Today we have a guest post from Ryan about the best food in Southern Thailand, a place I would love to return to.
Southern Thailand never disappoints me. You are spoilt with a wide choice of tropical islands with the most amazing pristine, sandy beaches, national parks and rainforest on the mainland with exceptional vegetation and wildlife, and the very best of Thai food. The region stretches all the way from Bangkok to Malaysia in the South, and whatever your travel style and budget is like, you will surely find what you look for. You can choose from endless cultural or active things to do in Phuket, Full Moon party on Koh Phangan, some of the world’s best diving sites in the Andaman Sea or off-the-beaten-track hikes in the Kao Sok National Park. What else do you need?
I think, one of the most fascinating things about Southern Thailand though is its variety of food, which is often overlooked because of the popularity of the northeast Thai dishes. The traditional local cuisine here has been influenced by both Malaysian and Indian flavors, so if you like spicy food, this is going to be your Heaven on Earth! Most things are much hotter than in other regions, and it’s even further seasoned with the tiny bird’s eye chili which is disproportionately hot to its size.
Influenced by the Thai Muslim community, dishes are similar to Indian, typically rich in herbs, locally produced and generously used coconut cream, shrimp paste and spices like turmeric, cardamom and cumin, which give red, yellow or orange colour to the plate. But perhaps the best of all is the fresh and inexpensive fish and seafood along the coastline, which you will find pretty much anywhere on the peninsula. If you’re a fan of seafood like me, you’re sure to love the charcoal grilled lobster, crab, squid, prawns and scallops, fuelled with coconut husks, and served with hot-and-sour chilli dipping sauces. Whether you choose to indulge yourself in mouth-watering specialties and fresh fruit cocktails at one of the hotels in Phuket or you opt in an adventurous street food market tour, you can’t go wrong. Here is a guide for some of the dishes you shouldn’t miss:
Just like in Malaysia, the Muslim bread or roti is a popular quick bite everywhere in the region. It’s fried on a griddle and served stuffed with Indian-style meat and veggie curry mix or with a curry dip on the side. Alternatively, there’s also a sweet variation filled with grilled bananas or chocolate and sprinkled with sweetened condensed milk. While roti as a desert has become popular on street markets in other part of Thailand too, the savoury version is a unique Southern specialty, so you should surely give it a go here.
Gaeng som pla / Sour curry
Gaeng is probably one of the most famous Southern dishes. It’s a sour and spicy orange-coloured curry soup. There are many variations of its substance though from a liquid soup, to rich and creamy stews and even dry pots. Gaeng som pla is usually made of a liquid fish base with curry paste and turmeric, and it’s cooked with bamboo shoots, green papaya or slices of pineapple. The special combination of spices, curry and fruits give a whole range of delicious and refreshing flavors to this dish, not only sour as the name would suggest.
Gaeng massaman / Massaman curry
Massaman or “musselman” is the old way of saying Muslim, and in this food it refers to the aromatic dry spice blend base, which was brought to Thailand by the Muslim traders. This curry is rich and smooth because of the creamy coconut milk, and hence it’s one of the milder local specialties – a good news for those who are too overwhelmed by the mostly super hot gaeng variations. Lots of additional fresh herbs give fragrance to this curry, and what’s even better, it’s served with a sprinkle of peanuts on the top.
Gaeng tai pla / Fermented fish stomach curry
Although this won’t be everyone’s favourite, it’s the dream food for locals and one of the best known Southern dishes. Foreigners find gaeng tai pla a bit weird at first, but you need to give it a try and decide for yourself! It’s another intensely pungent curry somewhere between a soup and a stew. And well, so the ingredients are fish innards, including the viscera, some grilled fish, shrimp paste, and a mix of vegetables like pumpkin, string beans, eggplants and bamboo shoots. The taste is quite invigorating with a little bitter element in it.
Sataw / Stink bean variations
Despite its moderately appetizing name and distinctive smell, sataw variations are very popular at restaurants. Sataw looks like green bean and it grows in bright green seed pods which have to be peeled to get the green berries. You can see it on most markets sold in big bunches at a high price, because apparently it’s not only delicious but extremely healthy too. A favourite way to serve these stinky beans is in stir-fries with shrimp and shrimp paste or in a variety of curries, like the gaeng sataw.
Similarly to sataw, med riang is another special vegetable from this region. It’s almost like bean sprout, but it’s dark green and it’s larger in size. After removing the outer skin layer, you can eat the berry raw with chili sauce when it’s fresh or boiled in dishes when ripe. It can be cooked with vegetables and meat, or what I like even more is to mix it with coconut flakes and sugar for dessert.
Finally, one of the simplest but super tasty options is khao yam, which is kind of like a rice salad mixed with a blend of thoroughly chopped spices, herbs and roots. The most typical ingredients in this mix are dried shrimps, shredded coconut, tiny pieces of bamboo shoots, kaffir lime and turmeric leaves, lemongrass and chilies. These give a rich herbal flavor to the rice, which is then served with a drizzle of lime juice or with a special sweet and spicy local fish sauce called nahm boo-doo.