Foodie paradise: Best ways to eat in Thailand

Rich in history, culture and culinary delights, as well as tropical sands and sun, it’s little wonder that Phuket is a magnet for food-focused tourists.

Selling chillis at a market in phuket
  • Cindy Bingley-Pullin
  • July 2018

Think of Phuket, and chances are images of beautiful beaches and a buzzy nightlife spring to mind. However, this Thai island is so much more than sun, sea and parties.

A historical hotpot of cultures, thanks to its multi-ethnic population and past life as a trading port, it’s also been recognised as a Creative City of Gastronomy by UNESCO. From street eats to sophisticated dining and specialty regional dishes, Phuket is a culinary hub where many gourmet surprises are waiting to be discovered. Bring your appetite!

How to make green curry paste in Phuket
How to make green curry paste in Phuket

Edible experience

A good place to start educating your tastebuds is the Blue Elephant cooking school and restaurant, in a 105-year- old property in Phuket’s historic old town.

Once an official governor’s residence, it’s a refined venue for a lesson in authentic Thai cuisine – a long driveway lined with bamboo torches leads us to an elegant two- storey mansion, splashed in shades of butter and cream, nestled in lush tropical surrounds.

A class here is a hands- on affair, whipping up a multi-course banquet that we later wolf down in the gracious setting of the restaurant.

But first, our host Prair escorts us to the nearby markets, to source ingredients for our recipes. We wander past hawker stalls laden with pineapples and fat bunches of bananas, bags of spices and oversized bowls of curry paste in earthen colours. We can’t resist sampling sticky rice wrapped in banana leaf and mango desserts, and quenching our thirst with juice from freshly-hacked green coconuts.

Along the way, Prair teaches us about local produce – showing us how to make coconut milk by grabbing a fistful of the finely shaved fruit and squeezing, dribbles of white liquid plopping onto the open palm of her other hand.

By a display of chillies in varying sizes and hues, she reveals that the bigger the chilli, the lesser the heat; elsewhere, she points out three types of Thai basil (holy, sweet and lemon) which, while similar, she insists cannot be exchanged in a recipe. Her eyes light up when she spots a stall selling shrimp paste. “I cannot live without this,” she declares, with a grin.

Back at the Blue Elephant, we don aprons and follow Prair’s demonstrations for each dish at well-equipped cooking stations. Hours fly by in a flurry of activity: pestles pound mortars, metal spatulas clatter against woks over open flames, and oil sizzles as the fragrant smells of garlic, fish sauce and roasted cumin seeds fill the humid air.

Finally, we feast on delicious local dishes – duck curry, mango salad with prawns, and sea bass in tamarind sauce – that, thanks to our lesson, we can recreate back home.

Street food market on Thalang St, Phuket
Street food market on Thalang St, Phuket

Walk this way

After such an epic feast, burn some calories by exploring on foot. Phuket Town – also known as the Old Town – is the historical heart of the island, with its roots in the tin-mining boom of the 19th century.

The riches of that era are reflected in buildings around town: grand, colonial Chinese mansions, beautifully preserved shop-houses and Buddhist temples. The distinctive architecture is also an expression of the various ethnicities (Chinese labourers, European tin barons, British, Arab and Malay traders) who settled in Phuket, seeking opportunity and prosperity.

A landmark worth visiting is Chinpracha House, built in 1903 in a style called ‘Angmor Lounge’ (‘angmor’ means European in the Hokkien dialect). The current owners are sixth-generation Thai descendants of the original Chinese builder. Today, sepia-toned family photographs still adorn the walls and interiors are furnished with period pieces belonging to wealthy ancestors, offering a fascinating glimpse back in time.

Given Phuket’s diverse heritage, it is unsurprising that one of the most interesting cultures here is a hybrid: the Peranakans, typically of mixed Chinese and Malay ancestry, have their own unique customs and cuisine.

Phuket Food Tours run guided walking tours of the ‘Peranakan Food Trail’, introducing visitors to secret eating venues for must-try specialities such as moo hong (pork belly stewed in soy sauce) and chicken in spicy coconut soup.

“Our tours are popular with culture lovers and people who want to explore beyond the beaches,” says our guide.

Indeed, the Old Town is a treasure trove of culture – other highlights include traditional Sino-Portuguese shops and cafés on Thalang Road; the ex-red light district of Soi Romanee with its cotton candy-coloured facades; and the Memory at On On Hotel – Phuket’s oldest hotel – made famous by Hollywood movie, The Beach. Tu Kab Khao restaurant is worth a visit for its interiors alone – ornate ceilings, chandeliers, and patterned floor tiles – but locals and expats alike rave about its food: southern Thai classics such as yellow crab curry with white noodles and chicken curry with roti bread are reasonably priced and totally delicious.

Dip with shrimp paste, Phuket
Dip with shrimp paste, Phuket

Eating well

Phuket’s traditional dishes may warrant crossing oceans for, but innovative, modern cuisine is also making waves here. Amatara Wellness Resort’s executive chef Bryan Burger has taken a fresh and innovative approach at The Grill, the resort’s fine-dining establishment, by integrating “wellness for the body and soul” into the menu.

Bryan’s classical French culinary training combined with his extensive experience working with allergies, dietary requirements and raw cuisine means a menu where anything is possible. Lobster risotto, grass-fed beef steaks and mashed potato (hearty “wellness for the soul” dishes) sit side- by-side with steamed fish, beetroot “rawvioli” (a clever twist on pasta made with almond cheese and vegetables) and passionfruit yoghurt sorbets – decadent dishes given a healthier twist.

“We don’t want people thinking that wellness cuisine is a big bowl of salad – we want them to have the experience of a quality meal in a sophisticated setting,” Bryan explains. “No one else in Phuket is doing this. There are many restaurants focused on either the fine dining or the wellness side ... we’ve tried to merge both, which seems to have taken a lot of people by (nice) surprise.”

Another initiative making a difference through food is Seedlings Café, a social enterprise eatery at the Laguna Holiday Club Phuket Resort. Managed by the Banyan Tree hotel group, the Seedlings Internship Program provides training for disadvantaged young adults in the local community.

Coke, my softly- spoken waiter, recently completed the program and now works as a fully-fledged Seedlings Café employee. In his two years with the company, he has rotated through three different resorts and trained in the role of cashier, wait staff, kitchenhand and bartender. His brother was previously in the program and, as Coke explains, it has provided them with opportunities they would not otherwise have had.

Service is warm and efficient, the food authentic – my bak kut teh (pork rib soup) spiced with goji berries, cloves and star anise is pure Phuket comfort food. Best of all is knowing that, by simply eating there, I am helping to support the community in an ethical and sustainable manner.