Local Love

about Khao Lak, Phang-nga, Thailand

Authentic is not always what you expect it to be.

I spent three days in Khao Lak, searching for chillies and coconut milk; screaming in frustration at finding only ginger, soya and rice wine. Looking for locals feeding themselves got me to a strange mixture of hotpot and hot plate; I was quite excited by it but apparently that was as local as Chinese in Mumbai.

Markets are usually good hunting grounds. The local wet market did have food stalls, but most were closed by the time I got there - apparently Khao Lak's bucolic populace start early and shut by noon. The one stall that was open looked authentic enough but, in a sleepy unhurried afternoon was feeding only two tables - a German-sounding family and a European couple with too much suntan. A little bit of sign language did produce a classic tom yam with the much sought lemongrass and chillies, rustic chunks of ginger, galangal and onion floating about, reasonably rendered and reasonably fiery. Emboldened by my lack of distress with the chillies, she made the next dish – a rather nice crackling pork and beans in red curry - noticeably more fiery.

 

Sunday arrived and I scooted off early morning, still in search of the curry, towards Takuapa town – once a centre of tin mining. The old part of the town is scattered with older Sino-portuguese houses, while the new area looks just like any other town. Pleasant - especially the bits along the river - but nothing utterly spectacular. More to the point, it was a full-sized town, not bucolic at all and not much was open in the morning. The only thing open was packed to the gills, and served what looked to me exactly like biriyani and paratha. And indeed, that is what it was, with a twist.

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The biriyani was quite different taste-wise, laden with coriander and what the west calls curry powder (it originated with sambhar masala). The paratha, a crisp layered version createdby stretching the dough rather than rolling it, was filled with egg and meant to be had with powdered sugar and condensed milk, both of which rather conveniently were in dispensers at the table. The crackling paratha, with its soft egg centre and loads of condensed milk (yes, I was a little generous) was quite wonderful.

On the way back from Takuapa, I came across in the town of Ban Muang a row of stalls hidden from the sun and the highway by large awnings. A few of them were selling food, so I stopped to see. The first stall offered me a large array of sweets – sticky rice with fillings such as red bean, banana or coconut, wrapped in banana leaf, steamed or roasted – the banana-filled roasted version was especially nice. Alongside were sweet soups and brightly coloured jellies of different kinds, but I didn't try them.

 

Next door was a fair, frail old lady selling dim sums out of a huge steamer – these are common in the area (especially the standard sui mai in colourful variations) but this lady had the nicest looking ones. Opening the steamer revealed exquisite shapes; dim sums made to look like flowers, like crab claws, like shrimps, cubes, balls, dimples, so many shapes. The there were the combos, a pork base and a topping shaped into something interesting, were the nicest – most unusually a hot dog dim sum made to resemble a flower.

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A trip to the nearby gas station led me to my next discovery - actual curry. I've since formulated the theory that a row of steel vessels signals curry, while hanging chickens or vegetables signals kway teow, and this place – a thatched, largish seating space under a few large trees, was definitely the curry types. The fried pork in red sauce was suitably fiery, spreading slowly down from lip to stomach. The pork and pineapple curry that followed was the best thing I ate on the trip; a wonderful combination of spicy, sour and sweet flavours (I discovered later that Phuket is particularly proud of its local pineapples) attached to some meltingly tender pork. A few hours later, another stall would feed me a tom kha gai (Chicken Galangal Soup) to challenge this, but it still won.

I was still puzzled that curry options - what I thought of as Thai food - was so hard to find and why everyone kept steering me to noodle soup and dim sum instead. Robyn's comments on my previous post (read on mobile while downing the curry above) pointed me in what is often called the right direction. It turns out that through the twists of history, Phuket has the highest percentage of ethnic Chinese in Thailand. Tin and trading both drew thousands of workers, mostly Hokkien – and gave the tiny Phuket island province its distinctive China-tinted identity. Most searches for top dining spots turned up many recommendations that were distinctly Chinese in origin. It turns out, yesterday's kway teow and all those other variants on noodle soup I had been turning my nose down on were the most original things I could have had. Alas, my eating was at an end – I had run out of mealtimes and stomach space.

 

My final dish in Phuket was, however, of suitably chinese-thai provenance – squid and basil in a wonderful ginger-soya sauce, spiked Thai style with loads of chillies and basil. Eaten, beachside, to gathering dark clouds and the slurps of a green coconut drunk through a nicely touristy straw.

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