When Michelin announced in May that it would be expanding its 2019 Thailand guide to include the best food of Phuket and Phang-nga provinces, eyebrows were raised. Could the tourist haven’s restaurants really stand shoulder to shoulder with the country’s sophisticated capital?
Still, local food aficionados were quick on the defence. “Phuket has flavours that you don’t find anywhere else in the country,” says Dwight Turner of popular Thai food blog bkkfatty.com. “It’s sort of like a stew of Indian, Malay and Thai cultures. The food that comes out of that is something special.”
Phuket’s image as a melting pot of a wide range of cultures is the result of its history as a commercial trading port that drew visitors from far and wide. Phuket Town also played host to a tin mining boom from the 1850s to the mid-1900s, luring many Hokkien Chinese from Fujian province to its shores. The result is a mix of Hokkien Chinese, southern Thai, Thai-Muslim and Malay influences unlike anywhere else in Thailand.
All of those social and cultural influences have filtered down into Phuket’s food, which offers a host of unique dishes. Here, the flavour profile can swing wildly from the sweet-and-salty tastes of the Hokkien Chinese to the fearsome spice of southern Thailand.
For this reason, Phuket is worth a stop on any serious food lover’s radar, says Samantha Proyruntong of influential F&B website bangkokfoodies.com. “There are a number of gems and little guys kicking a** that deserve the same degree of attention as some Bangkok restaurants,” the Phuket native explains.
Even better, these are not expensive eateries but streetside stalls run by the second or third generation of the families that founded them. These locals have absorbed their diverse ancestry to create dishes unique to the island – dishes like the flour, egg and coconut milk pancake known as ah pong or the sweet ang-gu, made with sticky rice flour, sugar and nuts. It’s not just that these are the best versions of these dishes but that they can’t be found anywhere else in Thailand.
Whether Michelin awards this culinary originality is yet to be seen. In the meantime, these are the five Phuket-only eats you simply must try.
Moo Hong (Pork Belly Stew)
This slow-cooked pork belly stew in a peppery gravy is a bewitching mix of meat, sweetness, umami and spice wreathed in a halo of fat. Traditionally served during Hokkien Chinese celebrations, this dish is typically accompanied by fluffy white rice. Perhaps the most famous incarnation of it is served at Raya, widely considered one of the island’s most famous local restaurants. Set in a barely renovated Sino-Portuguese shophouse in the Old Town, Raya has formed a big part of the Phuket food scene for nearly three decades, with its version of moo hong being one of the restaurant’s signatures.
The recipe – concocted by Raya Chessadawan, the restaurant’s now-septuagenarian owner – involves big chunks of pork belly braised for three hours, with near-continuous stirring, explains the bespectacled Suchitra Chesadaval, who helps manage the restaurant. “The dish is originally Hokkien Chinese but we have our own spin on it,” she said, taking a break from tallying checks during a busy lunch service. “We can’t tell you everything that goes into it, but there is garlic, peppercorns and Phuket soy sauce, which is more rounded in flavour than regular soy sauce.”
O-Aew (Jelly Dessert)
Another Hokkien Chinese-style street staple that is seeing a renaissance is this unique dessert. It consists of a jelly made from the extracts of banana and a special fig seed originating from Taiwan that was brought to the island by Chinese immigrants. The most popular vendor of this unusual local favourite is Aniroj Thantara, also known as “Mr Roj O-aew”, who sells this sweet treat in front of Vachira Phuket Hospital.
“Mr Roj” was the first vendor to add red beans to his o-aew, an innovation that adds texture and bulk
to the dessert and has since been imitated by many rivals. He makes his jelly by hand, a process that takes eight hours, but must sell all of his handiwork by the next day, because o-aew spoils easily. All the same, “I will sell this until I can’t anymore,” says the 62-year-old, who has been selling streetside for 44 years. “There is nothing else I want to do.”
O-Tao (Oyster Omelette)
This unusual sounding dish is also one of the most iconic of Phuket street foods. A melange of boiled taro, baby oysters, egg, flour, onion and garlic with lashings of soy sauce and, of course, a scattering of deep-fried pork rinds, this dish is traditionally eaten during Chinese New Year. The stickiness of the flour and taro is supposed to mimic the “stickiness” of the bonds between family members.
The pork rind-topped oyster omelette has experienced a resurgence in popularity over the past few years, thanks in part to an increased interest in Phuket heritage foods and to street food in general.
The origins of this snack can be easily traced to Ji Pien, located in the middle of Phuket’s Chinatown. O-tao was brought to Phuket from Fujian province in southeastern China by the namesake and original founder of the 80-year-old stall. The eatery may have moved around town multiple times over its lifetime but has never truly left the streets. “We
are still up and running, although sometimes we have to take a break from time to time,” says the affable Wimon Angsitakul, who has brought the stall into its third generation of operation as the granddaughter-in-law of the founder.
Mee Pad Hokkien (Fried Noodles)
One of Phuket’s best known Hokkien-inspired dishes is mee pad Hokkien, made up of thick egg noodles fried in dark soy sauce, marinated pork, dried shrimp and Chinese kale, topped with a fried egg, slivered raw shallots and a handful of deep-fried pork rinds.
The undisputed champion of this dish is open-air food shack Mee Ton Poe, named after the sacred bodhi tree next to the eatery. Opened by family founder “Ah Gong” in 1946, this vendor continues to reign supreme. Such was its standing that the kitchen even concocted its own version of the dish two years ago. Named after the shop, the updated version, mee ton poe, adds oysters and fishballs to the mix.
Now into its third generation of ownership, the once humble streetside eatery has four branches, allows reservations and can even deliver your noodles to your hotel if you’re staying in the Phuket Town area.
“The mee ton poe has more of the things that people like: more seafood, more meat,” says owner Suchart Anchee, who stands out among the busy waitstaff, thanks to her vivid pink lipstick and visor. “It has been far more popular than the original.”
Look Chin Pla (Steamed Fish Balls)
One Phuket culinary specialities to not look to the Hokkien community for inspiration, look chin pla (fish balls) originated from the Teochew Chinese, who emigrated here from southern China in the 19th century. Unlike the fish balls normally used in soups elsewhere in Thailand, these are served dry.
Often enjoyed for breakfast, they can now be found on the menu of almost every Phuket eatery,
but the dish was created at old-school Chinese-Thai institution Laemthong Seafood. It’s a cavernous dining room with circular faux-wood tables that probably looks the same as when it first opened almost 50 years ago.
Long-time server Yubol Laewnga, who sports a head of white hair, and who has worked the dining room since it opened, explains that the steamed fish ball dish came about as a way of utilising the odds and ends of white fishmeat. Mixed by hand to ensure the tenderness of the meat, the balls are made of 100% fish, “never any fillers like flour,” the sixtysomething Yubol attests. The balls are then boiled for 20 minutes to attain maximum bounce without chewiness.
Once finished, the fish balls, which are the size of a small fist, are served with raw celery and lettuce to mitigate any fishiness, a gentle shower of deep-fried garlic and a fiery fresh chili-and-lime dipping sauce that is most definitely Thai-inspired. The final recipe proved such a hit that it is now ubiquitous, but local foodies know to get them here. “We still serve many, many kilogrammes of fish balls every day,” says Yubol.
Pushing the boundaries of Thai cuisine in Phuket
Three Michelin-worthy fine-dining restaurants
Suay Restaurant – Meaning “beautiful” in Thai, this pretty space serves Thai food with Western touches like Isaan-style yellowfin tuna and beef in green curry.
Black Ginger – Helmed by chef Anongrat Meklai, who elevates Phuket dishes like the Hokkien-style oyster omelette o-tao with top-quality ingredients.
PRU – Serving seasonal dishes with ingredients from its own farm; star items include the pickled and marinated sea bass with cold cucumber broth.
This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of Silkwinds magazine.