Many foreigners know something about Thai food from going to Thai restaurants in their home countries. Others have never tried it but have heard of its reputation for wonderful flavours – and plan to give it a try while in Phuket.
Some Thai dishes are, shall we say, an acquired taste, so here we offer a bit of a guideline for the total beginner to Thai cuisine, which we hope will give you an enjoyable (and flavoursome) start.
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Outside Bangkok, Phuket probably has the widest variety of food choices in Thailand. One of the main reasons for this is the island’s long history as an international place, going back to the tin-mining boom of more than a century ago. These days, the island’s inhabitants come from all corners of the globe, but varieties of local Thai cuisine are still very much a favourite. Let’s start the day right with breakfast.
Kao Tom is boiled rice served with a choice of meat and other titbits and sometimes also an egg. Healthy and not too heavy, it is one of the most popular dishes for Thais at the start of the day. However, if kao tom seems a bit basic, then Phuket has plenty more to offer, as we show you below.
Roti and massaman curry are influenced by the cuisines of Malaysia and the Indian subcontinent. There are 2 main elements: roti, which is Indian-style unleavened bread, and a small bowl of curry made with your choice of beef, chicken or lamb. You also usually get a fried egg with it. A set with a drink will cost around 50 baht (less than 2 euros).
The restaurant best-known in Phuket for this dish is Roti Chaofa, on Chao Fa Rd in Phuket City, next to the Siam Commercial Bank. This family-run place has been in the business for more than 30 years, serving up a secret-recipe curry passed down through the generations. The shop opens daily from 6.30am through noon. Phone: +66 (0)76 221 771.
Dim sum, which has its roots firmly in Chinese cuisine, is probably the most fun you can have at breakfast. It's a sort of Chinese tapas. Dim sum restaurants serve a huge variety of different dishes, all in small portions – enough usually for a couple of bites – all delivered in small bamboo containers, though some restaurants serve the food in small bowls instead. Many of the dishes have pork as the main ingredient.
Kanom Jeen is a common dish served all over Thailand, with huge variations but all of which are based on soft rice noodles. It’s served with a choice of curries and almost always comes with a side dish heaped with fresh and boiled vegetables. Many people will also add a boiled egg.
Phuket is unusual in that you can get kanom jeen as early as 5am – most Thais do not usually eat kanom jeen for breakfast. One serving will cost you around 10 to 20 baht, including the vegetables. There’s a kanom jeen shop on almost every street corner in Phuket. Just look for the one that draws the biggest crowds.
For lunch in Phuket, forget burgers, sandwiches and chicken nuggets. Thailand has food that arrives just as fast but is much fresher and tastier.
It has to be admitted that there is a serious problem that even Thai office workers on lunch break face: the choice is enormous. Where to go? What to eat? Here are some popular suggestions: Kway Tio (noodle soup), Pad Thai Goong (Thai fried rice noodles with prawns), Pad Kapow Neua (stir-fried basil with beef), Pad See Iew (noodles in soy sauce) and Kao Pad (fried rice with a choice of meat or seafood).
All of these dishes are cooked fresh right after you order; each takes about 3-5 minutes. The price for a lunch, including a drink, is always less than 70 baht (2 euros).
One other 'must-try', while you’re in Phuket, is Kao Niow with Gai Yang (sticky rice with barbecued chicken). Some restaurants, especially those set up by people from the northeast of Thailand, specialise in this dish, which is best eaten without cutlery – a guarantee of informality.
Many people never encounter sticky rice before coming to Thailand, so at first try, you’ll probably end up with bits of rice stuck to your fingers, wrists, your elbows, all over. Definitely fun, and thoroughly delicious.
Thais have no hard and fast rules about what to eat for dinner. Many Thais will simply have a light, healthy bowl of noodles. But for families, dinner is the main meal of the day, the one time they are all likely to come together, so the meal may be more elaborate, with dishes that take longer to prepare.
For families or groups of friends, dinner never consists of a single dish. There is always a variety in the centre of the table for everyone to share – a fine way to bring everyone together.
If you are ordering dinner for a group, we suggest you choose a balance of dishes: something that’s spicy balanced by something that’s not; a vegetable dish to balance a meat dish. You should also include in your order either a bowl of clear soup or a curry, or both. To help you choose, here are 3 sample Thai dinner 'sets' for 3–5 people.
Typical Thai meals
Set A: Satay Gai (chicken marinated in herbs and honey then grilled, served with peanut sauce); Pad Pak Ruam (mixed fried vegetables); and Tom Yam Goong (spicy-sour soup with prawns).
Set B: Yum Pla Dook Foo (spicy salad with fried catfish); Penang Neua (red beef curry); and Gaeng Jeud Moo Taohu (mild clear soup with pork and tofu).
Set C: Pad Priew Waan Pak (sweet and savoury fried vegetables); Laab Gai (spicy minced chicken salad); and Tom Kah Talay (Coconut milk soup with seafood, flavoured with galangal).
Thai table manners
Since Thai food is prepared in bite-size morsels, it’s very rare to see a knife used at a Thai table; normally it’s spoon in the right hand, fork in the left. In politer society, each dish will arrive with its own serving spoon, so don’t use your own spoon to dig into a dish of food in the middle of the table.
Each person will have his or her own plate of rice. Use the serving spoon to take a small amount of food from one of the dishes and eat that before trying something else – it’s not considered polite to heap your plate. Besides, you’ll enjoy the food much more if you take it one taste at a time, instead of mixing all the flavours together.
A clean plate is a good thing in Thai society – it shows you think your host or cook has served up a delicious meal. While food in the bowls in the centre can often be kept in the fridge for the next day, food on individual plates cannot, and many Thais consider that a sad waste in a world where many people are still starving. So, finish what’s on your plate.
How to choose a Thai restaurant
One of the best places to find a good Thai restaurant in Phuket is along the West Coast since most restaurants there have menus in English. Such places are in Patong, Kata and Karon. Many of these restaurants also provide ‘photo menus’ and this simplifies things for the rookie Thai food diner.
Of course, it’s always easier if the wait staff speak English so you can make it clear just how spicy you’d like that curry and whether you’d prefer chicken, beef or fish.
Cleanliness is more important than fancy décor. You’d be surprised at how many simple and basic-looking restaurants in Thailand actually serve fantastic food. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they keep their place meticulously clean.
And follow the crowds; it’s always a good sign if a restaurant is crowded – a well-frequented restaurant is bound to deliver the goods.
Don’t be scared off by the word 'spicy'. As with anything else, there are degrees of spiciness. Depending on your preference, you can order any dish to be cooked just a little bit spicy, medium, or blazing hot.
No matter what your local friends may say, avoid local food carts or food stands. If this is your first time eating Thai food, it’s best to ensure that you get food that not only tastes and smells good but is also hygienically prepared.