To mar­ket, to mar­ket for Thai fresh food

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Susan Kuro­sawa

WE are nos­ing around, in the best sense. Our nos­trils twitch (and oc­ca­sion­ally re­coil) as we wan­der up and down the rows of seafood, fruit and veg­eta­bles and gen­eral pro­duce on dis­play at the in­dus­tri­ous lit­tle Sa­toh mar­ket on Koh Sa­mui in the Gulf of Thai­land.

In the first aisle we en­ter planet green: bunches of slim as­para­gus, tele­scope cu­cum­bers, long and curly snake beans, okra, stems of green pep­per­corns, baby squash, shiny limes and pale win­ter mel­ons.

Tightly stacked herbs are in abun­dance: I can in­stantly iden­tify co­rian­der and pur­ple-leafed basil but, hang on, Rann is on the run, shoo­ing me off to the next counter to in­spect pyra­mids of un­ripe man­goes, hands of sugar ba­nanas and, amid the bright trop­i­cal fruit, shin­ing like red bea­cons, glossy bird’s-eye chill­ies.

But much of what I see is un­recog­nis­able, which is why ex­ec­u­tive sous-chef Rann is my man.

He is from the nearby Karma Koh Sa­mui re­sort, which of­fers guests the op­tion of a per­son­alised mar­ket visit and a cook­ing les­son to fol­low, us­ing the spoils of the tour.

The ex­pe­ri­ence is lim­ited to six guests at a time and starts at 3pm, with in-villa cook­ing from about 6pm.

Rann is very keen on bit­ter green beans, which he dubs ‘‘ smelly beans’’. And so they are: it’s an aroma some­where be­tween footy lock­ers and blocked drains. I am­some­what alarmed to dis­cover that th­ese beans will be a key in­gre­di­ent in Rann’s cook­ing class.

Co­conuts are be­ing split, ground and squeezed into de­li­cious juice. Cobs of corn are char-grilled over tiny char­coal bra­ziers, there are trays of small brown eggs in hap­haz­ard piles and, on a flower stall, dis­plays of or­chids and pom-pom chrysan­the­mums, each fluffy head wrapped in tis­sue pa­per.

The mar­ket is near the Big Bud­dha pier on the is­land’s well-de­vel­oped east coast, and seafood ar­rives on the doorstep as fish­ing boats dis­gorge their catches about 5am at the pier each day: mus­sels, prawns, blue crabs, white snap­per, rock lob­ster, bar­racuda, baby shark, par­rot­fish with pretty blue and pink trim­mings, and more.

The glis­ten­ing bounty is dis­played in tiers. Stall-hold­ers dip spoons in big plas­tic buck­ets of iced wa­ter and sprin­kle the seafood, flies blown off course by an in­ge­nious elec­tric whisk.

This ap­pa­ra­tus of strung wires and pre­car­i­ous plugs, which would never pass an Aus­tralian health and safety in­spec­tion, ro­tates slowly about dou­ble arm’s-length over the seafood.

On its spin­ning spokes are torn strips of plas­tic that look sticky enough to trap flies and other in­sects. I see a few im­paled mos­qui­toes but the flies are sim­ply re­pelled and go spin­ning off to fresh ter­ri­tory (the chicken stand next door).

Back at Karma Koh Sa­mui, Rann sets up in my kitchen. Soon it smells, ir­re­sistibly, of palm sugar, squeezed lime and that defin­ing smell of Thai­land, fresh co­rian­der.

All the ac­com­mo­da­tion at the re­sort is self-con­tained and res­i­den­tial in feel, each villa with a private pool and well-equipped kitchen.

We will cook a four-course meal, in­clud­ing a red beef curry stirred with those bit­ter green beans.

The odour dis­ap­pears dur­ing the wok-toss­ing process but the taste is, to be po­lite, un­usual, and even ex­tra mea­sures of sweet basil and co­conut cream can’t mask the bit­ter­ness.

The hit of our class is a spicy dish we dub chilli jam clams. There is a co­pi­ous amount of chilli paste in this dish — ‘‘ nam prik pow’’, Rann shouts at us, do­ing a mock karate chop — and, yes, the heat does hit with a pow.

Next day we eat at Padma, Karma Koh Sa­mui’s beach­side restau­rant, where ex­ec­u­tive chef Ste­fano Leone (a Cana­dian of Ital­ian de­scent who has lived in Thai­land for sev­eral years), Rann and his team dish up pan-Asian fare such as crispy prawn won­ton with chilli kaf­fir lime and ta­marind, pork and crab spring rolls with Viet­namese dip­ping sauce, and lime-cured tuna with green mango, rose ap­ple, Viet­namese mint and dried shrimp.

Dessert? Chef sug­gests lo­tus ice cream or taro and crispy shal­lot cake with co­conut ice cream.

The food here is se­ri­ously good and the wa­ter view, open-sided Padma is a groovy, lounge-like space.

Still, many guests can’t bear to leave those big private vil­las so, Leone says, the chef will just go to them.

A private Asian bar­be­cue for two in­cludes skew­ers of squid brushed in yel­low curry with peanut nam jim co­rian­der, prawns with spicy sam­bal, and snap­per coated with chilli, tomato and dried shrimp.

There are meat and chicken op­tions, too, and such tangy sal­ads as green pa­paya with snake beans, cherry toma­toes and peanuts.

But, with Rann’s guid­ance, I sus­pect I have had more fun do­ing my own hap­haz­ard cater­ing.

And, aside from cook­ing tips, what I learn is that Thai cui­sine in­volves a plethora of in­gre­di­ents but each in rel­a­tively small vol­ume. Rann’s mar­ket bags this morn­ing seemed sur­pris­ingly small: just enough for that meal. The Thai way is to shop daily, to in­sist on ab­so­lute fresh­ness.

To­mor­row is an­other day and an­other mar­ket visit.


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