In spite, or perhaps because, of Phuket’s position as one of Thailand’s most popular tourist destinations, the island’s cuisine is one of the country’s most endangered.
That’s not to say there’s no good food to eat – Phuket is packed with restaurants serving international cuisine, and there’s lively street food scene, albeit primarily focussed on dishes originating from elsewhere in Thailand.
But true Phuket food – with influences from India, Malaysia, the Hokkien region of China and, in particular, the Peranakan ethnic group – is increasingly difficult to find, and the real thing is almost exclusively touted in Phuket town rather than elsewhere around the island.
That said, it’s certainly there for those prepared to hunt; indeed, in 2015 Phuket’s culinary heritage was recognised on the UNESCO Creative Cities list. Here’s what to eat when you’re in Phuket.
Kanom jeen is a dish of rice noodles ladled with curry, and it’s one that’s served across the country. But Phuket’s speciality version of crab curry is testament to the island’s bounty of fresh seafood from the Andaman Sea. This rich, coconut-based curry features a spicy paste that throws in local betel leaves, alongside generous amounts of crab meat. Like elsewhere around Thailand, the curry and noodles are served with plenty of pickled and fresh vegetables to take the bite off the fiery curry. And whether with noodles or just good old rice, crab curry is a favourite at long-standing Phuket restaurants like Raya and Blue Elephant.
Here’s a true Phuket dish that should be on any foodie’s checklist for a visit to this southern Thai island. Moo hong is a sweet, deliciously decadent and curried-looking peppery dish of pork belly braised in soy sauce and five-spice, and it’s another speciality that restaurants like Raya are especially famous for.
The Chinese influence on Phuket’s cuisine is evident in the prevalence of dim sum on the island. Dim sum is a popular breakfast staple in Phuket and, in Phuket town in particular, numerous restaurants turn out little plates of dim sum from the early morning, to be savoured alongside Chinese-style tea.
Looking much like broad beans, pad sataw – known in English as stink beans – are widely consumed across southern Thailand, and are well known for their pungent taste and aroma. They are commonly stir-fried with shrimp paste and prawns, often with a generous helping of fresh chilli for a suitably spicy southern Thai dish.
Across much of southern Thailand, pancake-like roti is eaten with curries almost as commonly as steamed rice, the preferred accompaniment in much of the rest of the country. Roti and curry is especially prevalent in restaurants serving Thai-Muslim cuisine – popular dishes for soaking up with roti include massuman and green curries.
Looking for truly authentic snacks that hail from Phuket? Look no further than ahpong. These cigar-shaped, crepe-like snacks, made from a rice flour batter, come in both sweet and savoury varieties; they’re cooked in a wok over charcoal, and either flavoured with coconut or served with vegetables. Small, long-standing street stalls in Phuket still tout ah-pong (one such stall is Ahpong Mae Sunee on Yaowarat Road’s Soi Soon Utis) but, like many other Phuket dishes, ah-pong is one that’s increasingly hard to find.
Equally prevalent across southern Thailand, and telling of the region’s proximity to neighbouring Malaysia, is coffee – or rather kopi, to use the Malay word that’s commonly heard. Many places still make it the traditional way, sieved through socks and served as a hot or cold long shot, and of course sweetened with lots of condensed milk – this is still Thailand, after all!
Which are your favourite dishes from Phuket? Let us know in the comments!
Kanom jeen accompaniments photo by happysnappa1966; dim sum photo by Phuket@photographer.net; kopi photo by Rob Taylor; curry pastes photo by Ryan Snyder