We are fortunate as residents of Phuket, and indeed those who vacation on our island too, that we are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining options. Our restaurants truly encompass all cuisines and as one would expect, the majority of those offer Thai cooking.
Deciding where to go to enjoy our renowned Southern Thai specialities and classics is already complex enough and even more difficult when we accept that many Thai restaurants, even those owned for decades, no longer ‘offer the real McCoy’, over time having adapted original recipes to accommodate the non-Thai palate. To add to our dilemma, there is an emerging trend towards ‘modern’ Thai cuisine. I remain to be convinced by this trend; can one really improve the classics? Classics are classics for a reason. When choosing where I visit, I inevitably seek out the truly authentic. So, where should one go for ‘original’ Thai cooking? Twenty years ago, hotel guests did not venture out, preferring the ‘safe’ seclusion of their hotel. Today however, guests desire to experience the ‘real’ Phuket rather than eating in the more sanitised environment of their hotel, coupled with a belief that for veritable heirloom recipes, you must walk the streets. Unsurprisingly, I do not totally share this myth. The chefs I will meet today helm two Thai restaurants, both firmly anchored in deluxe hotels.
I begin with a visit to the Angsana hotel, a stunning five-star sanctuary. Tucked within lies my destination, Baan Talay, which translates to ‘House by the Sea’: an accurate description. I am to meet the legendary Chef Wannee Kalasri, who has been with the restaurant since 1992, joining as an apprentice and heading up Baan Talay for the past 10 years. Hailing from Nakhon Si Thammarat, she developed a love for cooking at an early age. Her menu is peppered with classic dishes such as Tom Yam Goong and Kai Jiew Poo, the former a spicy yet balanced soup with prawns, the latter, a traditional crab omelette. Both of these, whilst commonly seen, are incredibly complex to get right, requiring a deft touch and difficult-to-master techniques. Khun Wannee informs me, “These are amongst the most popular dishes with my returning diners who are on their second or third visit.” She adds, “On arrival, often before going to their room, they seek me out to greet me and discuss dishes they want to eat throughout their two-week stay; this is their second home.”
I ask her about competition and she replies, “We compete with local restaurants on authenticity by strictly adhering to the traditional ways of cooking, the only compromise being an adjustment in spice in a dish,” and with a mischievous smile she finishes, “This for Thais as well as non-Thais.”
An example of this is her Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai – a green chicken curry which she insists “should only ever be medium spiced.”
Chef Wannee continues, “I do introduce new dishes to satisfy curiosity in our regular diners, such as Lobster Khao Soi, a combination of north and south with the northern speciality of a deeply aromatic curry soup of cooked and fried noodles accompanied by the celebrated king of the Andaman, Phuket lobster.”
She continues, “A dish I am also delighted to prepare is the Thai snack of Miang Dok Bua – roasted coconut, ginger, shallots and dried shrimps wrapped in lotus flowers which, for me, perfectly showcases the simplicity and complexity of Thai flavours and presentation.”
Bidding farewell, my next visit is to a relative newcomer to Phuket. Located at the beachfront of the uber luxe Rosewood hotel lies their flagship restaurant, Ta Khai, which translates to ‘Fishing Net’. The restaurant consists of weathered pavilions built from repurposed materials, creating a rustic and quaint Thai village ambience of fishermen’s cottages. An open kitchen is presided over by Trang chef couple, Uncle Nun and Aunt Yai. They met when Uncle Nun was cooking at Aunt Yai’s family restaurant and thirty years later are still together. Uncle Nun informs me, with a twinkle in his eyes, “We fell in love over crab fried rice.”
He continues, “My view from the kitchen, overlooking the restaurant’s fish tanks containing our daily delivery of fresh seafood bounty, brings back memories of after school when we would accompany our parents to the paddy fields to catch fish.” Aunt Yai, a little shyly chips in, “We are particularly proud of our daily catch, which we can steam or grill with lime and chili, coconut milk and crispy shallots or simply accompanied by our home made nam jim.”
I ask about Rosewood’s ‘Partners in Provenance’ programme, which celebrates a commitment to local farmers and quality local ingredients. Uncle Nun replies, “I am very attached to those dishes where we use native herbs and vegetables from our own gardens which border our restaurant. These perfectly complement our fresh seafood; our Yum Som O Goong, a refreshing and piquant salad of pomelo and prawns with peanuts, coconut and shallots is an example.” He continues, “Both our homes had herb gardens so working here is just like being back home where we daily picked chili, eggplant, galangal, tomatoes and betel leaves, to name a few.”
Before I leave, I ask Uncle Nun about their signature southern dishes of Gaeng Poo and Moo Hong. He smiles, “The rich yellow curry with chunks of fresh crab and the rustic offering of braised pork. They hold pride of place on our menu; both are prepared exactly according to the original recipes and are our personal favourites!”
I sincerely thank them for sharing and depart through Ta Khai’s direct entrance, again emphasising its independent credentials. From the chefs, albeit head chefs I met today (incidentally all of whom are ‘only’ employees, rather than shareholders) I have experienced a strong sense of proud ownership. Without exception, they have a high level of passion and most important of all, a total commitment to serve up truly genuine Thai recipes to their diners. So please join me in spreading the word that Thai restaurants in hotels can be just as authentic as their free-standing counterparts. Thank you, Uncle Nun, Aunt Yai and Khun Wannee – the myth has been well and truly shattered!
*Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.
**Ta Khai Restaurant, Rosewood Photos by Collard Studios