The food of southern Thailand: Phuket

by John Chantarasak 12 May 2022

Ahead of his debut restaurant opening in London, chef John Chantarasak heads to southern Thailand to seek inspiration for his menu. His first stop is Phuket – an island full of colourful dishes, Chinese influences, stunning restaurants and food stalls. Read about his favourite restaurants and dishes, then recreate the flavours of Phuket via a set of recipes inspired by the trip.

John is the co-founder of AngloThai, a cookery project and soon-to-be restaurant serving food inspired by his dual Thai-British heritage. He runs the the project with his wife Desiree, who oversees front of house operations and wine.

John is the co-founder of AngloThai, a cookery project and soon-to-be restaurant serving food inspired by his dual Thai-British heritage. He runs the the project with his wife Desiree, who oversees front of house operations and wine.

I draw inspiration from my dual British-Thai heritage for the food I create at AngloThai - a restaurant concept that I co-run with my wife Desiree. We are opening a site in Central London later this year, and in the run-up to the opening, we decided to embark on a month-long research trip to southern Thailand; the menu we created afterwards draws on the influences of that region. The mission was to taste food from as many regions of the south as we could, speaking with food vendors, market stall owners and restaurant operators to learn first-hand from locals about the cuisine and how it differs from parts of Thailand we have visited before.

After nearly three years of not being able to travel to Thailand, the prospect of returning was tantalising – if not slightly daunting – given the brave new world we now live in. We started our trip in Phuket, southern Thailand’s largest island located in the Andaman Sea, before driving through Phang-Nga, Krabai and Trang, all situated on the west coast of the mainland, then moving onto the east coast to visit Phatthalung and Songkhla, and finally Hat Yai, not far from the Malaysian border.

Phuket has never appealed to me; thoughts of beaches packed with tourists and restaurants catering for diluted western palates come to mind. But the events of the last few years have seen tourist numbers dramatically drop and the island move its focus to the locals. It’s obvious to see the impact Covid has had on Thailand and its tourism industry, but looking past these negatives allowed us to discover the many thriving businesses that have survived and are regularly packing out dining rooms each day. Southern Thailand is most famous for its bounteous seafood, liberal use of coconut cream and fierce appetite for heat, and Phuket is no exception. The majority of the best eating can be found in Old Phuket Town, which boasts colourfully painted, century-old Sino-Portuguese townhouses and architecture.

Breakfast seemed like the obvious place to start our culinary tour. The three most popular choices include fermented rice noodles with toppings (kanom jeen), curry over rice (khao gaeng) and ghee-enriched bread normally eaten with Muslim-style curries (roti).

Breakfast

A visit to Khanom Chin Pa Mai demonstrates the popularity of the thin, round rice noodles (kanom jeen) that are indigenous to southern Thailand. We grabbed a plate of these coiled noodles and headed to the friendly ladies at the front of the shop to select from the pots of daily-changing curries. There was a creamy coconut sauce, rich with turmeric and poached fish that had been pounded through the curry paste (nahm ya); a slightly sweet and mild curry with a rich nutty taste (nahm prik), and an incredibly spicy, murky sauce made using fermented fish offal (tai pla). We adorned our curried noodles with toppings including fresh and pickled vegetables, seasonal fruits, crispy dried fish, local greens simmered in coconut milk and herbs that range from sweet and sour to bitter and astringent. A side plate of hor mok (curried fish custard steamed in banana leaf) and gai tort (fried chicken) ensured we didn’t need feeding again for a good few hours, and added to the flavourful joy that is a kanom jeen meal.

Eating at shop houses serving curry over rice (raan khao gaeng) is a similar experience. Ko Huat just outside downtown Phuket boasts up to fifty different trays of curries, stir-fries and soups, with staples such as a thin orange broth of fish and vegetables (gaeng som) that packs an intensely spicy, tart punch. There were also bitter beans stir-fried with shrimp paste and prawns (goong pad sator), and the more forgiving yellow coconut curry with crab and wild pepper leaves (gaeng bpu bai cha plu). If eating on your own, the etiquette is to simply top your plate of rice with as many of the dishes on offer as you would like. When eating in a larger group, it’s best to ask for separate bowls of dishes to be shared in the middle of the table, as is normal with family-style eating in Thailand. It becomes apparent very quickly just how vast the cuisine of Thailand is when confronted by the kaleidoscope of dishes available at a good khao gaeng joint.

Roti Thaew Nam’s popularity with both locals and tourists is undeniable. When we stopped at this tiny shop house the place was buzzing with activity at 8am. People in Thailand don’t hesitate to wake up early for a decent meal, with many spots opening as early as 5am to cater for such demands. At the shop house’s front, the owner single-handedly shapes, cooks, flips and turns rotis over a metre-wide flat griddle pan fuelled by a roaring charcoal fire. The roti here are crisp, flaky and buttery; the perfect vessel for dipping into beef curry rich with dry spices (gaeng massaman neua) and the obligatory fried egg with runny yolk (kai daow). Another must-try is cha yen – Thai tea over ice, sweetened with condensed milk. Not only thirst-quenching but delicious paired with a roti breakfast.

Another place of note for a speedy breakfast is Wattanapol Curry Puff. This shop specialises in these bite-sized, almost pasty-shaped snacks with both savoury and sweet fillings. Wattanapol’s pastry is flaky and rich, encasing traditional curried fillings of slow-cooked chicken, carrot, potato and dry spices. Sweet fillings range from red bean or durian to the more conventional pandan leaf custard (sangkaya).

Lunch and dinner

With breakfast taken care of, our attention moved to the plethora of restaurants that are dotted all over Phuket. Three of our favourites were Mor Mu Dong on Phuket’s southern coast; Nam Yoi, a short drive towards Monkey Hill on the east side of Old Phuket Town, and Peang-Prai, located on the northeast of the island near Bang Pae Waterfall. Mor Mu Dong is scenically located within a mangrove forest, with various open-air dining rooms perched on stilts above pools of calm water. The food here is uniquely southern, with many of the dishes only found at Mor Mu Dong. We tried whole boned-out mackerel stuffed with a curried fish mixture and deep-fried (pla tu yat sai), water snails and wild pepper leaf curry (gaeng hoi khom bai cha plu), squid stir-fried in its own ink (pad pla meuk dam) and an intensely hot dip made from chilli, shrimp paste and crispy dried fish (nahm prik pla ching chang). Everything was lively with intense flavours and had us so enthralled we visited twice so that we could sample more of the menu.

Nam Yoi is an institution amongst Phuket locals and it’s clear to see why. The freshness of ingredients, many of which are foraged from the surrounding forests, is incredible. The menu is expansive, as is customary with most of Thailand’s restaurants, but we stuck to the local southern dishes and were not disappointed. Pork belly braised in black pepper caramel (mu hong) is an irresistible comfort dish that walks the tightrope between sweet and salty, providing balance to the many spicy dishes in the southern repertoire. We accompanied this with a dry curry of local chicken stir-fried with green peppercorns and makrut lime leaf (kua kling gai baan) – a dish so spicy it left me dizzy and reaching for the ice-cold beers. Other highlights included a split gill mushroom curry (gaeng kua het kren), wild pepper leaf wraps of cashew nuts and lemongrass in a fish sauce caramel dressing (yum dtakrai med mamumang) and turmeric-fried sand fish (pla sai tort kamin).

A visit to Peang-Prai is worth it for the picturesque setting alone as it's nestled in the forested jungle, surrounded by a lagoon and waterfalls. The restaurant is covered but still very much open air, and the main dining room is lifted high up in the tree canopy on wooden stilts, so it’s common to hear the calls of local wildlife such as birds and gibbons in the distance. Food here is again typically southern and boasts an array of fresh seafood across the menu. We tried a spicy-tart orange curry of fish and bamboo (gaeng som pla), a torch ginger salad with peanut sauce (yum djok daa-laa), chargrilled banana leaf parcels of curried crab (ngop bpu) and a spicy salad of sea grape seaweed (yum saa rai). We finished the meal with a Phuket specialty of shaved ice in sweet hibiscus flower syrup with banana starch jelly (o-aew). Truly memorable food.

Flavours of Phuket

Mor Mu Dong, Nam Yoi and Peang-Prai are all great examples of southern Thai eateries, but it’s worth noting that within Phuket Old Town one can discover dishes that are true signatures of the island and take influence from the migrant people that now call the south their home. Dishes such as mii hokkien (wok-fried egg noodles bathed in a dark soy gravy with seafood and a barely-set egg) draw influence from nearby Malaysia and is popular at all times of day from many vendors and shop houses.

One of the more unusual dishes that needs to be sampled to be believed is a tumble of taro, egg, tapioca batter, baby oysters, dried shrimp and pork all chopped together and fried in copious amounts of pork lard on a large flat skillet fired by charcoal (o-tao). This sticky mass is topped with fatty pork rinds, fried shallots and fresh bean sprouts, and is enjoyed by locals as an afternoon energy boost or after late-night boozing. O-tao once again has links to Hokkien (Sino-Thai) culture. Another Phuket speciality of piggy parts, namely head and offal, are braised in a five-spice broth until tender, then deep-fried so the surface becomes crispy while the inside meat remains soft and tender (lobo). The dish is eaten alongside deep-fried tofu, shrimp fritters and spring rolls, with a sweet and tart dipping sauce made from tamarind.

A fondness of spicy chilli heat, pungent shrimp paste and soothing rich coconut cream is apparent in many of the popular Thai dishes that have become associated with the cuisine of the south. But alongside these typical dishes it is clear to see a trend of Hokkien-influenced food that has been embraced with open arms by the locals and are unique specialty dishes of Phuket Province in their own right. What I find most remarkable about Phuket is just how diverse the food offering is, and how it represents a vast number of different cuisines in the many speciality dishes of the region.