Phuket dishes to try in Phuket Town range from khanom jeen, fresh fermented rice noodles doused with rich curries and served with fragrant herbs and crisp greens, to bowls of Hokkein noodles with plump Phuket prawns and succulent pork.
Our first trip to Phuket as travel writers was in 2007 to update restaurants and hotels for a Thailand guidebook. Local experts we met that trip – from chefs to cooking school instructors – didn’t talk about ‘Southern Thai’ food, let alone Phuket food. It was just ‘Thai’ food. And Phuket restaurant menus weren’t all that different to those in Bangkok with their fish cakes, green and red curries, and mango and sticky rice. Yet as writers with an interest in history as much as food, we knew that there had to be a Phuket cuisine.
It wasn’t until we spent a serious length of time in Bangkok a couple of years later and then moved to the Thai capital in 2011 that we began to eat more widely and dig deeper when it came to Thai regional cuisines. We soon realised that many of the Thai dishes we loved were Southern Thai dishes, and some were specialties of Phuket. Yet doing research online, I realised very little had been written about Phuket cuisine. There wasn’t much more in cookbooks.
It was only by delving into Phuket’s rich trading and immigrant history, that resulted in its unique cuisine – which is in fact a fusion of cuisines – that I began to understand. So in mid-2014, armed with 10-page story commission on Phuket’s cuisine for Delicious magazine, we spent a month on Phuket eating the food, scrutinising history books, visiting museums, interviewing experts, and doing countless cooking classes.
In the years since the story’s publication, we’ve published bits and pieces in posts here on Phuket cuisine and culinary history, yet it still surprises me how little food-loving travellers know about Phuket cuisine. As we said four years ago, there’s no reason to go to Phuket and eat pad thai or som tam, when you could be eating as Phuket’s locals eat and tucking into bowls of khanom jeen and Hokkein mee, and the best place to sample those is in Phuket Town.
Here are three Phuket dishes to try in Phuket Town… click through to this post on Phuket’s street food for more.
Phuket Dishes to Try in Phuket Town from Khanom Jeen to Hokkein Noodles
Breakfast – Khanom Jeen
One of the first Phuket dishes to try in Phuket Town is khanom jeen, Phuket’s most popular breakfast (alongside dim sum) and the island’s take on a dish found right across the country, with cousins in Cambodia (nom banh chok) and Myanmar (mohinga). Visit the morning market and you’ll see the skeins of white fermented rice noodles, made fresh each day, sold in baskets. Typically served at room temperature, with a soupy curry and an array of fragrant herbs and fresh vegetables, from crispy crudités to soft steamed vegetables, khanom jeen has traditionally been a breakfast favourite although these days people eat it throughout the day. In Phuket Town, it’s a local ritual for families and friends to head out for khanom jeen on weekend mornings and the most beloved of khanom jeen joints is Po Lamai (where Satun and Dibuk Roads meet). Snag a table, then go to the counter to select your choice of curry from the myriad pots, from which the cook will douse the spicy soup over the white noodle coils. Back at your table, you’ll find that the server has freshened up the platter of aromatic herbs and fresh and blanched greens, from baby eggplants to cabbage, snake beans to slices of banana blossom. Take your pick, pile it into your dish, then use your chopsticks to combine everything together. Another way to eat khanom jeen is to wrap the noodles and some aromatic herbs in leaves, which you can dip into your bowl of curry.
Lunch – Hokkien Mee
Thanks to the immigrants who brought their recipes from home, Phuket cuisine is influenced by a number of Chinese regional cuisines, namely Hokkein, which explains why Phuket Town has so many noodle joints specialising in Hokkein mee Hokkein noodles). You’ll spot both dry and wet Hokkein mee on menus – the ‘dry’ mee being wok-fried noodles and the ‘wet’ being a Hokkein noodle soup. Try Mee Ton Poe (also written Mee Ton Poh), on the corner of Phuket Road and Soi Taling Chan, which is said to be the island’s oldest, and which many locals believe to make the best Hokkien noodles. Three generations of the same family from China’s Fujian province have been dishing up bowls of the thick, yellow egg noodles since 1946. Locals love them here served with pork, seafood and Chinese greens, either in a clear soup or stir-fried (mee pad Hokkien), sprinkled with shallots and pork crackling, with optional boiled eggs or soft fried egg plopped on top. Also sample Mee Somjit, another 60-something year-old, legendary Hokkien noodle eatery. There’s a long list of dishes on the menu, but stick to the house-made Hokkien noodles, whether in a soup or stir-fried. The most popular bowl comes with a sweet, seafood-based broth with sweet, plump Phuket prawns and pieces of succulent pork.
Dinner – Gaeng Poo
The most quintessential of Phuket dishes to try in Phuket Town is gaeng poo – a rich, fiery crab meat curry that is a specialty of the island although it’s found across Southern Thailand. The place to try it is Raya, Phuket’s finest and oldest restaurant, which serves authentic Phuket cuisine in a centuries-old Sino-Portuguese house with peeling paint and stained walls. Often jam-packed with Thai tourists, Raya does the kind of food that Phuket locals wish was found more widely on the island. The elderly owner, whose parents started the restaurant over a hundred years ago, can often be found in the kitchen or beside the bar checking every plate before it goes to the table. The gaeng poo here – also made with wild betel leaf (gaeng poo bai chaplu) – is served with room temperature khanom jeen (fermented rice noodles) and is the best rendition of the crab curry on the island. You’ll spot it among the array of dishes to share on every table – along with pad sataw kapi goong (stir fried stink beans with shrimp) and moo hong, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly, another dish beloved by locals. If you can’t get a table at Raya, try Krua NL Khun Taew or Natural Restaurant, both owned by old Phuket families and offering local dishes on their long menus that feature dishes from all over the country. Though the only other gaeng poo that came close Raya’s in terms of richness and complexity was at Nahmyaa restaurant at Point Yamu by Como.
Heading to the island? Here’s how to spend a weekend on Phuket and where we recommend you stay on Phuket. Are you a Phuket lover or a local? What do you think are the quintessential Phuket dishes to try in Phuket Town? We’d love to get your feedback in the Comments below.