Phuket Cuisine is unique to the southern Thai island, a fusion of culinary influences that you won’t find elsewhere in Thailand. Skip the pad thai, pizzas, and ‘international food’ and seek out the increasingly endangered Phuket cuisine before it disappears.
Phuket Cuisine — A ‘Phuket Style’ Fusion of Culinary Influences
“Phuket cuisine is unique. It’s very special. But it’s hard to find,” Phuket-born sous chef Phubase Chuprakong of Iniala Beach House’s Aziamendi restaurant told us as he presented an artfully plated dish that looked nothing like the Phuket specialties we’d tried so far on our month-long research trip.
A deconstruction of a popular Phuket dish based on pak mieng, a slightly bitter green leaf that’s often scrambled with eggs on the island, the experiment was one of five inventive dishes created by Aziamendi’s young Thai chefs.
It was served as part of a Celebration of Siam Flavours menu presented on Thursday nights at what is otherwise a culinary experience rooted in the Basque flavours of parent-restaurant Azurmendi in Bilbao, Spain.
“Phuket cuisine is influenced mostly by the Chinese, mainly from Hokkein – that’s why we have Hokkein noodles, dim sum, khanom jeen, and Chinese cookies,” Chef Chuprakong explained. “As well as Muslims from India and Malaysia, which explains our roti and chicken curry.”
“But unless you visit a home, now it’s hard to find local food on the island outside Phuket Town,” the young chef warned.
“Phuket cuisine isn’t like the Thai food that foreigners know,” Chuprakong explained. “It’s not always balanced. It’s very spicy or not spicy at all. Foreigners don’t understand Phuket food so locals make them Pad Thai.”
“Restaurants need to make Phuket dishes,” Chuprakong implored, “So that they’re not lost.”
The idea of the young chefs at Aziamendi reinventing Thai dishes is as much to encourage the cooks to innovate as to introduce diners to experiments with Thai food, as well as Phuket specialties and produce.
While we were heartened by the initiative, we were devastated to hear the chef reveal that it’s so difficult to locate the authentic Phuket cuisine that’s native to the island. Although we have to admit that we weren’t surprised.
Phuket is one of Thailand’s most popular holiday destinations, receiving several million tourists a year. When we arrived at the airport, we heard myriad languages spoken, from Russian to Cantonese, Spanish to Japanese.
As we drove through the most popular coastal resort towns with their tattoo parlours, fish spas and massage shops we spotted countless fast food franchises and restaurants with blackboards offering pizza, schnitzel and sushi.
Thailand boasts regional cuisines as complex and diverse as its ethnic groups and geography, yet the young chef was right.
Phuket cuisine has the past and present to both thank and blame for its current state.
Unlike Central and Northern Thailand, which were settled in the tenth century by the Tai peoples who gradually emigrated south as China’s southern cities became overcrowded, Phuket had been settled thousands of years earlier by Mon-Khmer people who migrated from China moving south through the lands that we now know as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand, reaching Phuket around 5,000 BC.
The seagoing Mons would eventually become known as Sea Gypsies. They are the oldest known inhabitants of Phuket, long known for being ingenious when it came to fishing, largely surviving on a diet from the ocean.
The Indians and Malays were known to be trading with each other as far back as 2,000 BC. In the historical annals of ‘Serajah Keddah’ – Keddah was a northwest Malaysian state south of Phuket – a Hindu warrior prince tells of anchoring off Phuket and asking these islanders for wood and water.
Strategically located on what was a peninsula before a channel was dug to create an island to provide a short cut from the west to east coast, Phuket Town became a port of call on the maritime spice and silk routes by traders from Persia, Arabia, India, China, Malaysia, Java, and Portugal.
All of these settlers and travellers brought to Phuket their own spices, ingredients, recipes, and cooks, and many of the visitors, enchanted by island life, stayed.
“Phuket food is fusion food,” chef Pitak Srichan, Executive Chef of the Anantara Layan resort’s Dee Plee restaurant and instructor at the Spice Spoons Cooking School, would confirm.
“Mussaman curry has been voted #1 dish in Thailand, but it’s from Persia!” Chef Pitak exclaimed, as we shopped the Theapkrasattri fresh market purchasing fresh produce for our cooking class.
“Thai food was very simple,” he explained. “Then curry powder came from India, stir-fry from China, the Portuguese brought the chillies, and coriander came from Mexico.”
Phuket’s cuisine is undoubtedly a fusion of many cuisines, mostly Chinese – Chinese cuisine has, of course, influenced all Southeast Asian cuisines – but for those who have travelled in the region, its most predominant influence is that of Baba-Yaya cuisine, itself a fusion cuisine.
Some 75% of Phuket’s population are known as Peranakans or Baba-Nyonya. They are the mixed race descendants of Chinese, Indonesian and Malaysian immigrants who arrived on Phuket in the 16th century to work in the booming tin mining industry and married local women. As the Thais had trouble pronouncing ‘nyonya’, they called themselves Baba-Yaya.
Baba-Yaya cuisine is inherently a fusion of gastronomic styles, influenced by various Chinese regional cuisines, especially Hokkien; Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine (itself influenced by Chinese); the spicier Thai food from Southern Thailand; along with dishes and techniques from the elegant Royal Thai cuisine from Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, which, in turn, was influenced by Khmer cuisine from the royal courts of Angkor.
This means that Phuket flavours can be as rich, complex and fiery, as they can be light, elegant and restrained. Perhaps it’s this seemingly strange fusion that has deterred tourists from embracing Phuket food in the same way they have the sweeter and less spicy Thai cuisine of the Central Plains, which is ubiquitous across the island.
Perhaps Phuket cuisine hasn’t appealed to more intrepid food tourists interested in seeking out the island’s authentic food, because some of those dishes are recognisable from elsewhere.
And, as Chef Phubase Chuprakong pointed out, until recently it has been difficult to find and it has been necessary to seek it out, as Phuket cuisine has been difficult to sample outside Phuket Old Town. In most resort towns, it’s easier to find restaurants serving Italian.
While migration, mass tourism, and a lack of adventure when it comes to eating on the part of many tourists to Phuket, have posed a threat to Phuket cuisine, efforts have been underway to protect the island’s long, rich gastronomic heritage.
Dr Kosol Tang-Uthai, President of the Thai Peranakan Association, recruited 65 local chefs to assist with the documentation of Phuket’s culinary history and collation of recipes to form a submission for Phuket Town’s nomination as a protected City of Gastronomy.
Included were Phuket specialties such as nam chub yam (spicy shrimp paste), bue tord (crispy, deep-fried snacks of battered grass with shrimp), mee hokkien (stir-fried Hokkien noodles), mee hun (stir-fried rice-flour noodles served with spare ribs and a clear soup), moo hong (pork belly simmered in five-spice broth), and o-aew (white jelly made from squeezed Chinese herb and bananas, served with boiled red bean and shaved ice).
When you travel to the island, skip the pad thai and som tam and make an effort to seek these Phuket dishes out, along with other Phuket street food and the specialties of Phuket cuisine at the island’s best restaurants.
A tip: make sure to ask for the dishes ‘Phuket-style’, otherwise you may get a blander version of the dish with considerably reduced spice levels.
If you don’t see any Phuket dishes on the menu, ask if the chef is from Phuket and if he or she can make something for you.
You might be pleasantly surprised when the waiters deliver to your table an array of dishes – such is the eagerness of Phuket’s locals to preserve what many see as a cuisine that is increasingly endangered.
UPDATE: Phuket was added to UNESCO’s Creative Cities list for its gastronomy. Phuket Town was one of 47 cities from 33 countries recognised for creativity in one of seven areas: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts, and music. Hopefully the listing will encourage locals to take more pride in the island’s cuisine and tourists to seek out Phuket dishes when they dine.
If you’re heading to Phuket, see our reviews of our recommended Phuket beach resorts and boutique hotels, all tried and tested.
Pictured above: a dish from Nahmyaa at Point Yamu by Como, one of a handful of restaurants at newer resorts making an effort to feature Phuket dishes on their menus.