For many , visiting Thailand’s largest island in the Andaman Sea involves long neon-filled nights on Patong’s main drag, and days staking out shady spots on the long stretches of white palm tree-backed sand. It’s Thailand’s answer to Ibiza, albeit without the wallet-busting prices.
Few farang realise Phuket’s culinary scene is one of the most nuanced, complex and increasingly endangered in the country. An important port and trading post, the island was exposed to influences from China, India and the Malay Peninsula long before the rest of Thailand. The ingredients and cooking methods brought in morphed its cuisine into a fusion of Asian flavours found nowhere else. To hang on to generations-old recipes among a swath of new eateries catering to a boom in international visitors, the city was awarded UNESCO status for its gastronomy in 2017.
To delve into a unique food experience, intrepid diners need to drag themselves off the sand and cross over to the Old Town in Phuket City. Here is a guide to the best eats in the island’s capital.
Any discussion on Phuketian food always includes a mention of ah-pong, a light, wafer-thin crepe made from rice flour and coconut milk rolled up into a cigar-shaped snack. Unfortunately, they’re placed firmly on the list of endangered dishes and increasingly difficult to find. Perhaps that’s why there’s always a queue forming along Soi Soon Utis where Ahpong Mae Sunee, a tiny street food stall, almost single-handedly keeps ah-pong on the culinary map. Here, you can watch the owner cook the snack in the traditional way – swirling just the right amount of batter into six mini-woks juggling each over charcoal-fuelled barbecues.
Ahpong Mae Sunee, Soon Utis Alley, Phuket. Open 9am-3pm
To the uninitiated, a plate of loba is the equivalent of jumping into the deep end of the resort’s pool without knowing how to swim. Those who do make the leap of faith are presented with the island’s most beloved dish – a tumbling pile of nose to tail pork offal slowly braised in Chinese five spice and lightly fried. Prized South East Asian food isn’t just about flavour, it’s about texture too, and the chewy but crisp morsels dipped in accompanying tangy tamarind sauce deliver on both.
Loba Maeyanang, opposite the Chinese Shrine on Krabi Road, Phuket.
Visiting families from Bangkok don’t leave the island without having had a bowl of steamy mee leung pad Hokkien sai kai from Lock Tien, an open-air restaurant in the heart of the Old Town. The riotous bowl of flavours starts with a base of chewy, yellow egg noodles topped with slices of tender, slightly sweetened barbecued red pork, lightly blanched squid and crunchy Chinese cabbage swimming in a thick, smoky gravy made from pork broth and soy sauce. You can order with a soft poached egg whose broken yolk coats the egg noodles and creates a creamier version. To pep up the dish the right way for you, experiment with some of the table condiments like vinegar and dried chilli flakes.
Lock Tien, 173 Yaowarat Rd, Phuket, +66 87 387 3703. Open 9am-5pm
Moo hong is one of Southern Thailand’s most celebrated dishes: a stew of tender pork belly slow-cooked in a paste of palm sugar, minced garlic, fragrant coriander root, and spicy black peppercorns with star anise, oyster sauce and thick soy sauce which imparts a light aniseed flavour. Each local eatery has its own recipe – some are sweet and sticky, others are more savoury with an emphasis on a peppery kick. Most agree that the best comes from Raya, a relatively expensive restaurant in the Old Town housed within a beautiful, former Sino-Portuguese home.
Raya Restaurant, 48 Dibuk Rd, Tambon Talat Yai, Phuket, +66 76 218 155. Open 10am-10pm
Por pia, often called Fujian-style fresh spring rolls, arrived with Chinese immigrants who settled on the island. If you like Peking duck pancakes, the light flour crepes rolled around Chinese cured sausage, bean sprouts, slices of omelette and smothered in a thick, sweetened sauce, will be right up your street. Peanuts and crispy pork skin are sometimes included for texture, while premium por pia is topped with crab meat. If you’re forgetting your diet on holiday, try the deep-fried version called por pia tod.
Natural Restaurant, 62/5 Soi Phutorn, Bangkok Road, Phuket. Open 10.30am-11.30pm
Southern Thai cuisine is spicy, but no dish matches the unapologetically hot khua kling. If you shy away from vindaloo at your local Indian takeaway, khua kling won’t be for you. Those of a more phall-persuasion might be better equipped in handling the minced pork or chicken wok-fried in lemongrass, galangal, shredded kaffir lime leaves and exorbitant number of sliced chillies.
Wilai Restaurant, 18 Thalang Rd, Tambon Talat Yai, Phuket, +66 83 606 9776. Open 11am-9pm
In all my time introducing foreigners to Thai cuisine, I’ve yet to find one who doesn’t dig into chicken satay with gusto, other than, of course, those with a peanut allergy. A good satay isn’t hard to find in Phuket. Locals know that the best are marinated overnight in coconut, turmeric and spices before being cooked over charcoal to impart a smoky, charred flavour. The real star of the show though is the peanut sauce which should be creamy and slightly spiced. The richness is cut with a zingy ajat relish made from sliced cucumber, shallots and chillies infused in a sweet vinegar dressing.
Mee Ton Poe restaurant, 109 Phuket Road, Tambon Talat Yai, Phuket. Open 10am-6pm
If you’re travelling with children, they’d never forgive you later in life if you deprived them of a bowl of oh aew, a dessert made from shaved ice topped with softened red beans, palm seed, black grass jelly and almost disturbingly bright red syrup. There’s some science behind its popularity – the jelly is made with banana and Chinese herbs that are said to bring down the body’s temperature and cure heat stroke, a common ailment on the humid, sun-soaked island.
Unnamed street vendor, next to Ahpong Mae Sunee on Soon Utis Alley, Phuket.
This polarising Southern Thai dish gets some running back to the beach as fast as they came, while others order a second plate, mainly down to the strong aroma from the aptly named ingredient – stink beans. If you can get past the initial smell, these highly nutritious and nutty beans work perfectly when stir-fried with locally-caught prawns and curry paste made from turmeric, garlic and chillies. This is, without a doubt, one of the first plates a Southern Thai will crave when they’re away from home.
Noy Pochana, 21 Thanon Montri, Tambon Talad Yai, Phuket. Open 5pm-2pm
It is a sin to come to the Old Town and not swing by Adbul’s on Thalang Road. Abdul, the owner in his 70s, still makes his rotis the same way that the generations before him did, though he now has a little help from the rest of the family. These crispy shard-like wheat breads are pan-fried and covered in sweet condensed milk. Alternatively, those without a sweet tooth can opt for one of the savoury versions accompanied by massaman chicken curry. If in doubt, just look for the gentleman wearing a fez and slapping dough onto a large, iron hot-plate at the front of his shop.
Abdul’s Roti Shop, eastern end of Thalang Road
Still confused about Phuketian cuisine? Fear not. You could always join our Phuket Old Town Food Tour with our local guide and get to grips with Southern Thai cuisine.