When IMA invited me to Phuket on what really important people call a junket, I was quite excited. Visions of pork-lined streets and wonderful curries glazing my eyes, I braved roaming charges to land at Phuket airport and discovered a slightly different destination – Khao Lak, rather than Phuket. Not so bad, I told myself, the name has eating in it and anyway, how far from good food can you get in Thailand.
Life has since been more of a challenge. Khao Lak is, it turns out, a small, rural, mildly sleepy town better described as a string of hotels plunked into some dramatic scenery, peppered with more Scandinavians than Thais. Faced with so much white skin the chefs at the intensely pretty JW Marriot treat chillies with great wariness – a single one probably powers an entire lunch service. As for real Thais eating real Thai food, It's easier to find McDonalds and steak than a local grabbing a meal.
However, I'm not about to give up that easily. As in Goa, renting a scooter here was a breeze and thus armed, off I go hunting ravenous locals and their hideouts. A few trips up and down the thin strip of civilization that constitutes the town does not yield much result, so I persuade the scooter lady to tell me her recommendation. "Kway Teow neah Moo Moo Show" she tells me, and I pretend to understand.
Moo Moo Show, it turns out, is hard to miss – a huge neon sign announcing the town's primary cabaret show. Right outside is indeed a food stall proudly displaying the flat rice noodles characteristic of Kway Teow, and eventually an excellent plate does indeed appear. Sliced fried pork from the stall next door is equally satisfying. Both, however, seem very Chinese; Kway Teow is very popular in Thailand so I shouldn't really complain, but the stereotypes in my brain would not be satisfied with this chilli-lacking curry-missing option. No, I needed coconut milk and lemongrass.
I kept wondering, where do the locals eat? They certainly look well-fed enough, but most restaurants are empty of all but the whitest of skins. Worse, none of Europeans appear in any distress – a sure sign that the dreaded bird chilli has not been observed. More searching was in order; it was finally a Vegas-style 99 baht all-you-can-eat buffet sign with a happy pig that caught my interest and, venturing a short way down a beaten path I was in a large restaurant full of locals. The happy pig had saved the day.
All you can eat wasn't quite the huge array of Thai curries I expected. Indeed, there was not a curry in sight; the tables were packed with locals all trying the single item on the menu – a wierd combination of hot plate and hot pot that united Japan and Korea in ways politics never could. Korean Barbecue met Japanese Shabu Shabu in Khao Lak.
First came the fire – a clay bowl filled with blazing coals. Then the plate – a raised aluminium thingy with handles and a huge perforated bump in the middle. On the top of this bump was perched a big chunk of pork fat. Put the plate on the fire, pour the stock in around the bump and wait for everything to boil or melt while you go pick up the array of meats and vegetables on offer. The meat cooks on the bump – helped along by the melting lump of lard – while all around the stock happily boils into a soup.
A row of trays greeted me, filled with strips of meat marinated in different sauces and ready for the grilling. Pork, as one may have expected from the happy pig on the sign, is the dominant choice but there were a few chicken options too. The soup portion had noodle types to choose from (glass, flat or fried), a few kinds of greens, herbs and various shapes and sizes of fish and meat balls. Seafood choices (given that the sea was one hotel's width away) were surprisingly sparse – a single option each in fish, prawn and squid.
This, though not particularly gourmet is a satisfying meal with lots of meat and a nice soup formed from a hearty stock redolent of five-spice - a social and entertaining way to eat. The tables were filled with couples, families, mens parties, womens groups, all kinds of people having boisterous fun. Drink,s even water, is extra but all in all the bill came to a comfortable 140 baht.
Still no bird chillies, coconut milk or lemongrass but search abh bhi jari hain