From upscale seafood to downmarket Russian, just about any cuisine is available on Phuket island, one of Thailand’s biggest destinations. But what do the locals eat?
The answer is much more complicated than pàt tai, as Phuket was a cosmopolitan mixing pot long before the package tourists and sun worshippers started coming.
European traders have been visiting the island since the 16th century, and Chinese and Muslim traders for even longer. But the tin mining boom of the early 20th century brought the biggest and most influential influx of immigrants: Hokkien and Cantonese Chinese, many of whom came via Penang in Malaysia. They introduced their regional Chinese cuisines, but also Malay and Baba-Nyonya dishes, the latter a unique blend of Southeast Asian and Chinese ingredients and cooking techniques.
As a result, the food of Phuket stems from a jumble of influences that has no counterpart elsewhere in Thailand. In Phuket, pork rules, and soy sauce is prized over fish sauce – ostensibly both a result of the Chinese touch. And the Penang connection has also led to a handful of dishes from India, England and Portugal earning a foothold.
Here are 10 classic Phuket dishes to sink your teeth into. Some can be found across the island, but Phuket Town, the island’s inland capital, is where you’ll find the best versions.
Dish : 1 Mee hokkien (mèe hók·kêe·an)
‘Hokkien-style noodles’ is one of the most ubiquitous Phuket dishes. Vendors across the island, especially in Phuket Town, flash-fry round, hearty wheat-and-egg noodles with seafood, slices of pork, greens and an almost gravy-like broth. If you’re feeling decadent, you can ask for your bowl to be garnished with a just-cooked egg. Like many dishes of Hokkien origin, it is savoury and mild.
Dish : 2 Loba (loh·bà)
One of Phuket’s most beloved dishes is also probably its most intimidating to visitors. Loba combines pork offal – head, heart, lungs, intestines, tongue – braised in five spice powder, with savoury deep-fried items such as spring rolls, shrimp fritters and stuffed tofu. The two disparate dishes are linked by a sweet/spicy dip. You can mix-and-match your choices, so don’t fret if braised pork face isn’t exactly your jam. This Chinese dish is available at stalls and informal restaurants in Phuket Town.
Dish : 3 Oh tao (oh đôw)
Oh tao takes the form of eggs, cubes of taro root, deep-fried pork rinds and tiny oysters fried together in a sticky, spicy batter – think Thailand’s famous fried mussel pancake on steroids. This hearty dish is thought to trace back to Chinese tin miners. You can find oh tao on offer at street stalls in Phuket Town and elsewhere on the island.
Dish : 4 Oh eaw (oh ăa·ou)
Shaved ice is a virtually universal dessert, but Phuket’s hyper-sweet, brightly coloured, beloved version stands out from the crowd. This icy dessert includes gelatinous cubes made from banana starch and kidney beans, which are a dessert ingredient in Thailand. Hard to find outside of Phuket, grab a bowl from stalls in Phuket Town.
Dish : 5 Moo hong (mŏo hong)
Moo hong takes the form of fatty cuts of pork braised in palm or brown sugar and sweet soy sauce with garlic and black pepper. It’s one of the headlining dishes of the Baba-Nyonya genre, a blend of Chinese and local cooking styles and ingredients, and can be found at slightly more upscale restaurants across the island, such as Raya.
Dish : 6 Naam prik kung siap (nám prík gûng sèe·ap)
Thailand is home to countless varieties of nam phrik, chili-based dips with varying recipes from province to province. Phuket’s contribution to the genre combines shrimp paste, fresh chilies, lime juice, sugar and, most notably, the eponymous smoked shrimp. As elsewhere, the dish is served with a platter of fresh and par-boiled herbs and vegetables. Grab a plate at Phuket Town restaurants such as One Chun.
Dish : 7 Roti (roh·đee)
These flaky Thai-Muslim ‘pancakes’ can be found in many regions in Thailand. In Phuket, cooks tear the roti into shreds, creating a crispy heap that’s crowned with a fried egg and accompanied by a small bowl of fragrant curry broth – one of the best breakfasts in the country. Long standing Abdul’s Roti Shop in Phuket Town is a great place to start the day Phuket-style.
Dish : 8 Khanom jeen (kà·nŏm jeen)
Thin, round rice noodles served with curry-like toppings form a common base for dishes found across Thailand. But the people of Phuket are particularly fanatical about khanom jeen – a breakfast staple on the island. The favourite local topping is nam ya pu, a spicy coconut milk-based soup with crab, served southern-style with a huge selection of herbs, vegetables, fruit and seasonings that are meant to be mixed with the noodles and curry. This is dished up at informal restaurants and stalls across Phuket.
Dish : 9 Mee hun (mèe hûn)
Comprising of thin, round rice noodles fried with soy sauce and served with a small bowl of pork broth, this dish has all the makings of a Chinese origin story. However, local legend says it was invented on Phuket. Wherever it originated, Phuket’s the place to get a delicious helping, at a few long-standing restaurants and stalls in Phuket Town.
Dish : 10 Apong (ah·þóng)
This is the local version of south Indian appom, a thin, crispy crepe-like flatbread made from rice flour. On Phuket, it’s made with a pinch (or more) of sugar, and is served as breakfast or a sweet snack, usually from street vendors.