How to eat your way around Thailand

Blazing curries, festivals sizzling with street life, buildings as pretty as patisserie — who said Phuket was all beaches and revelry? Nick Redman tries an authentic Thai culinary journey…

Khao Phing Kan by Getty Images

Somewhere I stopped in at a café laced with bougainvillea and open to a street that smelt of washing powder and incense. I was heading to fill my face at Naka night market, beyond Phuket Town, but the server wiping the laminated pink tablecloths pulled me in with her grin. Her doughnuts, just shaken from the pan and billowing steam, sealed the deal: puffs of hot, sweet, delicious air. With a tankard of sugar-laced iced tea, I must have consumed 2,000 calories — and I still hadn’t had dinner.

When I eventually located it, Naka market was a welcome sight. Sweet-potato balls skittered around deep pans of oil, trailing bubbles, while skewered squids the colour of tangerines spat in lines over orange coals. Roe-topped sushi glistened like fat pink brooches, drawing Thai families and backpackers alike into a mild scrum. And that, as they say, was just for starters.

‘I found an island of rare, delicious flavours: magnificent wildlife, surreal landscapes and blissful solitude’

I’d come to Phuket, essentially, for a beach holiday, despite knowing that Thai purists often roll their eyes at the mention of the name: overdeveloped, overpriced, basically just over, as tinier idylls tempt more intrepid travellers. Sure, in places, it’s all gone a bit Patong, the brazen resort of R-rated stage shows. And yet, in a week, I found an island of rare, delicious flavours: magnificent wildlife, surreal landscapes and blissful solitude. All that and great food.

It was Aunt Yai and Uncle Nun who’d whetted my appetite, a Thai couple who welcomed me into their kitchen in the shadow of a massive banyan tree by the sea. It looked reassuringly traditional  — even the roof was tin, the kind you see in so many fishing villages. But enjoying their authentic southern Thai cooking hadn’t entailed a showerless, sleepless week in a hammock on some Alex-Garland-scary remote sands.

A fresh salad with rice and cooked shrimp by Getty Images

Quite the opposite — they were in-house at Rosewood Phuket, the recently opened resort I was staying in.

Wanting to have a foot in the real world, not a perimeter fence between, the hotel had talent-scouted around and found their future chefs stirring up a storm in a casual joint loved by the neighbourhood. And now here they were, working their magic for a global guest list. It was so much more credible than importing some highly paid international type with an eye for culinary appropriation.

I liked the setting, Emerald Bay, and I also liked the Rosewood: a jumble of Modernist-cubic pavilion residences knee-deep in jasmine and hibiscus, smartly furnished with standing mirrors in ebony-tone frames, drum lampshades and stained dark floorboards.

This was, of course, a globally recognisable canvas, which only served to counterpoint the appeal of Uncle Nun and Aunt Yai’s homegrown cuisine. Gesturing enthusiastically, they singled out ingredients for their dishes — currently lurking in the slate-green stillness of their pond. Here a grouper, there a sea bass and behind, in the corner, a few scuttling blue crabs. A least one of these would soon reappear in my gaeng poo: a blazing regional curry speciality with gossamer-fine noodles brought steaming to my table under a hazy moon.

Their tour de force was moo hong, a southern Thai favourite you might call the signature dish of Phuket. After hours of simmering in a treacly mix of coriander root, star anise, soy sauce, palm sugar and peppercorn, it was cinnamon-sweet and sludgy-soft, a tinglingly delicious experience I don’t recall from the menu at my nearest Thai back home. Some have linked its flavour, soy in particular, to Chinese influences — most likely imparted by settlers, who arrived in droves in the 19th-century, when the Phuket tin industry was growing to meet American canning demands.

I’d tried the curry already, in Phuket Town, my first port of call after landing, checking in at 2 Rooms, a charming ’30s-style side-alley lodge with a gramophone and teak-look bed. Woven with multicultural threads, the island’s informal capital is surely its most underrated attraction. Despite exuding a modern, urban feel in places, at its historic heart it was good enough to eat, in every respect. Raya restaurant was the kind of place you wish would open up on your street, with its giant ceiling fans, cool green walls and epic menu. That said, its gaeng poo was the main event, milkily innocuous to behold at first, but flaring suddenly on the tongue and wonderfully bitter with turmeric.

Another day I inhaled the heritage of ancient Muslim traders: the sight of Yameay Mosque with its emerald green domes; the aroma of a chicken roti at Abdul Murtabak’s place, a simple institution lined with framed engravings of Mecca. Lock Tien, Phuket Town’s local-food centre, did delicious Hokkien (as in, fried) noodles — another Sino-influence. And as my time in town coincided with Chinese New Year, I watched fireworks crackle in the night above teeming, steaming street markets dispensing dumplings and grilled seafood.

For afters, the grid streets delivered a visual feast of dwellings, with work spaces at ground level known as shophouses. The result of Portuguese and Chinese colonial currents merging, they displayed stunning pastel-painted facades. But the centre was no museum piece. Local hipsters were on hand, drinking lattes in blond-wood places with names like Bookhemian and The Shelter Coffee — a welcome hit of real-life modern Phuket.

Anatara Layan Phuket Resort

After this, I was set for more immersion in recipes and rituals. The finale to my barbecued-prawn dinner at the Anantara Layan Phuket Resort wasn’t any old ice cream, but a bowl of scoops gently flavoured with Thai basil. As Phuket moments go, it was lovely, although ultimately it lost out to the magnificent tallow glow on the horizon as the day drained away. Everything looked enchanted, down to the mysterious forested island in the bay, amid the coffee-cream swirls of low-tide sands.

Time for a reality check: next day was market day in Patong, a 25-minute drive south for me, in the company of the resort chef, Hong. Like Rosewood, Anantara seemed adept at dissolving the barrier between tourists and Thais, inviting them to accompany Hong to busy Banzaan Fresh Market for produce to make into dishes with a Phuket-flavoured twist, back in her kitchen.

‘The ready-mix trios of fresh beansprouts, tofu and chives were piled high in bundles’

At the entrance, ready-mix trios of fresh beansprouts, tofu and chives were piled in bundles, the ingredients of pad Thai. So far, so Spinny’s. But as we moved deeper, things grew more visceral, with the shattering crack of cleavers on chicken feet, the sight of muddy shrimp paste in bags and the smell of fish-gut marinade, months old, prepared to flavour southern curries. Hong advised against even touching some of the fish to which Western digestive systems might well be unaccustomed. ‘We have bacteria. We grow up on this,’ she said, while describing one lurid specimen. ‘If you eat, maybe you poo poo.’ I rubbed pungent betel leaves between my fingers, and in doing so got the ubiquitous smell of Thailand: a faintly bitter, chocolate aroma that had been tickling my nostrils for days, something almost sedative. The landscapes had the same effect that afternoon on a slow drive inland.

Sunshine turned the telegraph wires silver as if spun by giant spiders, then it pooled green on expanses of forest floor. Sometimes we passed pineapples glinting among stretches of rubber trees, or glimpsed black-and-white cattle with egrets, by a lake, on our bucolic glide to Phuket’s more feral side.

If it sounded run-of-the-mill tourist, the Phuket Elephant Sanctuary, our destination, was the opposite: a dignified and thought-provoking encounter with another slice of real Phuket. The visit began with a video showing the hideous ways humans have treated Thailand’s pachyderms over the centuries, forcing them, with nails, cuts and burns, to submit to a life carrying heavy loads of timber or holidaymakers. But the mood soon lifted when we came to walk with the residents in their managed wilderness: one of a pioneering few in Thailand committed to rescuing victims and releasing them into a contented retirement.

The animals were mesmerising to watch, sometimes up close, sometimes from raised lookouts laden with bananas, to encourage curious trunks. I really fell for Jan Jao, encountered in the shade of a mangosteen tree, her slow-flapping ears speckled with sunlight, pink and grey like terrazzo flooring. She moved idly, huge hollowed temples above eyes as kindly as those of a favourite grandmother. Madee I was more wary of. Arriving late to meet us by a banquet of fruit, she thumped her trunk on the ground, producing a weird woodwind sound. She was in a bad mood, a ranger said — a co-resident of hers, Kannika, had come first and got stuck in without her. Madee popped a whole watermelon into her mouth as if it were a grape. After all, she had a bit of catching up to do.

Phuket offered up plenty of even wilder moments, wilder shores, too: beyond the main island, it splinters into palmy specks, sprinkled across the surrounding seas. On a boat east into Phang Nga Bay, I spent a morning transfixed by sea eagles soaring overhead, circling the towering limestone karsts that have made the marine park famous. One, Khao Phing Kan, is better known as Christopher Lee’s private island in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun. Topped with rainforest vegetation it resembled the last decayed tooth left in some centenarian giant’s gum, every bit as strange as it had looked on celluloid back in 1974.

Anantara Layan Phuket Resort

Attracting tourist longtail boats, it was better from a distance. Besides, the bay held so much more: chattering bats speckling the dim cave interiors of Hong Island, into which we kayaked; and the floating village of Ko Panyi, settled centuries ago by Indonesian Islamic emigrants. Here was a Phuket the crowds of Patong never see: a sea-gypsy stronghold with a golden-domed mosque visible for miles. Wandering the pier-like floors was creakily atmospheric in the hot lull of late afternoon.

Something of Ko Panyi’s sedate spirituality seemed to inhabit my last hotel, Amanpuri — perhaps because it resembled a place of worship rather than a resort, with its flaring pagoda roofs and decorative basins of moody water. I bedded down well before midnight, rising early to breakfast on kai yad sai: omelettes made lace-thin, filled with shrimp and vegetables. Staff glided around with the faint tick-tack of flip-flops, depositing little rectangular golden vases upon tables, each holding a single lotus flower. If I’d needed definitive proof that Phuket was not shabby, then serene Amanpuri was it.

It was hard to believe this place opened three decades ago — its Asian minimalism looked as if it had been created last year. And yet, despite the airy, understated architecture, I felt I’d been drawn into a silent commune of platinum-card privilege and purity, set on its own private peninsula, peering out from coconut palms. Guests wandered about with yoga mats under their arms like enormous cheroots, reinforcing the apparent resort USP: determined relaxation. The food, from sushi to seasonal fruit, was supermodel-delicate. I swam out and climbed on to the pontoon in the bay for some perspective on the place — in vain. ‘My obstetrician said to get a Belly Bandit online,’ I heard a women tell her friend, describing her recent pregnancy as they lazed. ‘It literally reminds your organs where to return to after the distension.’ 

Where was the real Phuket when I needed it? At 4pm, a Thai lady materialised atop the central stepped sala pavilion, pulled out a griddle and set about cooking pancakes called khanom krok, some of them filled with sweetcorn, others shimmery with coconut. It was a daily ritual, I learnt. OK, Naka night market it wasn’t, yet the appearance of street food was like the breaking of a spell. A polite scuffle erupted among the slim and the wealthy, soon chatting and scoffing on the steps. Not wanting to be a calorie singleton I grabbed a plate and, vowing to buy my own Belly Bandit back in England, got stuck in to a last real-but-perfect piece of Phuket.

Words by Nick Redman

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