The food of southern Thailand, part two: the mainland

by John Chantarasak 24 May 2022

After discovering the culinary joys of Phuket, chef John Chantarasak leaves the island to see what the mainland has to offer. Take a look at what he found and recreate some of the recipes John shares, inspired by his travels to this incredible part of the world.

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.

After a week in Phuket we packed our bags and hit the road to explore the food of a few key provinces of southern Thailand’s mainland – Krabi, Trang, Phatthalung and Songkhla. The drive from Phuket to Krabi winds through the picturesque Thap Put District, where the roads penetrate limestone mountains and lush, dense mangrove forests. Krabi province is widely known for its white sand beaches, jagged cliff faces and surrounding offshore islands, but for the culinary nerd it’s appealing for its abundance of highly prized krill (or shrimp) used to produce the famous shrimp paste (gapi) that’s ubiquitous throughout Thailand. Krabi is also a huge producer of cashew nuts, another ingredient that finds its way into many southern dishes. Cashew trees are grown for their fruit so the nuts can be harvested and processed - a painstaking task that involves burning the cashews in hot coals until blackened before peeling, roasting and drying to create the cashew nuts we recognise on our supermarket shelves.

Krabi

Ruen Mai, just outside of Krabi Town, serves some of the best southern Thai food in the area. The open-air bamboo dining rooms are nestled amongst dense forests, bringing a sense of calmness and tranquillity that contrasts with the unapologetically bold flavours on the menu. We sampled a ferociously spicy perch fish curry packed with turmeric, chillies and local herbs (gaeng prik pla ka pong), the sort of dish that leaves you breathless from the intense heat but renders you helpless, longing for more of the fragrant, umami-rich depth offered by such a dish.

Other highlights included a starter of raw shrimp dressed in fish sauce, chilli and lime juice (goong shae nahm pla), a dish reminiscent of fish ceviche found in South America, and a relish of shrimp cured in shrimp paste and chillies served with local vegetable and herbs, including white turmeric, sea grapes, bamboo shoots and cashew leaves (nahm prik goong sot). This nahm prik is typical of the region and makes use of the abundant seafood and local shrimp paste. A salad of fiddlehead ferns, pomelo, roasted coconut and cashew nuts (yum pad khood) was a delightful foil to the otherwise spicy dishes that accompanied. As is common in this part of Thailand we finished the meal with seasonal snake fruit in a sweet iced syrup (loy kaew salak) – a refreshing and restorative dish for the senses and the palate.

The following day we drove into Krabi Town for lunch at Nong Joke, a third-generation owned restaurant that started as a street stall and is now packed with locals each day. Nong Joke not only specialises in southern Thai dishes but much of its menu takes influence from the Thai-Chinese community. We ate a relish of white crab meat dressed in lashings of shrimp paste, fresh chillies and garlic and served with steamed vegetables, fresh seaweeds and ferns (nahm prik bpu). Also of note was a salad of winged beans, green mango, lemongrass, roasted coconut and assorted seafood (yum tua plu), which was energetic, with refreshing and vibrant flavours. Crispy deep-fried sand fish marinated in turmeric (pla sai tort kamin), stir-fried melinjo leaves and egg (pad pak miang kai) and steamed local sea snails with a spicy dipping sauce (hoi khom nahm jim talay) completed the meal.

Trang

From Krabi we drove further south into Trang province, which shares its coastline with the Andaman Sea. An hour's drive inland from the coast, Trang city’s morning market is well worth a visit, so we woke with the sunrise and immersed ourselves alongside the locals. I found myself inquisitively asking questions about local vegetables, wild fruits and foraged herbs, while filling our bags with dried chillies, shrimp paste, spices and specialist Thai cooking equipment. One local food I didn’t want to miss in Trang was a famous barbecued Trang roast pork (Trang mu yang). Mu yang is widely eaten across the kingdom, and with good reason – it’s delicious! 

The widely known version of this dish originates from Isaan (north-east Thailand) and is pork neck marinated in fish sauce, garlic, coriander root and white peppercorn, grilled over charcoal and served with a spicy tamarind dipping sauce. The version from Trang couldn’t be more different. Whole pigs are rubbed in a five-spice blend heavy on cassia and star anise, along with rock sugar, soy and fish sauce. The underside flesh is scored in a crisscross pattern to allow the marinade to penetrate deeply and ensure even cooking when the pigs are roasted whole over charcoal. Trang roast pork is sold by vendors all across the province, but the morning market is famously the best place to sample this speciality. Unlike conventional mu yang this version is sweet and almost candied from the marinade used, the glasslike crispy pork skin shatters when eaten and provides contrast to the juicy meat. Vendors butcher whole roasted pigs on wide wooden chopping boards with cleavers, chopping the meat into bite-sized pieces and selling to customers by weight.

Traditional roast pork, known as Trang mu yang is served at Trang city's morning market.
Crispy, fried Chinese doughnuts, also served at Trang market

Following our morning snack of Trang roast pork we bought Chinese dough sticks, freshly fried in bubbling hot woks of oil, to be eaten with pandan custard (pa thong ko sangkaya). Dim sum is also immensely popular with Trang locals with many shop houses surrounding the market, steaming bamboo baskets of dumplings from the early hours of each morning. All of these foods have a very obvious connection to the Thai-Chinese immigrants that have made Trang province their home.

On another morning in Trang we ate a typical southern breakfast of steamed rice with local vegetables, fruits, herbs, roasted coconut, chilli powder and dried shrimp floss (khao yam). This rice salad is bound together with a savoury, tart and umami sauce made from fermented ocean fish sauce (nahm budu) that is poured over and mixed table-side with the addition of freshly squeezed lime juice. A healthy, nourishing and delicious start to any morning.

Phatthalung

An hour's drive east of Trang will take you to Phatthalung, one of only two landlocked provinces in southern Thailand. Phatthalung is on the Malay Peninsula, on the west bordered by the mountainous Nakhon Si Thammarat range, while on the east it hugs Songkhla Lake, the largest natural lake in Thailand. Phatthalung is a peaceful province that benefits from lush green pastures, paddy fields, dense mangrove forests and plenty of culinary delights to be discovered. Lad Tainod's Green Market is a place to buy local products, handcrafted items and speciality southern street food. We snacked on wild pepper leaf wrappers housing a nutty palm sugar caramel studded with chillies, lime, dried shrimp and toasted coconut (miang kham), plus a selection of sweets including tapioca layered with sweet coconut cream (kanom sako gati), coconut and rice flour jellies (khanom chan) that are brightly coloured from the use of green pandan leaf and blue pea flowers.

A selection of sweets from Lad Tainod's Green Market
Southern-style barbecue chicken, known as gai golae

While in Phatthalung we took direction from a friend and drove off the beaten track to a vendor selling southern-style barbecue chicken (gai golae). This famous dish consists of chicken spiked on long wooden skewers and bathed in a curry paste marinade rich in chillies, turmeric, ginger, dry spices, roasted coconut and cashew nuts. The skewers are slowly cooked over charcoal until smoky and are eaten alongside cucumber pickle (ajut) and sticky rice (khao neow). Golae is a fusion dish with influence from Muslim communities that travelled north from Malaysia, and has now been adopted by the people of southern Thailand due to its wide popularity.

Songkhla

We next drove to Songkhla province, which hugs the Gulf of Thailand and is home to two main cities; the capital of Songkhla and the newer, larger city of Hat Yai. The former is home to vivid street art and has a quaint downtown area with an assortment of street vendors and shop houses selling a variety of foods. During our short time we had breakfast at Nong Yao, a legendary shop house that has a vast choice of curries, stir-fries and side dishes to eat alongside rice. We tried a thin yellow curry of white perch and pineapple (gaeng lueng pla), chicken and aubergine green curry (gaeng keow wan gai), five-spice braised pork and eggs (mu parlow), fish maw curry (gaeng ka por pla) and a dry red curry of pork and makrut lime leaf (pad prik king).

At a street stall with no English translated name, we sampled thick rice noodles stir-fried with soy, crispy pork belly and kale (pad see ew mu krob) and round yellow noodles fried with egg and Chinese broccoli (lo mein kai pak khana). These noodle dishes were cooked by the shop house owner and had the recognisable taste of experience and skill from cooking these dishes for many years – both versions were the best I’ve ever tried. Other highlights from Songkhla included sweet egg cupcakes (kanom kai) and crepes filled with shredded salted coconut flesh (kanom luk don), both cooked in traditional cast-iron moulds over charcoal tao burners.

Nong Yao's chicken and aubergine green curry, or gaeng keow wan gai
Lo mein kai pak khana – round yellow noodles fried with egg and Chinese broccoli

Hat Yai

For our final stop we headed to Hat Yai, a sprawling commercial hub that boasts a large student population and perhaps some of the best fried chicken (gai tort) in the country. I love fried chicken at the best of times, but hearing that this was a popular breakfast option in Hat Yai really got me excited. It’s hard to pin down a favourite spot to indulge in this morning treat but two of our favourites were Kaitod Meena and Kaitod Sofeeya. Kaitod Meena is nestled in the downtown street market and is run by a Thai-Muslim family. Here you can choose to have your freshly fried chicken chopped up and served over biryani-style rice that’s fragrant with dry spices and fresh turmeric. Those in the know shower their plates of fried chicken and rice with freshly deep-fried shallots and additional crispy chicken skin – what’s not to like? Kaitod Sofeeya is somewhat of an anomaly in that it opens late afternoon and is often sold out in a matter of hours. All parts of the chicken, including offal, are freshly fried in giant bubbling woks of oil, to be eaten alongside sticky rice, crispy shallots and sweet chilli sauce. 

In Hat Yai, fried chicken is a popular breakfast option, as John discovered.
A selection of freshly steamed dim sum at Hat Yai's Chokdee Dim Sum

Two more restaurants in Hat Yai need special mention for the sheer brilliance of the food on offer: Chokdee Dim Sum is a fantastic breakfast spot where the focus is on freshly steamed dim sum including the more familiar har gow, shu mai and salted egg custard buns, with other less familiar dishes such as chive dumplings in black soy, pork stuffed bitter gourd and rice paper wrappers of bamboo. Another dish not to be missed at Chokdee is a deeply savoury pork bone broth (bak kut teh) packed with medicinal spices such as angelica root, goji berries and black dates. The other restaurant is Phun Ban, which specialises in country-style southern cooking, with bold and at times unusual flavours used throughout the menu. This was probably the spiciest meal we ate in the south and dishes included a dry turmeric curry of wild deer and green peppercorns (kua kling kwang), a thin sour orange curry of white perch and gooseberries (gaeng som pla), and an unusual chilli dip of water beetles and shrimp paste, eaten with chargrilled bitter beans (nahm prik maeng da sator yang).

The nahm prik was like nothing I'd ever tried before: spicy, umami and savoury, with a candied pear drop aroma (a trait of maeng da – water beetles). When eaten alongside the bitter and astringent chargrilled sator beans it sent the mind into a flavour meltdown – a dish so uniquely different to anything I had ever tried before that it made me realise just how vast southern Thailand’s dish repertoire really is. I’m already planning my next trip back to further explore and be inspired for my menu at AngloThai.