ideal breeding ground for the best threadfin fish and thus an important upstream resource of this production chain. It serves not only the Tak Bai area but also the neighboring Orangpantai group in the Tha Kam Cham District since there is no fishing boat to deliver fresh food in that area. Hundreds of kilograms of fresh threadfin fish and other aquatic animals purchased from Bang Tawa every day has allowed people’s livelihoods to continue until 2017 when the threadfin fish production cycle was disrupted as Tak Bai halted the purchase of the threadfin fish, forcing the Bang Tawa community to find a way to manage the fresh fish on hand before they expire.
Mrs. Wae-mo Pu-tae, also known as “Jae Mo,” is a prominent fresh seafood wholesaler in the community and plays a key role in bringing changes to the food production in Bang Tawa. She took the initiative to shift the community’s business from “catch and sell” to food processing, with salted threadfin fish as the flagship product. In other words, Jae Mo was trying to distance the community’s business model from simply “harvesting produce” to “post-harvest process.” That was the beginning of a new chapter of the Bang Tawa community business.
As the large fresh seafood wholesaler, Jae Mo, whose husband is the secretary to the president of the Sub-District Administrative Organization in the neighboring area, had to seek a solution to the problem resulting from the halt of threadfin fish purchase from the main buyers in Tak Bai. She and eight other women, with the support from the chief of Nong Chik District at that time, the Provincial Community Development Division, the District Community Development Division, the District Agriculture Office, District Fisheries Office, and the Office of Non-Formal and Informal Education (NFE) of Nong Chik District, established the Sri Baru Women Group to make salted threadfin fish and other dried seafood products. Support from these government agencies included fish drying frames, mosquito nets, sealing machines, packaging boxes, and a logo design to name a few. The initial funding was a 100,000 THB loan from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives.
The production process and people in the story of Bang Tawa salted fish
The Sri Baru Group’s meticulous salted fish production is built on knowledge acquired by the coastal fishermen communities, experiences, trial and error, technical support from relevant agencies, and inspiration from a variety of sources, catalyzed by advances in information technology. All of these crystalized a very interesting, salted fish recipe.
Starting from selecting fish from fishing boats, only fresh unfrozen threadfin fish are chosen because the cold will otherwise harden the fish meat. In terms of volume, the emergence of the Sri Baru Group has helped increase the volume of purchase. Previously, middlemen would buy 100-200 kilograms of fresh threadfin fish at a time and then sell them to businesses in Tak Bai and the Orangpantai Group. The Sri Baru Group, however, has a potential to buy up to 4,000 – 5,000 kilograms of fresh threadfin fish, or about 20 times more. In addition, when the Sri Baru Group’s business began to grow stronger, the group was able to buy fish from fishermen at a higher price from previously 100 THB per kilogram to 200 THB per kilogram to help distribute incomes to communities, especially to upstream small-scale fishermen who are crucial to the group and will work together for a long time.
The next step is the processing of the fresh threadfin fish. “On the Andaman coast or in the eastern region, they will sun-dry the fish for 3-4 days, but that is not salted fish. It is sun-dried fish. Salted fish that I make has to be dried for more than 14 days under the sun,” explains one villager.
After being dried in the sun for 14-20 days, the fish will lose about half of their fresh weight. For example, one kilogram of threadfin fish, after being salted and dried for 2-3 weeks, will only weigh 500 grams. The drying process is full of techniques and steps that require attention like when one is taking care of a baby. The Sri Baru Group will work in shift to knead the fish with wooden sticks or glass bottles once a day to ensure the meat consistency. There must be people to watch the fish all the time to make sure that they are not exposed to rain, strong sunlight, or too little sun. As the fish demands high care, the Sri Baru Group uses mosquito nets to protect the fish from flies, a technique called “sun-drying fish in mosquito nets,” known to many when talking about Sri Baru salted fish.
What’s interesting is that the Sri Baru Group uses Pattani sweet salt from Bana Sub-District combined with their secret herb mixture. Jae Mo, the president of the group who invented the recipe, chose to keep it a secret and added that each household/seller has their own salted fish recipe. The recipe she came up with was inspired by her threadfin fish buyers, coupled with trials and errors. At the first trial, the group was honored by the sheriff of Nong Chik to do the taste test, who commented briefly that it was “terrible.” Two months after that, the Sri Baru group adjusted their recipe until it became the perfect recipe today.
Jae Mo never revealed the secret mixture of the herb.
However, the ingredient she proudly presented is the Pattani sweet salt. She said that the salt added a unique local flavor to the fish and made it stand out. Her creativity proved successful after their product won the competition and was selected as one of the top 200 products from 14 southern provinces. This success helps the Sri Baru Group’s business to flourish as it does today to such a degree that Covid-19 can barely have any effect on it. The success also allows fish and salt suppliers in Bana to earn good incomes thanks to their interdependent relationship in the production chain.
Sri Baru of Bang Tawa on the next phase of the development path
The Bang Tawa Community is not just another player in the salted threadfin fish supply chain, but Jae Mo’s business clearly proves that the Bang Tawa community is an important upstream node that touches the lives of many members in the community. Livelihoods of many boat owners and fishermen depend on Jae Mo’s salted fish and fresh seafood business. Sometimes, they rent or buy fishing boats from the group and pay installments by offering discounts on the marine lives they sell to her.
Jae Mo’s business is therefore a local source of incomes for fishermen with little or no capital. The impact of the delay in fresh fish orders affected not only Jae Mo’s business, but also many households engaged in fishing and this production chain. This fact makes people here realize that in the supply chain and economic activity related to this salted fish, they have little bargaining power. They see an unequal economic relationship and structure as they rely solely on orders from outsiders. And even though they are raw material suppliers, their produce could be transformed by technology into extremely expensive commodities.
In order to survive economically, the Bang Tawa community needs to expand the salted fish production by diversifying its production so that the community can become economically independent. Jae Mo’s business still sells fresh threadfin fish to Tak Bai and Orangpantai because it is still a commercially viable practice and an easy way to obtain money compared to making salted fish because the process would take the group months to produce a batch of fish, not to mention other financial costs. At the same time, Jae Mo also initiated new business approaches to handle unexpected situations in the future, such as how to handle large quantities of fresh fish when customers delay orders, in order to keep the fishermen and the group’s business intact, to ensure that everyone survives and that money will continue to circulate in the community. This initiative is supported by the community and put into practice because they recognize the inseparable link between the group’s survival and the many fishermen associated with it.
“In fact, we have been able to sell fresh fish at a very good price. It is less tiring than making salted fish, but we have to rely on customers for orders. Our incomes depend on other people.” Jae Mo’s statement clearly reflects that the “catch and sell” practice is an easy way to earn money, but taking up a new business model by processing fresh food is an option that ensures income stability on the basis of self-reliance, which is a more sustainable business model for the community.
While salted fish vendors in Tak Bai take pride in their traditional recipes, Sri Baru as a newly emerged group is not shy to declare themselves a newcomer to the business. The name of the group “Sri Baru,” bestowed by the former sheriff who was an enthusiastic advocate of the group, conveys this sentiment very well. The word “baru” in Malay means “new” and the word “sri” means “good,” a term that appears in many Southeast Asian cultures. Its Sanskrit root reflects the cultural influence of India on the people of this region. Fishermen also use the word “Sri” as a prefix of their boat’s names for good luck. This practice can be seen on boats in the eastern region of Thailand, the southern Andaman coast, and the southern coast of the Gulf of Thailand. In addition, the name “Sri Baru” was also inspired by the name of a racing boat, famous for sweeping trophies at numerous regattas. “Sri Baru” is a name that has been meticulously invented in terms of origin, meaning and sentimental value. Considering this background story of the name coupled with conversations we had with community members, this name is the pride of the community as a new player in the business vying with dignity for market shares in an intimidating market.
In the researcher’s point of view, the group’s name being inspired by the name of a racing boat also links “fishing boats” with “salted fish.” While many salted fish sellers have to buy fresh fish from elsewhere, the Sri Baru group’s salted fish differs in that it uses fresh fish from fishermen in their community. The difference in the salted threadfin fish of the Bang Tawa community lies in the fact that they have their own “boats” and “fishing grounds.” In other words, if threadfin fish is called the king of salted fish, Bang Tawa is the “Palace of the King.”
Focus group discussion
Sri Baru Community Enterprise, Bang Tawa Sub-district, Nong Chik District, Pattani, February 19, 2021.
Sao Bang Khae 22. (2018). “Salted threadfin fish, a new product of the Bang Taw Community in Nong Chik, Pattani. Villagers’s technology, 30(676). Accessed on March 3. 2021, https://www.technologychaoban.com/bullet- news-today/article_70990.
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This story is the second 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.