Throughout Thailand, eating is a joy and an all-day topic of conversation − and Phuket is no exception. When Thais are not busy eating they’re often talking about their last meal . . . or their next one. This is just a theory, but we believe that if people were to learn the vocabulary for Thai food only, they’d be able to follow 80 percent of the chatter here.
From the lively markets to street stalls, to tiny family-run eateries with three or four tables, fresh fare is inexpensive and easy to find in every town on Phuket. And with so many roving motorbike food carts, lazy gourmets could just stay home or find a shady spot along the road and wait for the food to come to them!
There’s no shame in eating cheaply here. We’ve seen some prominent local businesspeople and politicians happily slurping up 40-baht bowls of noodles at no-name stalls on several occasions. Immaculately dressed office ladies can often be seen at street-side food shops tucking into a plate of khao kha moo (stewed pork leg) or a similarly cheap rice dish, their designer handbags delicately balancing on a plastic stool beside them.
Takeaway is also popular, and most every food vendor here will be able to box up and bag their meal offerings and assorted condiments with great skill and lightning speed. Their ability to cinch a plastic bag airtight with a quick wrap of a rubber band is impressive – we’ve never had a leaky bag of fish sauce yet!
One of the easiest ways to find a tasty variety of cheap eats is to visit a local festival, of which there are many throughout the year in Phuket. Some of the best events for satisfying your local food cravings include the Phuket Old Town festival in January-February, the Chalong Temple Fair held annually during Chinese New Year and the Patong Beach Carnival in December. In Saphan Hin public park in Phuket City, there’s usually a festival of some sort or another about every year. The festival themes may vary, but they’re always teeming with food vendors.
Hokkien noodles. When served in a soup, this is a refreshing dish with round noodles, thinly sliced pork, shrimp and a delicious egg-noodle dumpling stuffed with herbed minced pork. Also in hot demand for the lunch set are ‘dry’ Hokkien noodles, usually stir-fried with a mix of pork and seafood – very hearty and filling, especially if an egg is thrown in.
Dim sum. For most dim sum shops you need to arrive early in the morning to avoid missing out on the best of these tiny servings of steamed pork, seafood and vegetables. Diners are charged by the bowl, about 10-20 baht per serving. To find a dim sum shop, look for an open restaurant with either huge metal pots with rounded lids or stacks of bamboo steamer bowls.
Satay. Grilled lightly curried meat (usually pork) on a stick served with a spicy peanut sauce plus a side of sliced onion and cucumber soaked in vinegar. If you turn up at a party with a bagful of satay, you’ll be very popular indeed.
Kanom jeen. This is a Phuket breakfast favourite, and it should be noted that ‘some assembly is required’ to fully enjoy this dish. You first need to select your curry – beef, chicken, fish, crab – which is put in a bowl with rice noodles. Then you’ll find a selection of crunchy vegetables including radish, sprouts and green beans, plus sauces, spices and herbs at your table, which you add and mix according to your taste. Artful eating at its best.
Haw mok.This spicy crab mousse cake steamed and served in banana leaf makes for a rich and zippy complement to any meal, especially kanom jeen.
Roti. A Thai-style pancake. This fried dough is served either sweet with banana and sweetened condensed milk or savoury with a small curry dish at the side. It was an early-morning beef curry roti that convinced us of something that the locals have long known: spicy breakfasts are a true delight.
Salapao (steamed Chinese buns stuffed with BBQ pork or bean), khao tum mud (banana and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves – only 10 baht per piece!), kanom krok (little round servings of coconut pudding, often topped with corn), kanom buang (crispy wafer with coconut cream and shredded coconut), sangkaya fuk tong (pumpkin and coconut custard), khao lam (sticky rice in bamboo – the black rice variety is our favourite), sakoo (steamed tapioca balls stuffed with pork and peanut, served with lettuce and chili). One sweet that’s almost too pretty to eat is luk chub, a sugary bean candy skilfully shaped to look like tiny fruits, vegetables or chillies.
These are just a few of the endless choices of fresh ’n’ cheap eats on sale around the island. With only a few baht to lose if you don’t like a particular snack or meal, there’s no excuse not to be an adventurous and exploratory eater in Phuket.
The Good and the Cheap
Some of our favourite Phuket local restaurants
Aroon Restaurant, Thalang Road, Phuket City
Serves all kinds of roti, plus noodle and rice dishes. If this is too busy, try Abdul’s next door – also very good!
Mee Ton Poe, at the Clock Tower circle opposite the Metropole hotel, Phuket City
Open daily from lunchtime. Get there early because it can be difficult to find a table. Its speciality is Hokkien stir-fry noodles and a stall out front sells pork satay at 50 baht per 10 pieces.
N.C. Restaurant, opposite Royal Phuket City on Phang Nga Road in Phuket City
With ultra fresh veggies, this is one of the best spots for kanom jeen. It’s also a one-stop shop for many cheap eats including Hokkien noodles, haw mok, any kind of rice dish, baked goods and sweets − and excellent massaman curry.
Ko Yoon, Yaowarat Road at the Suriyadet fountain circle, Phuket City
The best Hokkien noodle soup shop in Phuket, or so claims a sign hanging in the restaurant’s entrance. It’s like a sauna inside and rather eccentric in design, with dusty Chinese ceramics and silk flowers on the shelves, but it’s a great spot to watch all the comings and goings of the tourists and market people.
Jade Restaurant, opposite the police station, Chaofa East Road, Chalong
There are many dim sum shops in Phuket but one of our favourites is Jade. They also make a huge and tasty khao thom. Baan Sukapun on Thepkrassatri Road in Phuket City (just south of Nissan) also does a good dim sum, and we love its vegetable sakoo.