Bizarre Foods in Phuket
I have always wanted to visit Phuket, Thailand’s largest island and one of the most popular vacation destinations in Southeast Asia. Phuket made headlines when it suffered extensive damage from the Tsunami in 2004, but the island quickly rebuilt and Phuket’s stunning combination of golden beaches, turquoise seas, green hills, mangroves and rainforest are a powerful intoxicant, but I came for the local cuisine. Southern Thai food is spicy and colorful, frontloaded with influences from the Malay peninsula, the local Islamic community and is based primarily on seafood and vegetables. That’s the academic experience… but let me assure you that our trip to Phuket was anything but…
First off, I arrived into Bangkok and then flew down to Phuket, checked into a beach front hotel and took a long swim in the most perfect green-blue water I had seen in years. After an hour of body surfing and people watching, we headed into town to Wat Chalong Temple. Nothing like some street snacks after a long swim. Thais are great snackers. They don’t believe in the western concept of three square meals a day. One of the best events of the year for inveterate travelers is the annual fair held at the Wat Chalong temple in Phuket. One of the most revered temples in southern Thailand, Wat Chalong has been holding the fair since 1954 and the event offers 10 days of live entertainment and features hundreds of stalls selling food and wares. From seafood pancakes to soup bowls, noodle platters with wickedly fiery hot chiles to sugar cane and crushed lime drinks, there is no better place to eat than the annual Wat Chalong fest.
We left there and headed over to Phuket’s most popular night market. Every night vendors set up their mobile cooking units, tables and chairs, and display their fresh ingredients for the passing customers to view. This colorful market offers a wealth of Muslim, Thai and Chinese cooked meals and sweets. I wasn’t as impressed here as I was at the temple, but we found a handful of funky seafood eateries cracking fresh oysters open and I was a happy camper.
The variety of cuisine and dining experiences is one of the major attractions of Phuket Island. Phuket restaurants cater to a wide variety of tastes and budgets, from simple street side noodle carts and grill stalls to five star restaurants with spectacular ocean views. While there are many restaurants that cater to fat tourists looking for deals, and trust me when I tell you that Phuket can be a hell on earth if you stand still long enough to let the tourist bus run you over. Stay away from the tourism kiosk recommendations and head inland to Mor Mudong. This restaurant sits deep in the mangroves and has several open-sided huts for dining al fresco. There are over 100 items on the menu at Mor Mudong, but don’t miss the chili crab, the local greens such as Lin Han which grow along the beach and are cooked in coconut milk, the stingray, the stuffed fish and the grilled prawns are second to none.
The next day we checked out one of Phuket’s more successful local industries, the production and preparation of cashew nuts. The local cashew factories can show you why the task of processing cashew nuts is no simple task. And the working conditions, and the labor force used to harvest this prized nut reminds me of an Upton Sinclair novel. Formed inside a kidney shaped casing, the cashew nut is suspended in poisonous oil, which can burn human skin. These toxins are initially reduced by boiling the intact shells, but the manual labor of cracking open the shells must be done by hand, with care. Day laborers paid by the pound of nuts cracked, wrap plastic around their fingertips to prevent the black oil from burning their skin. It’s sad, on several levels, but it’s also the way things work over in that part of the world.
About a half an hour away from Phang-Nga is the Baan Bang Pat Water Village, a Muslim fishing village built on stilts. When the tide is out you can see the mud and the ocean floor, but when the tide comes in the water rises 15 feet, about a foot below the floor boards on the houses. The dwellings are made out of sticks and pieces of wood, and some are completely exposed on 3 sides. The village supplies fresh and dried seafood to the mainland that they collect each day by net and spear. I ate a meal with a local family, with the mom doing all the cooking. She prepared Thai-Muslim food that utilizes more dried spices than conventional Thai cuisine. Like other Muslim cuisines around the world, theirs is largely meat-based, and dishes must be halal, meaning that cooks must follow certain religious precepts regarding the slaughter of animals, and the avoidance of pork and alcohol. Seafood is eaten with every meal for obvious reasons and Mom made a killer khao mok plaa, a fish curry cooked in rice with turmeric and renowned for its bright yellow color. We ate one of the most unusual sea snails I have ever tasted, and rode back to Phuket after a long day of shooting.
The next day we headed north to Phang-Nga province to a town called Bang Sak. We were visiting a family from North Eastern Thailand who came to Bang Sak after the 2004 Tsunami hit. The family of 4 helped with bookkeeping and built houses for Tsunami victims. Three years later they are still in Bang Sak, living in a community development center built to help Tsunami victims. They helped us find a teeny stall making one of Thailand’s main ingredients, Pung Pla or Tai Pla, the old fashioned wayâ€¦by hand. Thai Pla is the stomach of fish that are salted and fermented for about 3 months. It is then boiled with herbs such as lemongrass and galanga to kill the fishy odor. It’s filtered and used to season many classic soups and stews. The hit of the trip was the dried sweet and salty fish that were wok fried at her cousin’s stall next door. Superb. At the community center they were getting ready to make lunch. On the menu that day was anything they can find in the garden. We went to an abandoned ruin of a 3 star resort, overtaken by the jungle and never restored. We were looking for weaver ant larvae, garden fence lizards, cicadae, and any other surprises we could unearth.
The community center has a main kitchen where the family has cooked for dozens of volunteers during the Tsunami clean-up, and still frequently cooks for all the neighbors. Andrew joins the family in the kitchen and helps prepare the meal. We ate a larvae salad, some grilled lizards with lemon grass and a family friend made a special dish, pig intestines with half-digested food still left inside it. Yum.
We rode back to our hotel, and after 7 days, we ended right back where we started, diving into the ocean, floating on the waves, riding them into shore as the sun set, being sure to dodge the naked German vacationers as headed into dinner.