Do you immediately associate Thai food with your local Asian restaurant? Then it’s high time for a holiday on Ko Phuket, Thailand‘s "Food Island", that offers an infinite variety of flavours worth discovering. Two Swiss gentlemen have done precisely that.
Pablo Blattmann has been living on the island of Phuket for more than ten years. The Swiss national with Bolivian roots learned to cook in France – and it was food and flavours that brought him to Thailand. Today he is the proud owner of the "DeDos" restaurant in Phuket City. "The name alludes to my roots, because ‘dedos’ means ‘fingers’ in Spanish and reflects the manual dexterity cooking requires. It also can be understood to mean ‘de dos’, which translates as ‘of two’, since I run the restaurant with my partner."
However, anyone looking to find tapas and Spanish specialities in Pablo’s restaurant will search in vain. His cuisine is in keeping with what he learned. "I describe my style as ‘French cuisine with an Asian touch.’" The menu Pablo recommends fits that description: crab fish with wasabi salad, sour cream and a mango salsa for starters, followed by duck in a tamarind sauce, sweet potato purée and pomelo salad as the main course, and a delicious chocolate cake with strawberry sorbet for dessert. Dinner at "DeDos" is basically justification enough for a trip to Phuket!
Food as a culture
"But, to be honest, the food you get here is fabulous no matter where you eat," Pablo Blattmann says. The Thais have a great food culture, which soon becomes apparent when spending time with them: food is a prevalent factor throughout the day. Instead of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, the Thais eat whenever they feel hungry, but in very small portions which they eagerly share with others. Thai food culture is particularly evident in Phuket City’s endless slew of markets. Exciting food creations are on offer everywhere – and so cheap even Thais with scarce financial means will almost always eat out.
"People rarely cook at home here, even in the very rural regions towards Laos,” Daniel Hofmann confirms. Also a Swiss national, Daniel is a trained cook and runs the hotel "MVC Patong House" at Patong Beach on the island of Phuket. "The social aspect is a major factor, to come together with other people. If ever someone decides to cook at home, they will make a huge pot of curry and share it with many others." And the food from that pot serves not just as the main meal of the day, but will be eaten in the morning, at noon and in the evening. This is because the fixed meal times we are familiar with in Europe do not exist in Thailand. "Some things are more likely to be eaten in the morning than others. Whereas seafood is not a morning dish, dim sum, originally from Chinese cuisine, is likely to be a popular choice,” Pablo explains. In principle, every breakfast dish can also be eaten as lunch. Rice is a staple of practically every meal. And, interestingly, the Thais do not greet each other with a "How are you?" but with the phrase "Hello, have you eaten rice yet?"
Phuket as a melting pot
The Chinese influence, such as dim sum, is the rule rather than the exception. Phuket is considered Thailand’s food island and combines hundreds of different influences. Numerous Japanese dishes are on the menu and, nowadays, even dairy products can be found in Phuket City – albeit still quite sparsely. "Most Thais are lactose intolerant. This is because they are simply not used to milk. But I am noting a growing interest for dairy products among young Thais,” Pablo Blattmann reports. Much is currently being discovered and tried – the fear frequently encountered in Switzerland of trying something new does not seem to be an issue in this part of the world. It is, therefore, with good reason that Phuket was named the "City of Gastronomy" by the UNESCO Creative City Listing in December 2015. In that light, the innovative dishes served in "DeDos" work wonderfully, and so does Daniel Hofmann’s international cuisine in his "MVC Patong House".
Food with a tradition
Despite the desire for new creations, traditional dishes are also appreciated and eaten with gusto. Pablo considers "som tam", the green papaya salad often also served in Thai restaurants in Switzerland, to be Thailand’s unofficial national dish. Anyone associating the salad with the sweet taste of fruit is wrong. Unripe (and thus green) papayas that taste and look more like cucumbers are used to make the salad. "‘Tom yam’, a sweet-spicy soup with shrimp, is also high up on the list of most popular dishes."
Markets to feast at
Pablo recommends vacationers who want their Phuket holiday to be a truly flavourful experience to visit the night markets on Sunday evening. "The choice includes small fried sand crabs that taste like popcorn! The giant baked shrimps are also delicious. And trying the many different ice teas is basically a must!" The nation’s favourite beverage is available in countless variations, from black and lemon tea to typical Thai tea served with evaporated milk. Daniel, by contrast, lists "pad thai" (stir-fried rice noodles), "khao pad" (fried rice) and the many varieties of "keangs" (curries), including with caraway, peanuts or star anise, as the nation’s favourite dishes.
Don’t be afraid!
By the way, fear of suffering from food poisoning in Thailand is one of the most prevalent misconceptions among tourists. "Especially in market cookshops, everything prepared is super fresh,” Pablo says. "So just immerse yourself and enjoy." Having said that, a level of caution is nonetheless advised. "Even if you like spicy dishes – the spiciness scale is very different here. You are better off starting mild,” Daniel recommends.
Two things to avoid
And there are two things holidaymakers with a European stomach do well to avoid. The first is tap water: different from Switzerland, tap water in most countries is not potable, even if the locals drink it. Particular caution is required with respect to ice cubes. The second thing to avoid is more exotic: fermented dishes, such as fish, that are viewed as delicacies in Thailand. Such dishes are prepared by leaving fresh fish out in the blazing sun for several hours, so that it starts to ferment. What sounds far from appetising to us is also likely to upset our stomachs. As Daniel knows from his hotel guests: "Guests who steer clear of such delicacies return to their hotel in the evening, rather than ending up in a hospital bed."
Phuket food tips
The wide and large choice of cookshops, street food stalls and small restaurants can be overwhelming. Furthermore, appearance does not necessarily say much about quality. To make life easier for you, Daniel Hofmann and Pablo Blattmann reveal their personal favourites:
Affair of the heart - “DeDos”: "We have made it into the ‘Thailand Tatler Best Restaurants’ guide with our restaurant. A total of just five independent restaurants in Phuket are featured in the guide. That is an honour of course, and one we have worked hard for. We cook with passion and new ideas, and combine French cuisine with Thai influences. " (Bandon-Cherngtalay Rd, Thalang, Cherngtalay, Chang Wat Phuket 83110, Thailand)
A touch of Swissness - “MVC Patong House”: "The food we serve in Patong House is international, but with a Swiss touch. This is apparent in our quality standards, the fresh products we use, our well-balanced side dishes and authentic sauces, as well as the occasional piece of Swissness –such as Swiss coffee and ice cream for instance- that I bring to Thailand." (94/10 Sai Namyen Road, Patong Beach, Phuket 83150, Thailand)
Noodle soups at the Naka Market – a must-try: "This is an absolute must-try because of the variety: noodle soups are available with clear broth, with a sour-spicy flavour or thickened with blood! What may initially sound off-putting, tastes interesting and different from what we are used to." (Chao Fa West Road, Phuket, Phuket 83000, Thailand)
Modern - “Suay Restaurant”: "Suay Restaurant serves Thai food with a modern twist. The chef de cuisine spent many years working abroad and incorporates that experience into his cooking." (Talat Nuea, Amphoe Mueang Phuket, Phuket 83000, Thailand)
Traditional - “Tunk Ka Cafe”: "The Tunk Ka Cafe is traditional and authentic. This is where many of the locals like to eat, a fact that is very visible: plastic garden chairs and tables are not intended to be stylish, but practical. The food definitely makes up for appearance. And, situated on a hill, the café offers magnificent views." (Khosimbi Road , Ratsada , 83000 Mueang Phuket, Phuket, Thailand)
Adventure - Gipsy Fish Market Rawai: "Situated in Rawai, in the south of Phuket, this fish market is home to market stalls selling fresh fish and seafood, as well as restaurants where you can bring your freshly purchased fish to for cooking. It doesn’t get fresher than this – and the taste is delectable!" (94/19 Phrom Tep Cape Rawai, Mueang Phuket District, Phuket 83100, Thailand)