To market, to market for Thai fresh food
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.