These Phuket Old Town roti shops should be your first eating stop whenever you get to the Thai Island of Phuket. There can be few more warming foods than a spicy curry and few more comforting things to mop it up with than a roti, a flaky flatbread of Indian origin that’s now ubiquitous in Southeast Asia.
As life returned to normal here in Siem Reap, one of the first things to return to the empty streets of the former tourist zone that was the Old Market quarter was street food – street food now firmly focused on local needs. Gone are the carts from the Pub Street area selling deep-fried tarantulas, beetles and crickets for tourists to pretend-eat for their social media snaps. Locals who enjoy snacking on insects always knew the best place to buy their bugs was inside Old Market itself.
Now that the colonial-era quarter’s footpaths are free of tourists and touts spruiking two dollar massages, fish spas and elephant pants, food vendors have room to wheel in carts, lay down mats, set up stalls, and spread out plastic stools in their place to sell everything from banana leaf-wrapped snacks and skewered meats to bowls of noodles, pots of stews and curries, and trays of sweets.
One tourist street food favourite that has returned, however, is the roti cart, one of the last signs of Siem Reap’s previous life as a popular backpacking destination. Yes, the ‘banana pancake’ cart is back again and the things are absolutely everywhere (dotted along the riverside and Sivutha Boulevard as well), but without the huddle of backpackers waiting their turn for sliced bananas folded within a flaky roti drizzled in sweet condensed milk.
Instead, as they have always done – just not in the tourist quarter; usually outside local markets – it is Cambodians who are queuing each evening for the piping hot roti wrapped around pieces of banana, drowning in condensed milk and sprinkled with sugar, or even with, the tourist favourite, melted warm Nutella.
I’ve not yet succumbed to the temptation, although I’m sure I will soon enough. But what I’d prefer to see in Siem Reap are stalls selling roti with curry, just as they do in the Phuket Old Town roti shops. Of course, what I’d love even more is to be able to travel to the Thai island of Phuket and when I do my first stop will be the Phuket Town’s roti shops.
Phuket Old Town Roti Shops Should Be Your First Eating Stop On This Thai Island
Four months after the tourist industry in Siem Reap shut down in March, most of the restaurants and bars on Pub Street, and the eating and drinking spots and shops that lined surrounding lanes and alleys remain closed. Only those that appeal to Cambodians and, to a lesser extent, the considerably reduced population of expats who stayed on, have reopened.
The pandemic has decimated Cambodia’s tourism industry, along with neighbouring Thailand’s, and destinations such as Siem Reap and Phuket are strategising and rebranding for when borders open, flights resume, and foreign tourists return. While the future of tourism remains uncertain, one thing that is clear is that governments are not keen on young backpackers returning until there’s a vaccine.
The tourism ministers of both Cambodia and Thailand, and other countries in the region, have indicated that future marketing efforts will centre on moneyed tourists who stay longer and spend more, who are happy to social distance and have “holidays with minimal risks” – rather than backpackers who spend their nights staggering through streets on bar crawls.
While that shift in focus, government quarantining, testing, travel insurance requirements, and associated costs, all appear to mark the end of low budget travel and ‘the banana pancake trail’ – the well-trodden backpacker route through Southeast Asian cities, towns and islands such as Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, Luang Prabang, Siem Reap, and so on – one thing not going anywhere is the banana pancake or roti guay in Thai, and the savoury roti with curries that the Phuket Old Town roti shops do so well.
I’m not sure why we hadn’t stumbled across the Phuket Old Town roti shops on our very first trips to the Thai island many years ago when we were updating guidebooks. But it wasn’t until we spent a month on Phuket in 2014 for a feature story on Phuket cuisine for Australia’s Delicious magazine, that we got to watch the art that is authentic roti making and realised that roti is one of Phuket’s must-try dishes, up there with Raya’s crab curry (gaeng poo) and Mee Ton Poh’s hokkein mee.
Note the inclusion of ‘authentic’ there, for this is where I should say that the roti here in Siem Reap and on much of the banana pancake trail is a sort of fusion roti, a cross between a French crepe and the ‘proper’ roti made by the gentlemen in the Phuket Old Town roti shops. And that’s okay, because, as culinary history shows us, that’s what happens when food travels. It changes.
All Southeast Asian cuisines are fusion cuisines, after all – like all cuisines on the planet except those of the most isolated indigenous tribes that have had limited contact with outsiders – which is why accusations of culinary appropriation are so absurd. Almost everything came from somewhere else. Authenticity is slippery, especially as cuisines age and evolve.
The ‘tofu amok’ on a Siem Reap restaurant menu that is a bewildering tourist dish for the Cambodian grandmother for whom only a fully steamed fish amok can be authentic, might roll in her grave in ten years when not only is tofu amok the norm, but you can go to fast food amok shops and mix and match your ingredients and flavours from a menu, just as you might pizza toppings and crusts at Dominoes.
“Phuket food is fusion food,” chef Pitak Srichan told us on that research trip during one of the many Phuket cuisine cooking classes we did. “Thai food was very simple. Then curry powder came from India, stir-fry from China, the Portuguese brought the chillies and the coriander, which came from Mexico. Mussaman Curry was voted #1 dish in Thailand, but it’s from Persia!”
There was no such thing as ‘Thai food’ before the Indians and Chinese arrived, but Chef Pitak was correct when he said Phuket food was fusion food. It was bound to be considering the island’s long history. The Malays and Mons arrived in 5,000 BC – called Mon Selang, ‘boat people’ or ‘sea gypsies’ – then Indian mariners around 2,000 BC. Like much of mainland Southeast Asia, Phuket had a Hindu Period, from around 500BC to 700AD and was part of the Khmer Funan kingdom. Persian, Arab, Javanese, Tamil, and North Indian Muslims settled in the area in the 12th century.
But the wonderful roti that’s artfully made at two of Phuket Town’s oldest Muslim eateries, Abdul and Aroon, arrived just last century, not from Northern India, but Southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, where it’s called parotta. Chennai, of course, is the capital, which is where we get ‘roti chenai’ or ‘roti canai’ (which is pronounced as ‘chanai’), the name given to roti in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
Abdul and Aroon are said to be Phuket Town’s oldest Muslim eateries, still ran by the original Indian Muslim families who established the shops over sixty years ago in simple shophouse eateries on Thalang Road, not far from the corner of Phuket Road. When I dream of eating in Phuket again, this is where I dream of going, perhaps for the fascinating history of how this flatbread travelled from as much as the delectable roti itself.
Try Abdul’s first, where you can usually find Abdul himself out front artfully stretching and throwing his dough before pulling it into shape. Take a seat and order his wonderfully flaky roti and a few of his wife’s hearty mutton, chicken and beef curries to dip it into – don’t stress, they’re small bowls – then go and watch the master at work.
When you’re done, go do the same at Aroon next door, where you should also order cha-chuk, a frothy combination of pulled tea and coffee that comes in a tall glass. If your appetite isn’t as large as mine and you can’t fit in any more curries, just order the dessert roti drowned in sweet condensed milk.
That’s what I’m dreaming of doing when we can all start travelling safely again. In the meantime I’m mulling over whether to attempt the roti guay recipe in David Thompson’s Thai Street Food. Well, I’m casually leaving the book open on that page on the coffee table as a hint for Terence to make it…
Have you been to the Phuket Old Town roti shops and had the wonderful roti? We’d love to hear your memories. When you do plan a Phuket trip, please see our recommended Phuket hotels and apartments, our weekend in Phuket itinerary, our Phuket street food guide, and consider this Phuket Old Town 15-taster food tour for a comprehensive introduction to Phuket food and its history.
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