Saturday, December 5, 2009

Karon Beach, Phuket- Finding the Perfect Souvenir from this Island

Staying only for a few days in Phuket, there are just not enough meals to get my fix of Thai food.  But this is not always the case for most tourists.  A Russian tour operator told me they’ve had to open a Russian restaurant as his countrymen can only eat Thai food for a day or two. 

                                           Panang Curry with heart shaped rice

Do try the Panang curry (see photo above) , a rich curry, using thick coconut cream only.  It is often made with beef, but also served in chicken and pork versions.  Taking a break from my sun chair in Karon Beach, I sampled Panang Curry (95 Baht) at Best Friend’s Restaurant. Yes, it is a touristy joint charging a bit more.  But what made me smile was the artistic detail they put into serving their food. The steamed rice in this restaurant was served in a heart mold.  And the nice touch of an orchid on the Thai Iced tea (Chah Yen), an orange colored sweet tea mixed with spices (star anise, crushed tamarind seeds, and other spices), sugar, and milk (some use condensed milk, others use evaporated milk).

                                                        Refreshing Thai Iced Tea

On my last night in Karon, I met Dave, a Canadian who has been to Phuket several times.  We had dinner at Mama Noi, his favorite restaurant for cheap but consistently good food.  I had Khao Kluk Kapi (Fried Rice in Shrimp Paste) for only 75 Baht. A meal on its own with rice, shrimp paste, dried shrimps, egg, sausage, pineapples, shallots, lime juice, fish sauce, cilantro and sweet pork.  The flavors of this dish taste are familiar to my Filipino taste buds thanks to the shrimp paste, similar to our bagoong (shrimp paste). This is a good bet for spice wimps, as it is not spicy.

                                          Khao Kluk Kapi, a complete meal

The only dud in my meals was ordering Papaya Salad in the beach on my first day. Expecting a plate of Som Tum (grated green papaya salad with dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, tomatoes, long beans, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar and chili), instead the cheeky Thai beach vendor gave me a plate of ripe papayas sprinkled with chili (see photo).

                                            Not the papaya salad i had in mind...

Knowing the trip will not be enough to satisfy my desire for Thai food, I cleverly joined a Thai cooking class.  Having the ability to Thai food was the best souvenir I could give myself. So anywhere I am, I can easily whip up my favorite dishes.

Taking the cue from Bangkok and Chang Mai, Phuket has its share of Thai cooking classes.  The variety ranges from hotels teaching Royal Thai cuisine, restaurants, and even home cooks. I opted for a home cook named Pat.  Thinking it would be a small affair, I was surprised to ten students. The class comprised of two newly wed couples from Australia and two Australian couples in town for a wedding, a Singaporean mom, and myself. 

                                              Pat giving us a lesson on curries

Our teacher Pat first gave us a market tour, showing us the different ingredients going into our meal (Kaffir lime, palm sugar, a variety of Thai eggplants from long one to tiny grape sized ones), as well as other interesting ingredients like bamboo shoots and betel nut.

            Tiny Eggplants for the Kaeng Khiao Wan Kai (chicken with green curry)

Pat then welcomed us to her charming tropical home. But it was her new pet, an adorable two-month-old poodle puppy she found in the garbage called Popiah (spring roll) that won my heart. 

                                                   Popiah and his newfound Aussie friend

In three and half hours we cooked Kaeng Khiao Wan Kai (Chicken with green curry), Pad Thai (Fried noodles Thai style), Som Tum (Papaya salad), Thod Mun Pla (Fried fish cakes), Kloui Bood shee (bananas in coconut milk) and Tub Tim Krob or Red Ruby Dessert (diced water chestnuts cooked in tapioca flour and red coloring served with a coconut syrup). 

Under Pat’s guidance, we did as were told, each successfully cooking our lunch by 1pm.  Interestingly with the newlyweds, the Aussie Blokes seem to be better at wearing the apron and whipping up the meal. Seated with one Aussie couple from Adelaide, my enthusiasm was at the meal was dampened by the bride who did not eat any seafood. She refused to eat any fish, shrimp, or any shellfish. It is a shame after all Phuket is known for its seafood. She asked me “Do you like Schnitzels?” “No, not really,” I replied. “Oh they’re my favorite!,” she volunteered.

                 I cooked all of these dishes myself, but couldn't manage to eat them all.

At that very moment, I understood why Phuket’s restaurants always had two types of food: Thai and Western. Perhaps, not everyone shared my insatiable desire for Thai food.

                       Pat (left) and Me. Notice how happy I am in the land of smiles


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