Peranakan Phuket

It’s been a few weeks now since we returned to Auckland from our three week holiday in Phuket. We were initially wary of choosing Phuket as our destination; having been to Thailand twice prior to having kids – travelling the country by train, plane and boat my husband and I knew two things for certain: finding good food is probably our highest priority, and a close second is escaping the tourist traps that exist anywhere there’s a hint of development. By tourist traps I don’t mean things set up to ‘trick’ or rip-off tourists, I simply mean when development has attempted to attract tourists by being familiar (McDonald’s or Irish pubs etc) or a watered down version of local – eg almost any restaurant you’ll find in a heavily-touristed part of Thailand. Phuket didn’t immediately promise to fulfill our priorities, but I had an underlying hope that there was more to this tourist mecca than the brag of the brochures.

I was right. For one thing (and bear in mind I’m speaking mainly about food here, being a food blog), Phuket, like anywhere else in Thailand, is a town that revolves around food. They say in London you’re never more than a metre away from a rat. In Phuket, just as in Chiang Mai, and in Bangkok, and in small villages in the south, west, north and east, you are never more than a few metres away from something tasty. If you want to avoid vanilla in Phuket (the bland, toned-down restaurants that line the tourist strips), go street food. It’s everywhere. It’s cheap. It’s immensely tasty, and – I’ll go out on a limb here – actually less likely to upset your tummy than some restaurants, given the food is served piping hot, cooked in front of your eyes (if you see too many flies for your liking, or cats getting in on the cooking action – you can simply bypass the place), and isn’t left sitting round on warmers. So, number one tip – street food is your friend.

Another thing: Phuket’s population is – at an estimate – about 70% Peranakan. That’s people descended from Chinese-via-Malaysia immigrants who came to work in the island’s once-thriving, now defunct tin mines. The blending of the Chinese and Thai cuisines, with a bit of Malaysian influence thrown in en route, is a delicious thing. The food is known as Baba-Yaya, the Thai Peranakan words for mum and dad. Think noodle shops specialising in flash-fried Hokkien noodles or thin egg noodles swimming in clear, perfectly savoury broth or succulent boiled pork with garlic or fiery fish curries with plenty of tamarind.

One more thing we noticed is that the Peranakans love a festival. Stay in Phuket Town for any length of time and you’re bound to find yourself caught up in some festival or other – and festivals mean food. Lots of it and very good. One evening, looking for a taxi to take us to the night market, we instead came upon a huge party that filled a long street with food stalls and a stage where local dance groups took turns. The community had been busy the past few days fashioning offerings to the ancestors from some kind of flour-water-sugar paste, slathered with plenty of bright red food colouring to form huge red and white turtles. That night they were busy slicing up the turtles, deep frying them, and dishing them out to the hoards of locals keenly queueing up. We were enthusiastically handed a plate of it – it was hot, sweet and very glutinous.

More on Phuket food later – including some good places to eat and recommended places to stay to best enjoy the island. In the meantime, here are some photos; mostly food with an occasional sunset:

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