An insider’s guide to Phuket and Food in Phuket

It’s hard to believe that when I first came to live in Phuket 30 years ago, it was a really quiet place.Back then the island was covered mostly by jungle,rubber trees and rice fields,the roads were small and quiet with very little traffic,there were very few tourists.The main form of entertainment was sitting on one of the quiet beaches and doing nothing much.I never imagined that eventually tourism would change Phuket the way that it did .The transformation of Phuket into a major tourist destination has led to many good things but there have also been some drawbacks,more on this shortly.

In the early 90s Phuket started to change in a big way,it had been discovered by the tourist industry and people were raving about it’s natural unspoiled beauty plus the charming and welcoming local people.Tourism started with mostly European independent travelers,people who came on their own(as opposed to in a tour group), and were in general quite adventurous and very good for Phuket’s economy.Then more and more tourists started coming and Phuket’s landscape changed dramatically.Land prices shot up.

In the past,in local Phuket families when dealing with inheritances,the less favoured children were given the land by the coast which was regarded as being not so good for farming.People didn’t really want to have the salty land near the sea.This all changed radically with the advent of tourism.Some people were suddenly sitting on some very expensive land,poor fishing families became multi millionaires overnight but this in many cases did not end well.I know of 2 families who made a huge amount of money from selling their land only to lose it all within a few years with tragic consequences.

In the meantime Phuket’s economy was becoming totally dependent on only one thing – tourism,this was especially evident after the 2004 tsunami struck.For several months afterwards very few tourists came and the local people suffered a lot financially.However Phuket recovered quite quickly and became ever more popular.

Despite all the “busy-ness” at the same time Phuket became a more interesting place.The beautiful beaches and islands were still there but now there were a lot more things to do in Phuket.Phuket offered something for everybody and for all budgets.The super rich could stay there at 8 star hotels or keep their super yachts at one of the marinas but at the same time people with more modest means could have a great time too.People from all over the world came to live in Phuket bringing with them new skills and ideas to ply their trades there.This has especially led to a very vibrant phuket restaurant scene.

Changes

Over the years the tourism situation has changed a lot.In the beginning most visitors to Phuket came from the west,then after the 2008 economic recession they were replaced by huge numbers of Russian visitors,because whilst in the west the economy was tanking in Russia it was booming,the timing for Phuket was perfect.Then the Russians in turn had their own economic problems but yet again Phuket was lucky,Chinese visitors had started coming.Presently more independent Chinese travellers are starting to come,this will be good for everyone.

The Expats

Many foreigners have made Phuket their home.Phuket has many of the conveniences of a developed country with  good schools,hospitals,an international airport,good housing,shopping centers,yachting,golf,restaurants etc.Life can be pretty good in Phuket but like the saying goes”life is what you make it”.The biggest enemy of expats here is boredom.My advice to any foreigners who want to live here is to have a job or some very interesting hobbies.I myself have both.I enjoy doing watersports and Phuket is a great place for that.You can for example fish,dive,surf,kitesurf,windsurf,sail and stand up paddle surf in beautiful locations with nice warm weather all year round.

What I like about Phuket

  • beautiful beaches and islands
  • a lot of things to do for all budgets
  • great food
  • locals are easy going
  • many conveniences

What I don’t like about Phuket

  • the way people drive and the number of vehicles on the road
  • more pollution
  • not enough public transportation
  • it’s getting more expensive

 

The delicious food of Thailand

For many visitors food is one of the main reasons for choosing Thailand as a destination.Thai people take their food very seriously and they have turned it into an art form with an abundance of ingredients and influences.In Thailand there is literally food all around you,motorbikes with sidecars have been converted to small restaurants,driving around selling food all over the place.In almost every street food is sold from underneath big umbrellas or tents and there is an abundance of restaurants and markets nationwide.You will not go hungry in Thailand.

In addition to this, you can now also learn how to make many of Thailand’s most delicious dishes at a cooking school in Phuket which offers cooking classes.Some schools now offer a vegan cooking class and do vegetarian cooking too.

A brief history of Phuket and it’s Food.

Phuket has throughout history had foreign visitors coming to it’s shores.Indian merchants founded Phuket Town in the 1st century BC,then Portuguese,French and British merchants came to trade in tin .In the early 19th century the tin mining boom took Phuket by storm and attracted thousands of Chinese labourers.The Chinese came to Phuket as poor labourers but in the end they owned most of the tin mines and they intermarried with the Thais giving rise to a new culture.They are until today still known as the Baba people.Many hotels in Phuket are now owned by these Thai,Chinese families who initially made their money in the tin business.

Foreigners have had a profound influence on Phuket’s food.From nearby India came not only the Buddhist religion,but also spicy seasonings such as cumin,cardamon and coriander,as well as curry dishes.The Malays to the south further shared seasonings,as well as their love for coconuts and satay.Thai people themselves originally came from southern China about 2000 years ago.They brought with them the spicy cooking of their native Yunan province, as well  as it’s dietary staple rice.Other Chinese influences on Thai cooking are the use of noodles,dumplings,soy sauce and other soy products.Like the Chinese,the Thais based their recipes on blending 5 basic flavours : salty,sweet,sour,bitter and hot.Thai cooking is carefully balanced to bring out all the flavours in a dish.

Phuket with it’s multi cultural population has a huge variety of food.In Phuket’s main tourist areas you will find a lot of non Thai food,like for example Russian,Indian,Italian,English,American,Israeli,Turkish and German food.The Thai food you find there can sometimes(but definitely not always) be a bit adapted to western tastes,they call it fusion cuisine.Check out where the local Thais eat,that’s where you will find the real Thai food and it will be much cheaper too.Phuket town is the place with the most Thai eateries.The part of phuket town which they call the “old town” is both interesting and it has good food too.Local markets are also a great source for some great Thai dishes,fruit and snacks.

 

Staples and Specialities.

Rice

Rice is totally central in the Thai food culture.When for example Phuket Thai people greet each other in the Thai language they say “Gin Kao riang?”which literally means,have you eaten rice yet?.To eat is to eat rice and for most of the country a meal without rice is unacceptable.

Thailand is the world’s biggest exporter of rice,there are many varieties.The highest quality one is called jasmine rice.In the north and north east people eat a lot of “sticky rice”,a glutinous short-grained rice that is cooked by steaming,not boiling.In Chinese style eateries ‘kow tom” is often eaten,this is boiled rice that is a kind of rice porridge,Thai people often eat this for breakfast.

 

Noodles

The most popular types of noodles are made from rice flour mixed with water to form a paste,which is then steamed to form wide flat sheets,the sheets are then sliced into noodles of different widths.When you at a noodle stand and you want to order, you just point out to the vendor which width noodles you would like to have.They are out on display.

There are 5 main noodle dishes.

The first dish is called “goo ay dee o” you can eat this with pork stock along with meatballs and various vegetables.This dish is eaten around the clock as a quick snack.Just point out to the vendor which noodles you would like to have(the narrow or wide ones) and then the things you would like to have in it.

For foreigners the most well known noodle dish is “Pad Thai”.Thin rice noodles are stir fried with dried or fresh shrimp,bean sprouts,tofu,egg and seasonings,the dish is traditionally served with lime halves and a few stalks of Chinese chives.Many foreigners love this dish,including my sister who ate this every day whilst she was here on holiday.

Another kind of noodle is called “kanom Cheen”,it’s produced by pushing rice flour through a sieve into boiling water ,much the way Italian pasta is made,curries,vegetables and herbs are added,it’s a popular morning market meal.

The third noodle dish is called “ba-mee”it’s made from wheat flour and egg.It’s yellowish in colour .After being briefly boiled the noodles are mixed with broth and meat,typically barbecued pork or crab.

Then there is “wun sen”these noodles are almost clear.They are soaked in hot water for a few minutes and a hot and tangy salad is added,this salad contains lime juice,tiny chillies,shrimp,ground pork and various seasonings.

 

Curries and Soups.

Thai cuisine is famous for it’s classic paste based curries.The typical ingredients of a curry paste are – dried chili,galangal.lemon grass,kaffir lime zest,shallots,garlic,shrimp paste and salt,these are all put together in a stone mortar where they are mashed,grinded and pounded with a pestle to form a thick paste.The red colour of the paste comes from the dried red chillies,for green curry green chillies are used.

There are 3 main types of curries.One is quite spicy and is called “Gaang pet”(hot curry),this is the most traditional one.Another one is called “Gaang panaeng”,this one is much milder as the heat has been brought down by the presence of ground peanuts.Then there is “Gaang kee o wan”which literally means “sweet green curry”,here green chillies are used instead of red ones,this is also a much milder one.The curries can be made as spicy (or not spicy at all) as you wish.

Most curries are blended in a heated pan with coconut cream,to which the chef adds the rest of the ingredients, such as meat,poultry,seafood and/or vegetables.A vegetarian curry can also be made.

Most Thais eat curries only for breakfast or lunch,and the average curry shop is open from 7am to 2pm only,tourist restaurants serve curries all day though.

2 of Thailand’s most famous soups are Tom Yam and Tom Ka Gai.Tom Yam is a type of hot and sour Thai soup,usually cooked with shrimp.The broth is made up of fresh ingredients such as lemon grass,kaffir lime,leaves,galangal,lime juice,fish sauce and crushed chilli peppers.Tom Ka Gai is a spicy and sour hot soup with coconut milk.Most Tom Ka Gai recipes typically include coconut milk,galangal,kaffir lime leaves,lemongrass,Thai chilli peppers,coriander,straw mushrooms,chicken,fish sauce and lime juice,this dish is made much milder(less spicy)by the addition of coconut soup and is very popular among westernersThis dish can be adapted to be vegetarian too.

 

Stir – Fries

The simplest dishes in the Thai culinary repertoire are the various stir fries introduced to Thailand by the Chinese.The Thai word for stir fry is “pad” and there is a long list of them.Here are some of the more well known ones : kao pad gai(fried rice with chicken),pad thai gai(fried noodles with chicken),pad ga pow(chicken or pork stir fried with garlic,soy and fish sauce) and pad piao wan(sweet and sour pork).

 

Salads

The Thai word for salad is “yam”,Thai salads are typically based around seafood, vegetables or meats.Lime juice provides the tang.Other ingredients vary considerably but plenty of vegetables and herbs are usually present.Most yam are usually served at room temperature or just slightly warmed by any cooked ingredients.The most famous Thai salad is the “Som Tam”,it’s one of the most popular dishes in Thailand.This is a salad made with strips of green papaya to which garlic,palm sugar,green beans,tomatoes,lime juice,fish sauce and chilli are added.Som Tam is often sold by motorbikes with sidecar restaurants,if you would like to try it but you aren’t used to eating spicy food then let the vendor know you only want a little chilli,or actually no chilli at all because the mortar in which everything is prepared will already contain a little chilli already,usually vendors will ask  beforehand how much chilli you want .

 

Fruits.

Being a tropical country Thailand has a huge variety of fruit with delicious pineapples,mangoes,magosteen,longan,watermelons, rambutans etc.There are a variety of mangoes which are eaten at different stages of ripeness.Some are green and taste a bit like apples whilst others are very juicy and sweet,these are the ones that are used to make a very nice desert which consists of mangoes and sticky rice.You will find the more exotic fruits at the local market.There is also what they call the “king of fruits”,this is the “durian”,this is a big spiky fruit which has a very strong smell.You either love it or hate it but in Asia it is much loved.Because of the very strong smell many hotels strictly forbid this fruit on their premises, often with the threat of quite high fines.

 

Here is one of our more popular recipes – Fried Noodles with Prawns or Chicken or vegetarian.

Ingredients (per person)

1 cup of rice noodles

4 prawns

2 eggs

2-3 table spoons tofu cut up

2 table spoons crushed peanuts

1 tablespoon sugar

1 table spoon fish sauce

1 cup of water

5 table spoons tamarind sauce

1-2 shallots cut up

1 cup bean sprouts

1 small cup cooking oil

1 stick of spring onion or chai

Preparation  method

1.Mix tamarind ,palm sugar with one cup of water

2.Heat the wok until hot,add cooking oil and then fry tofu,shallots and prawns  then put everything on a plate

3.Put rice noodles in wok and add water,tamarind sauce,cook until sauce dry.Add fish sauce and sugar.

4.Put the tofu,shallots and prawns that are on a plate,back in the wok with the rice noodles mixture.Add half of peanuts.

5.Mix everything well and put on side of wok

6.Put more oil in wok,add egg with fish sauce,cook egg about 80 percent.

7.Move the noodle mixture from the side onto the egg.Put bean sprouts and chai and mix well

8.Put on plate and put peanuts on top