Their kitchens rule
Phuket promises a date with dream dining
Our lunch menu, consumed over two days and seven hours in Phuket, puts the epic into epicurean. I blame Vorasit Issara, known to all as Wan, for the excess. He is obsessed with eating, like many Thais, but I have rarely met anyone so focused on food. It’s as if he experiences the world most keenly through his sense of taste, rather than sight or sound. He doesn’t just consume food, but cooks it, talks about it, researches and perfects. He has cooked for a Thai prime minister and catered an ASEAN Plus Six summit, and now oversees all the food and drink (and music) offerings at his family’s dazzling Sri Panwa, a 16ha jungle resort with vast views over the Andaman Sea, perched on Phuket’s southern tip. (His official job title is managing director.)
Wan knows Phuket’s restaurants probably better than anyone. So I lure him to lunch. Twice. The first is a late one at Hong Kong (22 Ratsada Road, Talat Yai). They keep the place open for us (Wan is a VVIP) and unleash a flood of wonderful dishes such as steamed stonefish, its snow-white flesh bathing in a pool of soy and ginger; firm, sweet mantis prawns showered in golden fried garlic; king prawn steamed with soy, pickled garlic and glass noodle; crab of some description; prawn heads in ‘‘Maggi’’ (soy sauce). A lot of prawns, come to think of it.
It’s not until we’re leaving I glance at the restaurant’s gurgling wall of aquariums and realise we forgot to have the burning sea snail soup (a highlight of a previous visit) so that goes on the list for next time. Two days later I am waiting for Wan at Klua Niyom, or Mr Niyom’s Kitchen (54 Ratsadanuson Road), a very local eatery set over two adjoining carports. Non-Thai speakers choose dishes by pointing at a wall of laminated photographs. Mr Niyom and his son are in the open kitchen grinding, chopping, sauteeing and sizzling everything fresh to order, the cooking smells mingling with the garden perfumes of frangipani and ginger. The food served here is from Phetchaburi, home province of Mr Niyom’s wife, where dishes are judged on the sharp clarity of their flavours.
The best example is a basic tom yum soup, made without coconut milk so that each mouthful pops from the bitterness of lime, the sweetness of grouper, the heat of chilli, the heady balm of lemongrass and sweet Thai basil. Wan believes Khun Niyom makes the best Thai omelet, khai jiao, on the island, so naturally he orders one to go with our chilli pork curry and mackerel cutlet. There is no filling. It is simply beaten egg deep-fried to toasty crispness on the surface and a lightness inside. You season it yourself from a side plate of herbs. Eat one and you understand, immediately, why this humble shopfront has been a hit for 20 years.
In contrast to the anonymity of Mr Niyom’s kitchen, owner Madame Rose is a local celebrity for turning a faded Sino-Portuguese shophouse into Raya (48 New Dibuk Road), Phuket’s most famous restaurant. The setting is nostalgic and fan-cooled, service is brisk and Madame Rose, if she’s in, will be casting a proprietorial eye over the empire she created on a whim two decades ago. We snack on prawn and water vegetables (pak boong) in oyster sauce, stinky with garlic, and more prawns – this time in tamarind sauce. And a whole mullet, scored and deep-fried and buried under a pile of garlic and cumin. But there is no time for Madame Rose’s fourhour braised pork with 40 secret herbs. Rose’s niece has recently opened One Chun around the corner (48/1 Thepkasattri Road), with a similar menu but more contemporary surrounds.
Our final lunch stop is Mor Mu Dong (Mu Dong Soi, Chalong), out near the fish markets of Rawai and the seafood restaurants of Chalong Bay. A sign at the entrance declares “100 per cent home-made”, referring both to the food, much of it grown organically on site, and the collection of rustic thatched huts on stilts above a mangrove swamp. When the tide’s in, the simple salas seem to float on water. Guests can gather at tables but it’s more fun to sit cross-legged on a reed mat in a bamboo hut and help yourself to what are the best dishes, in the best setting, of the day.
We start with goose tongue, which is a leafy vegetable stir-fried with chilli, garlic and meaty oyster sauce. It grows on the beach, Wan explains. “When it’s raw it tastes like lemon, but when it’s cooked it’s amazing.” He orders filled mackerel, which doesn’t seem that appealing until it arrives — a bloated fish with scales like gold leaf, hollowed inside and stuffed with fishcake mix (tod mun pla). Then deep fried. Slice, bite, enjoy. It’s brilliant beer food, but even better are the fish entrails, seasoned with chilli. They’re the pork scratchings of the sea.
“It’s local seafood,” Wan smiles when he sees how much I’m enjoying the crunchy fish guts. “Not too fancy, and it tastes like home.”
Authentic cooking is Wan’s thing. You can find its hallmarks all over Sri Panwa, from the “hell curry’’ served at Baba Soulfood restaurant (the recipe borrowed from his grandmother), to a room-service duck larb so fiery I need a wet towel to cool my face after each mouthful.
Kendall Hill was a guest of Sri Panwa.
Baba Soulfood at Sri Panwa, top; fresh fish at Rawai market, left; and dishes at Klua Niyom restaurant