When you hear the phrase “Thai food”, what springs to mind? Most likely pad thais, green curries and tom yam soups will feature strongly in your immediate impressions. While these are certainly popular choices at home and abroad among Thai cuisine, they’re a world apart from the fare on offer on the country’s southern island of Phuket.
That’s because unlike the rest of the nation, Phuket was settled by travellers hailing from China and moving through what we now know as Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, reaching the island as far back as 5,000BC. They brought with them unique culinary traditions, mostly heavily influenced by Hokkien (Chinese) styles, but also by Cambodian, Indonesian and Malaysian gastronomy.
The upshot of all this is that Phuket has some truly unique fare to offer intrepid foodies – it was recognised by UNESCO in 2015 specifically for its epicurean creativity – which can be both far spicier and far subtler than the more famous dishes found on the mainland. Here are five Phuket dishes you shouldn’t miss out on before leaving the southern island.
The crossover of Chinese and Malay influences is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the ubiquitous dish of mee hokkien, or Hokkien-style noodles. These filling egg-and-wheat noodles are generally served with shrimp, pork and crisp greens in a flavourful broth, often with a fried egg plopped on top of them. One of the true staples of Phuket cuisine.
Another dish heavy with Chinese influence, moo hong takes the form of fatty cuts of pork belly, cooked in a sweet and salty sauce characterised by palm sugar, black pepper, soy sauce and garlic. It’s one of the most popular choices among Peranakans, who make up three-quarters of Phuket’s population, and is often garnished with fresh red chilies and coriander leaves.
Comprised of thin rice noodles fried in soy sauce and served with shrimp and vegetables in a pork broth, mee hun originated either in China or on the island of Phuket itself, according to whichever source you find more believable. Whatever the truth, it’s certainly a stalwart of Phuket restaurant menus, offering a light, non-spicy meal for those who don’t deal so well with the excessive heat of some other dishes.
The first two things that spring to mind when thinking of satay are Thailand and peanuts… but neither are actually integral to the original satay recipe! Originating in Indonesia, satay is now hugely popular as a convenient, on-the-go street food in Phuket Town and in its purest form, simply consists of chunks of beef, chicken or pork on skewers and served with a sauce. That sauce is almost always made from peanuts, but it doesn’t have to be.
This simple but surprisingly moreish recipe hails from the Baba communities of Chinese immigrants found in Phuket Town. It consists of small shrimp and strands of grass, both of which are dipped into batter and deep-fried… and that’s about it. As a crunchy snack on the go or as an accompaniment to some liquid refreshment of the cold and frothy variety, it’s unbeatable.
Nam phrik, best described as chili-based dips and sauces, are to be found all over Thailand, and it seems each region of the country contributes its own variation on the theme. Phuket’s effort includes the kung siap (smoked shrimp) mentioned in its name, alongside shrimp paste, lime juice, fresh chilies and sugar. Regardless of the regional variety, nam phrik is invariably served with a selection of vegetables for dipping.
Shaved ice often forms the base ingredient of desserts the world over, but Phuket’s o-aew might be one of the most colourful and flavourful takes on the idea. Here, banana starch is mixed in with Chinese herbs to create a tasty gelatinous cube, which are served over the ice and topped with a vibrant syrup which stains the white ingredients below it. Watermelon and kidney beans are often added into the mix, as well.