Their kitchens rule

Phuket prom­ises a date with dream dining

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - KEN­DALL HILL

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

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