A Taste of the Real Phuket
Think you know Thai food? The resort island’s authentic cuisine is worlds away from the noodle dishes you’re familiar with. Here’s our primer on its distinctively multicultural dishes.
Visitors to Phuket are often surprised when they look at menus at the island’s restaurants. Yes, quintessential Thai dishes like pad thai and green papaya salad are there, but so are unfamiliar names like moo hong, loba, and hokkien mee. The reason? Phuket’s food incorporates flavors and ingredients brought here by Hokkien Chinese immigrants—who originated from China’s southeast coast—and Malaysians and developed over generations. The result, a blend of spicy, salty, and sweet known as Peranakan Baba, can only be tasted on the island, and is worth seeking out.
Geography helps explain this cultural mix. Starting in the 16th century, merchant ships plying the Strait of Malacca between India and China would stop at the burgeoning port of Phuket for provisions. At the same time, large deposits of tin were found on the island, drawing in French, Portuguese, and British traders. By the 19th century, Chinese businessmen and workers migrated here to work in the tin industry, along with Chinese-Malay merchants from Penang. “All of those people brought different cultures and traditions, and that is reflected in Phuket’s local foods,” explains Torry Wongwattanakit, an island native who owns the popular Torry’s Ice Cream, which scoops out bold flavors like durian and coconut with pea flower from a restored building in the city’s atmospheric Old Town.
“All of those people brought different cultures and traditions, and that is reflected in Phuket’s local foods.”
Torry Wongwattanakit, owner of Torry's Ice Cream
Phuket menus teem with cross-cultural hybrids descended from Chinese dim sum and Malay roti and curries. Local chef Chutima Incharoen—better known as Chef Pui, founder of BrassWok Thai Cooking, a culinary school devoted to national and local specialties—loves hokkien mee in particular. The noodle dish, which originated in China’s Fujian province, is also popular in Singapore (where it’s prepared with thin yellow noodles and prawns) and Malaysia (where the noodles are thicker, and sliced pork replaces the seafood). Here in Phuket, the dish is again a cultural fusion, with thick yellow noodles and pork à la Malay, along with prawns, squid, egg, and bean sprouts.
Also popular is loba, a local variant of the Hokkien spiced-meat dish ngo hiang. Here, the meat of choice is pork—specifically, pig liver, intestines, lungs and other offal—stewed in Chinese five-spice powder, deep-fried, and served with a tamarind-chili dipping sauce.
Perhaps the most famous Phuket creation is moo hong, a pork belly stew flavored with black pepper, garlic, and coriander roots in a sweet soy sauce that has clear Chinese roots. “It’s the dish that everyone talks about when they come to Phuket,” says Wongwattanakit. His favorite place to order it? Raya, set in a century-old Sino-Portuguese mansion, with original mosaic-tiled floors and a winding staircase in the center of the room.
Even Thai classics get a Phuket spin. The ubiquitous dipping sauce nam prik, for example, here becomes nam prik goong siab, which adds whole dried shrimp to the traditional mix of green Thai chilies, garlic, shrimp paste, fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar. For something truly local, try o-tao, cubes of cooked taro and oysters fried in batter and served with a red chili sauce.
Throughout Phuket, dozens of restaurants serve these specialties, from casual hole-in-the-walls like Mee Ton Poe to the elegant Tu Kub Khao, inside a restored shophouse. But in the great Thai tradition of street food, visitors should do a thorough tasting by cruising the stalls at the Thalang Road Sunday Night Market. “It’s a one-stop wonder, highly recommended,” says Chef Pui. “Most of the special dishes of the island are there. It’s the center of all of the goodies of Phuket.”
Torry’s Ice Cream: 16 Soi Rommanee, Thalang Road, Phuket Town; +66 76-510-888
BrassWok Thai Cooking: 149/12 Moo 4, Sri Soonthorn Road, 2nd floor; +66 87-620-8371
Raya: 48 New Dibuk Road; +66 76 218-155
Mee Ton Poe: 9/109 Phuket Road; +66 76-216-293
Tu Kub Khao: 8 Phang Nga Road; +66 76-608-888
Thalang Road Sunday Night Market: Thalang Road