Phuket has a diverse and considerable variety of fine international and Thai cuisine, and is surely one of the best places in Thailand to visit for any food lovers. Thai food throughout the island is simply delicious and can normally be prepared to suit people that prefer mild flavours as opposed to extreme spiciness which so typifies many dishes in Thailand. While it cannot be denied that Thai food on the whole is fairly spicy, most Thais realise that many foreigners cannot tolerate the heat and so restaurants will happily make you a meal that contain less chilli, without compromising the delicate flavours. Thai people are known to love food and it’s no surprise that has a reputation as being amongst the very best in the world. The usual way to eat a meal is to dine with friends gathered round in a social occasion, with everybody sharing the dishes and sampling a little bit from each one.
Thankfully, for anyone on holiday there is no need to worry that you won’t find any food to enjoy, because Phuket caters to just about everybody with an amazing variety of western and other Asian dishes. Because of the high numbers of tourists that visit you will always be able to find some decent grub! Even many expats that live in Phuket prefer western food, and so the majority of western ingredients and meals can be found here easily enough. Phuket really does cover all bases with restaurants at all price ranges, decent pub food, Thai style buffet barbecues, street vendors, and just about everything in between.
We’ve created individual guides on eating in the main tourist areas in our dining section, but here’s a quick rundown on the kind of food experiences you’re likely to have in Phuket.
Delicious Thai Food
For anybody that enjoys really spicy food, we recommend that you try a red hot fiery plate of som tam bplah rah which is unripened green papaya salad with fermented fish sauce. Ask for the salad to be “pet pet” which means very spicy! This dish is absolutely delicious and represents a very authentic Thai dish. Despite being perhaps an acquired taste for some people, it’s worth trying just to see the surprised look on nearby Thai’s faces when they see a foreigner eat this sometimes excruciatingly hot dish! Salads like this, and dozens of variations, can be found all over the island but the best places to find the truly authentic ones are from street hawkers, who prepare them absolutely fresh while you wait.
A few of the most well known Thai dishes include Phat Thai (fried noodles), Gairng Keaow Wahn (green curry usually with chicken or pork), Khaow Phat (fried rice) and Tom Yam soup, but of course there are hundreds of delectable Thai dishes that should appeal to all tastes. For foreigners, it’s interesting to notice the way that Thais consume their food, because each dish is served as it’s cooked and eaten with only a fork and spoon. In Thailand a knife is rarely provided as most meals can be eaten in bite-sized chunks or don’t even require a knife. Contrary to the mistaken but widely held belief, Thais do not use chopsticks for any meals except for a few noodle soup dishes.
Phuket is also quite rightly know for its abundant and fresh seafood, which is unsurprising considering it’s in a coastal region with a strong maritime heritage and a long history of fishing. The emerald waters around Phuket are home to dozens of varieties of tropical fish, many of which end up served in the local restaurants each night. The fish that you have just eaten were probably caught fresh the very same day, and bought at the local markets. As well as the fish, there is abundant squid, shrimp and shells to be found in Phuket.
Since the majority of holidaymakers stay around the beach areas on the island’s western coast, such as Patong Beach, Kata and Karon, this is where the greatest concentration of restaurants are found. This includes hotels and international upscale restaurants which have relatively high prices at least compared with the inexpensive street food and local restaurants, but the choice of dishes is normally wide and you can expect decent table service. Many restaurants are capable of fairly acceptable quality international cuisine such as American, French, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Mexican, Russian, Swedish and more. Restaurants that cater almost exclusively to tourists can of course prepare all the famous and much-loved Thai dishes that visitors expect. Some classy restaurants even employ foreign chefs for that additional air of exclusivity, which has helped many to achieve some nationwide recognition for high quality food.
Street Food and Hawkers
Besides the tourist class restaurants, if you enjoy real Thai food and want to eat in a more local or traditional way (and cheaper too), then there are a few options. Perhaps the best idea is to seek out some street food which is touted by hawkers all over the place, especially in the busy areas and down on the beach during the day. In busy Patong Beach, there are dozens of street sellers wandering around town and by the beach, selling amongst other things fresh fruit such as water melon and pineapple, various types of spicy papaya salad (a real bar girl favourite!) and other snacks such as deep fried insects.
Street food is a convenient and affordable way to grab a quick bite on the go and is usually fresh and tasty. Further examples of common street food includes dried and pressed squid (which comes with a small plastic tub of sweet chilli sauce), pancakes, ice cream in dozens of flavours, grilled fish or pork balls (look chin) and the most bizarre Thai speciality which has to be the ice cream sandwich! Surprisingly, it’s quite a delicious treat…
The hawkers are mostly nomadic and tend to move from place to place, but there are a few semi-permanent ones that stay put all day and pack up and return home when there are no more customers. Some hawkers simply just a small cart on wheels which they push around the streets, and others are slightly larger affairs which often attached to small motorbikes.
Local Thai Restaurants
Phuket also has many restaurants that cater mainly to the Thai clientele, with relatively cheap prices, good food and the ubiquitous cheap plastic chairs and unassuming décor that typifies such establishments. Some such places don’t speak much English so you might need to look at the picture menu if one is available, or know the name of what you want to eat in Thai (and it’s always easy to remember Khao Phat Gai which is just fried rice with chicken). If you have a Thai accompanying you, they may know all the best local places to eat, or should be able to find them quickly. Popular local restaurants can become very busy with Thais and a few westerners, and they usually stay open late into the night. These favourite local haunts can often be found away from the tourist areas down side alleys, or simply in the less busy parts of town. It’s not uncommon to find open air Thai restaurants doing a roaring trade way past the bar closing time.
Food at The Beach
For beachside meals and snacks, the opportunistic vendors patrol most of the popular beaches in Phuket, and they sell cheap and tempting fruit, nuts, spicy salad, beer and fizzy drinks, corn with butter, peanut satay sticks, and grilled meat. Sometimes, the constant harassment by vendors can be a hassle but they’re certainly convenient when you just want to grab a Chang beer and have a cheap bag of fresh pineapple (for just 10 baht) without moving from your sun lounger.
Most of the beaches in Phuket also have a few Thai restaurants right on the beach (which are sometimes just little wooden shacks but with plenty of character) or at least very close by, so never have to go too far. Beachside restaurants more often than not are quite simple arrangements with a few plastic tables and chairs, but the food can be great and they’re a fantastic place to enjoy some fresh seafood.
Phuket’s Local Specialities
The extremely rich and varied history of Phuket has had a profound and lasting effect on its cuisine, which unsurprisingly exhibits very strong Thai influences. However, there are many imported dishes an ingredients that came from abroad, and flavours and spices that were inherited from the incoming populations that arrived in Phuket during centuries past, such as Chinese and Malaysian immigrants that came to work. The Muslim influence is noticeable as there is a sizeable Muslim population in Phuket, and it’s easy to find halal food, especially in the small villages dotted around the island.
These days, most of Phuket’s unique and special cuisine can also be found elsewhere in Thailand. Of course, it’s easy to miss the local delicacies if you just stick to the same old tourist restaurants, which is why we recommend that you explore some of the less visited areas, or take a Thai cooking course which will teach you all about the amazing, colourful food that can be enjoyed here.
A few of the tantalising local dishes are described below.
This well known southern Thai dish is essentially a Muslim “wet” curry that normally contains beef, peanuts, potatoes and onions in a thick red coconut sauce. Many dishes in southern Thailand use coconut milk (ga-ti) quite extensively which produces a thick, creamy flavour, just like this unmissable and flavoursome curry.
Khao yam means rice salad and is quite a popular dish in the south of Thailand for breakfast. It contains fragrant rice with lemon grass, bean sprouts, peanuts, green beans, sour mango, with chilli and fresh lime. Delicious at any time of day!
This Chinese style dish contains flour noodles with a spicy curry topping and your choice of vegetables which can be added to the noodles. This can be found all over Thailand and is an especially popular choice at breakfast time.
Poh Pia Sot
Unlike the deep fried variety, these fresh spring rolls use a thin white almost transparent pancake into which is rolled pork, vegetables, salad and spicy sauces. Usually served with a dipping sauce such as sweet chilli sauce.
A roti is very similar to a traditional western pancake and can contain a variety of savoury or sweet fillings such as honey, bananas, chocolate or raisins. They can also be eaten with curries which makes a delicious alternative and a tasty snack at any time of day. Roti sellers can be found throughout Thailand and the food is quite inexpensive, usually around 20 or 30 baht each.