BANGKOK — The Italian ambassador doesn’t mind if we eat tom yum kung pasta and durian pizzas – the real crime is in “fake” Italian products in supermarkets.
In a sit-down with Ambassador Lorenzo Galanti of Italy, the affable 51-year-old said that the real culinary war taking place in Thailand isn’t with our questionable crab imitation pizza toppings, but products that plagiarize the intellectual property of Italy.
“We don’t have problems with Durian pizza, if you want to eat it, fine,” Galanti said. “The problem is with Italian-sounding items on the supermarket shelf. They have an Italian flag on it, it might have some words about Italy on it, but it’s not produced in Italy and doesn’t taste like anything in Italy.”
Consumers should know that there are three main categories of “Italian” products: authentic products from Italy, imitation or “fusion” food items, and the third is the counterfeit Italian-sounding products.
“This is a billion-dollar business that uses the image and intellectual property of Italy to mislead consumers,” Galanti said.
According to inspection group Asacert, which works with Italian Chambers of Commerce in various countries to provide official Italian Taste Certification, “Italian sounding” products worldwide generate more than EUR54 billion per year, more than twice the value of Italian food exports worth EUR23 billion.
“It represents the most striking form of unfair competition and deceives consumers,” the website says.
As part of their Italian food watchdog duties, the Thai-Italian Chamber of Commerce has been releasing a guidebook that certifies authentic Italian restaurants based on criteria set by Italy’s National Institute of Research on Tourism, such as using Italian ingredients.
The second edition in 2018 approved 44 restaurants, out of the roughly 1,000 self-claiming ones in Thailand. The 2019 edition will be released on November 19.
Indeed, Galanti is more likely to frequent these approved restaurants rather than a fusion one. “Everything not authentic is unacceptable,” he said, laughing good-naturedly. “But we can’t prevent people from adapting it to their taste and culture, especially something so global, like pizza.
Italy isn’t just pizza, though. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Italy’s impacts on Thailand are polymathic: from cuisine, to art, to science and tech.
“Usually when people think of Italy, they think of food, fashion, furniture, and the creative lifestyle. We love to have a happy, healthy life, but we also love science and innovation,” Galanti said.
At the MotoGP race in Buriram earlier in October, Galanti was in the pit-box, eagerly looking on as Ducatis zoomed in after a race for a checkup.
What amazed him to giddiness was that the special models by the racers, such as Italy’s Andrea Dovizioso, could be plugged into a computer via cable and which parts of the bike needed upkeep would immediately be displayed on a screen.
In fact, Italy’s main export to Thailand is industrial machinery. In Rayong province there are factories for Ducati as well as Danieli metal industry machines.
The trade volume of EUR3 billion, slightly in favor of Thailand, sees textiles, packaging, and foodstuff like wines, cheeses, and cured meats imported here, while Thailand mostly exports machinery, vehicles, consumer electronics, and clothing.
When Galanti first set foot in Thailand – incidentally, on the day King Bhumibol died on Oct. 13, 2016, he said he was affected by the sad news. He was keen to come back to improve business relations, and began his ambassador post in July 2018.
‘We can understand each other’
Since the end of World War II, Thailand has had 15 coups – but Italy has had 66 governments.
Other than a sunny climate, vibrant cuisine, and family-centered society, another thing that ties Italians and Thais together are the fact that the governments change quite often, according to Ambassador Lorenzo Galanti of Italy.
“The average duration of the governments are not that long. The average life of a politician’s career is longer,” Galanti said with a twinkle in his eye. “Despite the change in government, there’s a continuity there. You can see several of the same people throughout the decades.”
“We might have differences in history and background, but I think we can understand each other pretty well,” he said.
Thailand and Italy do have some shared history, especially in the form of “cultural footprints” via Italian artists and architects who came to Thailand after Kings Rama V and VI went to Italy and connected with the artistic milieu there.
This led to a variety of Italian-designed palaces and interior decor. In fact, Thailand’s iconic sculptors and monuments – including the Democracy Monument and King Taksin Statue – were conceived by perhaps the best-known Italian in Thai art history, Corrado Feroci, who also adopted Thai name Silpa Bhirasri.
Nowadays, it’s not just Italian sculptors coming to Thailand, but about 265,000 per year, according to 2018 stats, form all walks of life – from those in the food business, UN workers, retirees, entrepreneurs and so on.
Galanti estimates the Italian expat population, many in interracial marriages, to be around 6,000, with only 10 percent of them, or 600, men. Some Italian men in marriages with Thai women have moved their family back to Italy.
Thai expats in Italy are around the same number, many of them studying.
Recent trends show that Thais are increasingly visiting Italy, especially as repeat visitors. Last year the embassy issued 37,000 visas for Thais, but due to the Schengen system, they estimate that the number of Thais visiting Italy per year is closer to 70,000.
“This shows that Thais are satisfied and happy with vacationing in Italy,” Galanti said, smiling. “We encourage this, and can freely issue long-term visas.”
To keep up with cultural events held by the Italian embassy, check out the Italian Festival Thailand Facebook page.