On his flaming wok, a chef in a Bangkok hotel is adding an unusual ingredient to several dishes that will be set out on the buffet.
It is a nutritional algae, known as spirulina, cultivated just steps away on the hotel's rooftop 27 stories above Siam Square.
“It helps to give you some energy, replacing the coffee,” said Manuel Reymondin, the resident manager of the Novotel on Siam Square.
Reymondin has become a daily consumer of spirulina, using it as a substantial protein source in place of red meat.
The hotel's spa also relies on the blue-green algae's anti-inflammatory properties for gooey therapeutic treatments.
Spirulina is given to hospital patients undergoing radiation treatment or others having trouble eating normally because the vitamin-rich cyanobacterium is easy to digest.
The rooftop project growing spirulina also has become a centerpiece for the Novotel's parent (Accor) company’s social responsibility mission.
"It is a product which is easily lovable. When you see it you basically adopt it, such as we did. Before we started the spirulina project most of us didn't know really what it was," said Reymondin.
From African lakes to Thai rooftops
Energaia, a fledgling local for-profit enterprise, introduced spirulina to the hotel, based on its ability to grow in the center of urban Bangkok.
These are starkly different surroundings from the ancient aquatic organism’s natural habitat. Once only found in abundance in a few lakes in such places as the African nation Chad, Burma and in Mexico.
There are no global large-scale producers of spirulina. China and India are the two largest countries cultivating the algae, followed by Thailand and the United States.
It is now thriving in “bio-reactors” in Bangkok devised by American Derek Blitz. The system relies on sunlight for photosynthesis, circulating fresh alkaline water and a bit of starter algae carried in laboratory test tubes from a Bangkok breeding ground.
Energaia, after years of research and development utilizing four staff micro-biologists, is producing 80 to 100 kilograms of spirulina weekly utilizing 130 square meters on the Novotel's flat roof.
Rooftops of high-rise buildings are ideal for this kind of farming. There is available and affordable space. And the sunlight and heat, in a city such as Bangkok, mean the crop grows quickly.
"We're pursuing hotels and other organizations that have empty rooftop space,” said Blitz. “And we can utilize that space to produce healthy food in the city for the residents of the city. And that organization can benefit from having access to that to use within their own businesses, as well as the perception of the public that they're doing something good."
A food for all, if production costs come down
Spirulina requires less water than just about any terrestrial crop and has the added advantage of growing on non-arable land.
Energaia, which expects to shortly utilize two more rooftops in Bangkok for growing spirulina, has ambitions beyond the Thai capital.
"We could take and containerize this system so it's ready to go and allow organizations to leverage our technology to develop food within communities that struggle,” explains Blitz.
Research indicates spirulina may aid sufferers of a host of ailments, including allergies and arthritis. But production costs are currently too high to make this highly nutritious food affordable for most of those in the developing world.
In Bangkok, 100 grams of fresh spirulina costs $5, which means that it is mainly bought by people with ample disposable income who consume it as a nutritional supplement.
"We prefer to provide it in fresh form... as it's easier to cook with and add to any meal," says Energaia founder Saumil Shah, an aerospace engineer by training. "We've been able to get shelf life up to three or four weeks."
Any product that doesn't sell at retail outlets is replaced by Energaia and turned into a powder which has a shelf life of several years.
Shah revealed to a group at the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration of Chulalongkorn University that his company is also working to create protein-rich but low calorie foods containing spirulina, such as fish snacks and paste. A 100 gram jar of spirulina paste sold by Energaia contains only about 20 calories.
Shah acknowledges not everyone is an instant convert to spirulina, despite its many attributes.
“It looks green, it looks different. Not everybody can get over that and taste it," he said.