The island of Phuket is a place of wild, clashing contradiction. There’s the brash and bawdy Phuket depicted in popular culture, localised on Patong Beach, where you can buy anything, do anything and get yourself into all manner of scrapes, some very silly, some very serious; a microcosm of an image of Thailand we hope is soon confined to the past. Then there is the striking natural beauty of the island, the forty pristine beaches and the serene, multicultural Old Town, with its colorful Sino Portuguese architecture, Chinese temples and shrines, and unique cuisine representative of this rich diversity.
Oh, the food; a truly glorious amalgamation of the island’s heritage and celebratory of its inherent contrasts, with Chinese, Malaysian, Singaporean and Muslim influences abound. So, if you’re visiting Phuket, skip the sleaze and instead dive into a world of culinary curiosity; here’s what and where to eat in Phuket Old Town.
A ROTI FOR BREAKFAST
A meal where you utter ‘breakfast of champions’ without a hint of irony. In Phuket Old Town you’ll see skilled chefs slapping roti on many street corners, some cooking over charcoal, some over gas flame. They’re served all day, but we particularly love a traditional breakfast of roti with a small side bowl of heady, aromatic curry sauce; heaven. Whether you add an over easy egg is up to you. We do. Equally popular is a sweet version, with banana and condensed milk. The one consistent is the flaky, layered pastry and crispness guaranteed by the cook’s commitment to cooked-to-order. Enjoy with a sweet coffee and perhaps an extra order of mataba, a stuffed roti of shallots, chicken and spices. Our favourite shops are Abdul’s Roti Shop and Roti Taew Nam. Both splendid versions of the classic breakfast which have been doing their thing for generations.
KANOM JIN NOODLES, PHUKET STYLE
Not full yet? Roti and curry for breakfast not your thing (who are you)? Then it’s time to try Phuket’s other famous breakfast, Kanom Jin noodles. These thin fermented rice noodles, delicate and giving, are enjoyed all over Thailand, but in Phuket they’re most often taken in the early morning, served cold with a selection of small bowls containing all sorts of goodies. Of course, spicy curry sauces rich with coconut cream are omnipresent, but you’ll also find a generous amount of vegetables native to Southern Thailand too, such as bitter beans and man pu leaves.
Khanom chin kaeng kiao wan kai | © Takeaway
MEE HOKKIEN NOODLES
With origins in China’s Fujian province, a bowl of Hokkien noodles is the quintessential Phuket lunch. Egg noodles with a little bite and bounce are served over a rich, deep ‘gravy’ and, generally, seafood, pork and veggies. The optional soft boiled egg enriches further, and adding fish balls will certainly do no harm at all. The centrally located Mee Ton Poe noodle shop has a fanatical following and is always busy with Thais and farangs alike. A surefire sign that they’re doing something right.
KHAO MAN GAI (CHICKEN & RICE)
It sounds simple, perhaps even too simple, but Phuket’s ‘chicken oil rice’ is a brilliant example of how a few ingredients, cooked expertly and with care, can be so much more than the sum of its parts. The chicken is poached and tender, every grain of rice is lightly graced with chicken fat, and alongside is a sauce of soy, ginger and chilli and a little chicken broth, too. After all the curries, it’s a real stomach settler, and is comforting, nourishing and most importantly, delicious. Kota Khao Man Gai, a very brief stroll from the noodle shop above, arguably serves the definitive version.
STUFFED MACKEREL AT MOR MU DONG
Okay, this place isn’t quite in the Old Town’s jurisdiction, but it’s too good not to mention, and worth getting to by any means necessary, we think. Since taxis are so prohibitively expensive in Phuket, consider hiring a motorbike just to eat restaurant Mor Mu Dong’s stuffed mackerel. It’s that good.
MOO HONG (STEWED PORK BELLY)
This sweet, super tender pork belly dish hails from Phuket but its flavour profile owes much to the Chinese settlers in the region. There’s tons of black pepper in the braise, as well as soy sauces both light and dark, and oyster sauce too. The most iconic version of this dish is served at Raya Restaurant, a place so popular it’s spawned sister restaurants One Chun and Chomchan, as well as a second Raya in Bangkok. A big part of the restaurant group’s success is down to this amazing bowl.
Fresh crab is big news in Phuket, and some of the Old Town’s best dishes revolve around a generous serving of the sweet white meat. The amount of the stuff in One Chun’s yellow crab curry feels downright philanthropic, ditto Chuan Chim’s splendid crab and curry powder stir fry. In England, being this liberal with the crab would bankrupt a restaurant. Here, it’s standard.
SOUTHERN THAI STYLE CURRIES
Geography dictates that Southern Thailand’s curries are replete with coconut cream and the sea’s bounty. A history of migration and trade means they are heady with spices and chilli. Some of the finest of the region include the famous Massaman curry, the dry fried, super spicy Khua Kling and the sour Geng Som. Amazing for breakfast, lunch, dinner or all three.
SNACK ON DIM SUM & SATAY
Phuket is full of morning markets, day markets and night markets, as well as a Sunday night walking street. This means snacks, any time of day, any day of the week, in great abundance. Two of the best are dim sum and satay; ubiquitous and utterly delicious.
…..AND SAVE ROOM FOR DESSERT
Finally, it’s time for dessert. Abroad, Thailand’s sweets don’t get the attention they deserve, but on home soil, they are adored. And quite rightly so. Phuket has the luxury of huge quantities of fresh coconut and tropical fruit, and this leads to some ambrosial offerings. If you haven’t tried mango sticky rice yet, this is the place to start, but you’d be crazy to stop there. Keep your eyes open at any market or seek out one of the island’s dessert bars and allow yourself to be enticed. We particularly love the mock jackfruit seed sweets (med kanun) and khao lam – sticky rice, red bean and coconut cream roasted in a bamboo joint. Another sweet treat you’ll see everywhere is Khao tom mat sai klua – a parcel of sticky rice with a banana surprise inside.