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Insider's guide to Phuket

Thai chef Amy Chanta gives gives Pat Nourse an insider’s guide to Phuket that reveals Thailand’s party central is in fact home to a distinctive regional cuisine all its own.

By Pat Nourse
Amy Chanta is on her third breakfast. "When I'm in Thailand I'm always eating," she says between bites of roti. We're at Thaew Nam Roti on a busy intersection of Thalang Road in Phuket Town. It's an eatery that has been packing locals in with its roti nam geang (flatbreads and fried eggs served with a range of Thai Muslim curries) for more than 50 years. Frequent travel all over the length of Thailand, says Chanta, is essential to keep the menus ticking over and flavours true at her acclaimed Chat Thai restaurants in Sydney, and Phuket is a favourite destination. Where other travellers might come back from the island's teeming beaches with braided hair or a new calf tattoo, Chanta's souvenirs are more in the manner of the stunning turmeric-stained curry of crab she now serves at her Haymarket and CBD Westfield eateries.
Though she's a mainlander, Chanta has been travelling to Phuket for more than a decade. It's partly because, unlike most of Thailand's islands, the area has a distinctive regional food culture all its own: jungle herbs, vegetables and the fruits of the sea are mingled with flavours influenced by the island's Hokkien Chinese, Muslim, Portuguese and Tamil history. It's a side of the island that's a million miles from the party vibe of Patong, steeped in culture and detailed in amazing tastes. It's the other Phuket, the real Phuket, and it's essential for any food-loving traveller.
Apart from being a three-breakfast kind of gal, Chanta has other significant advantages in the gourmet-travelling stakes. She has 20 years' worth of former staff settled all over Thailand, for one thing, and this outstanding source of intel is bolstered by a stream of new cooks and waiters coming to work for her in Australia. Her approach melds open-minded curiosity with a cook's rigour when it comes to seeking out the best dishes and then finding out how and why they work.
Back at breakfast three, Chanta points out the rotis at Thaew Nam have a distinctive texture because they're cooked very traditionally on a large piece of iron fired by charcoal, and the curries "don't have much coconut milk in them, but they're rich in spice - both signatures of Muslim curries". People flock to the café to sit under the framed Arabic script and faded Milo and Carnation sign, and drink tea and coffee poured over a good finger of condensed milk. "It's like a town hall," she says. "People come here in the morning to talk politics and catch up on the news while they eat."
Another of the longer-established venues on the Chanta hit-list is Mee Ton Poe, a Hokkien noodle shop with a distinct Phuket bent. Though it's in a perfectly urban neighbourhood, it's as much shed as it is restaurant, and it takes its name from the vast spreading bodhi tree above it. Kittens dance between the tables, and a vendor grills pork satay sticks out the front as we hook into bowls of stir-fried Hokkien noodles enriched with runny-yolked egg, tiny oysters, fried shallots and crisp pork rinds and a superb green-curry rice with wedges of salted duck egg. "This place has been open for about 70 years, and I've been coming here for eight," says Chanta. "The thing about these Hokkien noodles is their texture - you never see them this tender in Australia."
Mor Mu Dong is another stayer, with generations of the same family working the pans. The location here, though, is as rustic as the salas, the open-sided thatched shacks where the food is served. The sandy walkways are planted with betel leaves, sawtooth coriander, pandan and trees hung with tiny sour mangoes, and the dining is done overlooking the machinations of a million tiny crabs waving at each other across the mangroves. Part of the thrill here is the number of dishes you just won't see in any other part of Thailand - a bubble-textured seaweed tossed with shreds of poached squid and a double helping of very hot small green chillies, say, or giant bean sprouts, thick as a child's finger, with sweet local prawns. The house version of the nam prik relish eaten with crudités is incendiary, to say the least, while the red curry of tender water snails, brightened with betel leaves from the garden, also packs a wallop. The menu's "amazing fish" is the real draw, Chanta says. The small mackerel have been artfully boned but left whole, their flesh stuffed back into them as a fine, sausage-like forcemeat with no small amount of chilli in the mix. "I ate here on my very first visit," she says. "Everyone who visits Phuket has to come here."
Chanta's base of operations on this visit is Sri Panwa, an eye-wateringly lovely resort on the island's south-east peninsula. The Thai side of its breakfast spread is impressive, and suggests a large chunk of the resort's custom comes from Thailand itself, so there's nothing dumbed-down here. This being Phuket, food is everywhere. Step just outside the gates of the hotel and you need wander only metres down the promenade along the bay before you encounter street vendors. Time your stroll for just before sundown and you'll find the gentleman who makes what might just be the finest crisp, sweet rolled rotis in the known universe.
Chanta's research takes her well beyond restaurants and street stalls, too. One afternoon this mother of two and grandmother of two takes to a four-wheeled ATV to blaze down mud tracks in search of a jungle farmer who cultivates specialist Thai plants on 2.6-hectares of barely horizontal ground, not far from the Seaview Elephant Camp. As we clamber down hills lush with avocado, cashew and bamboo, he points out white and yellow turmeric, torch ginger, and the sour vine leaf known as pak som. Taking a highly specialised piece of equipment of his own devising - a steak knife tied to a long stick - the farmer cuts down a fat bell of banana blossom. The farm is completely organic, he says, and his fertiliser of choice is elephant dung. Best of all is the moment when this person I'd assumed to be a wild man of the hills reveals that he owns two restaurants and has a background in graphic design. We motor down the slopes further and find ourselves at Nui Beach, a sandy little inlet replete with a shack selling cold beers and young coconuts.
And just when I think we can't get any further off the beaten track we leave the island entirely, driving 90 minutes north and across the bridge to visit some Muslim fishing villages in the mangroves around Phang Nga Bay. First up is Bang Pat, a stilt hamlet that has something of a following among Thai food tourists, who come for the restaurants and leave with their car boots fragrant with bags of the cured seafood of all stripes drying on every available surface.
Many of the houses have caged eagles out the front, which, Chanta says, are used for fishing. We meet one little boy who has just caught his first eagle, a chick the size of a number-12 Steggles, covered in down and looking lost. What about its parents, we ask. "I'm its dad now," comes the cocky reply.
At the very edge of the village lies Krua Alee, or Alee's Kitchen, which juts out into the open bay. The food itself - fried small fish, crab fried rice, noodles with prawns - isn't life-changing stuff, but the setting is sweet. A green mango salad made with the roe of the trilobite-like horseshoe crab is the most interesting dish on display, not so much for the green peppercorn-like pop of the eggs themselves so much as the discussion about how they're said to contain tetrodotoxin, the very same potent nerve poison that gives pufferfish and blue-ringed octopus their spice. No one called for seconds, and we lived to tell the tale.
Seconds and thirds were most definitely called for at lunch two when we made our way to Baan Saam Chong Neua. "This village is still raw," says Chanta. "It's exactly the kind of place I like to find when I'm travelling." And raw is right. We end up dining not at a restaurant - the village's first is still being built - but at the mayor's little weatherboard cottage over the water. Surat Sumalee, in his natty leather hat and crisp black tee, looks a bit like a coastal Thai-Muslim version of Usher, but his welcome is unmistakably genuine when we sit down at a tiny table to a stunning spread laid out by his wife. The oysters the village grows are pale and sweet and appear in both the yam hoi nang rom salad with shallot and Asian celery and the sweet mee hoon noodles. Mud crabs are abundant here, and we eat them in a deep bowl of red curry, preposterously fresh. There are periwinkle shells - kiss cockles, the locals call them, because you bring them to your lips to suck them straight from their shells - and a kind of unfermented gapi: the shrimp paste all freshness rather than pungency, followed by a king-hit of salt, is adorned with the mild local shallots, crescents of lime and a ton of small hot chillies. Mixed through rice, it's a revelation.
Later the mayor walks us around the village. The women here appear as likely to have bows in their hair as hijabs. "I love you" is written on one wall in English. We wander to the site where they're building the restaurant, and Sumalee suggests we keep an eye on his Facebook page for updates. We hop in his longboat and motor out into the channel. There's a special cave he wants us to see. We pass small shrines dotting each mangrove island, and then nose up to a vast limestone cavern swollen with dramatic formations. The wefts of rock suck away our words; the soft silence of the cave is powerful. Sumalee points out bats, middens and burial areas. "When I was a boy there used to be a bed out here," he says, "and a cabinet for filing the bones." But there's nothing creepy about the cave - just a deep, abiding solemnity.
Contrast this with Tiffin Mama, the dining room at the Foto Hotel overlooking Kata Bay, for a mild dose of culture shock. The very polished pool terrace is packed with lobster-red sun-lovers from France and Russia, and the shelves of the dining area are lined with perfectly curated stacks of steamers, mortars and tea tins, all arranged for maximum geometric effect. And yet the food is still wonderful. In a setting where chicken Caesars and club sandwiches could very well be the norm we instead find snapper stir-fried with a floss of wild ginger, lightning bolts of young coconut, peppercorns and pea eggplant, not to mention a yellow mackerel curry abob with chunks of young banana, coconut and pickled bamboo.
We take a detour past Rawai Beach to check out the catch at the seafood stands. Between sellers of shell trinkets and gaudily coloured fried chicken are serried ranks of armoured lobsters, bagged oysters and baby abalone, heaps of prawns and razor clams, tongues dangling. The restaurants that line the other side of the street all offer "cooking services": buy your seafood, take it across to a restaurant and get it cooked to your liking for something in the vicinity of 100 baht (or $3.30) per kilo.
Probably the best seafood to be had on the island, though, is at Raya Thai Cuisine in Phuket Town, set in a well-worn freestanding 90-year-old Chinese house hung with old-Shanghai-style posters. "It's my favourite restaurant in Phuket," says Chanta. "It's definitely the number one." Her picks from its substantial menu include the lush nam prik goong siap, a relish of pounded shrimp and hot chilli served with fern tips, cucumber, slices of raw white turmeric, snake bean, cashew leaves, snake gourd and pickled giant bean sprouts for dipping. Raya is also Chanta's benchmark for its crab-packed yellow curry with noodles. "I love the way they use betel leaf in theirs, and I really enjoy its sourness." The other radical standout in a night filled with great dishes is a whole fried barramundi carpeted in crisp chips of fried turmeric and garlic.
Chanta assures me that she only likes her food "medium-spicy", but I get the feeling there might be a small discrepancy between her definition of medium-spicy and my own. This is thrown into clearest contrast the morning we venture to Mae Ting for kanom jeen. These slender, slightly sticky rice-based threads are Thailand's greatest contribution to the world of the noodle. Mae Ting is a specialist restaurant, and Chanta walks me through the routine. You pick up a bowl of noodles from the counter and then amble around to the curry pots - sweet prawn, rich beef, funky prawn paste, soothing crab. She ladles me her favourite, the fiery braise of fish guts, apple eggplant and banana known as gaeng tai pla. The broth is more or less liquid fire; the trick, she says, for medium-spicy fans like us (ahem) is to go more for the solids at first. We grab a couple of snacks from the trays on the counter and sit down at a table. It's laid with a battery of accessories: bean sprouts, pickled mustard greens, spring onions, chiffonnade banana flower, snake beans, tiny dried fish, bushels of herbs and plenty more besides - kanom jeen is a DIY-diner's paradise. For respite from the tai pla we try the kanom jeen nam prik, a caramelised curry rich with roasted peanuts, almost dessert-like in its sweetness, and garnished with a frond of lemon basil.
Kanom jeen is a morning food, and Mae Ting opens at dawn and is closed well before lunch. Right now, at eight o'clock, the place is suddenly a breakfast party. Busy to begin with, it's now crammed with noodle fans and, at one table, a few police officers deeply engrossed in their chicken curry. We've hooked into some fried chicken (I'm with three-breakfast Chanta, you recall), and we unfold our hor mok, little puddings of minced fish and coconut steamed in banana leaves. Southern-style hor mok is known for its fine texture, Chanta says, and this version is true to form. It's almost custard-like in its delicacy, and is unquestionably the finest example of the dish I've ever tasted. "The good ones aren't at all watery," Chanta tells me. The trick, apparently, is in taking your time cooking out the fish and the coconut, stirring it over a low flame for a good hour. As ever, there's no substitute for patience. I stuff another one in my mouth.
At the other end of the day, we find ourselves chasing down another of Chanta's obsessions: sweets. Chat Thai's desserts have done much to explode the idea that Asian pastries aren't much chop, and Chanta takes particular pains over their production. So it is that we find ourselves sitting by the street at 11pm at Nam Taohoo Samkong, aka Samkong Soy Drink, a famed night-vendor of soy milk in Phuket Town's northern reaches, ordering enough food for 10. Our table is loaded with bowls of sweet iced soy customised variously with tapioca, pumpkin, peanuts, jelly, lotus root and basil seeds. I take a spoonful of naam taohuay, hot with ginger juice. In the steamy island night we talk, we eat, we laugh. We talk about tomorrow's three breakfasts, and we laugh some more.
  • undefined: Pat Nourse