Food is a fundamental expression of love—anyone who enjoys cooking (or eating) knows it.
While living on Koh Phangan, the smaller sister island to Koh Samui in the Gulf of Thailand, my favorite mom-and-pop Thai restaurant is my second home.
Any given evening when I go there for dinner, the wife greets me with kind eyes and a sweet smile, checking to see which of my usual orders it’ll be. Tom Kha Ga? Or an Indian-style mung bean curry with Nasi Goreng, Indonesian fried rice?
I see her husband in the small kitchen behind the counter, stirring some steaming skillet of curry in a Bob Marley shirt, long hair pulled back in a ponytail. He flashes a toothy grin at me and shouts a cheerful “Sawasdee krap!” before turning back to adjust the flames. Thailand isn’t called the “Land of Smiles” for nothing.
“Sawasdee ka!” I say back in greeting. Their teenage daughter waves hello as I sit down at a well-worn bamboo table.
She likes to act flippant, as any young and on-the-clock teen should, but she is quick to laugh and plays with her younger sister with great patience. The younger who, with regular customers, shares a secret handshake and a contagious laugh. She skips over to me in her school uniform, holding a soda water with a lime.
This is the standard for Thai fare. They cook each dish individually, coming out one-at-a-time. Cement or dirt floors, bamboo benches, perhaps a cold bottle of Chang beer (“Chang” is the Thai word for elephant, which is the gold mascot on the sweating bottle’s green label).
Little red chilis are sliced in thin strips and strewn throughout each dish, though it’s easy to save western tongues by saying a quick “Mai pet,” “no spice” or “Mai prik,” “no chili.”
Thai food occupies a large place in my culinary heart. Nothing soothes an aching throat like the angled sourness of a lemongrass and coconut soup, chocked with oyster mushrooms, onion, chicken, and fresh ginger. After a tiring day, little appeals to me quite as much as tofu and eggplant, stir fried with a salty-sweet blend of soy and oyster sauce. Throw in a hefty handful of aromatic Thai basil leaves, and you have a divine dish that takes less than ten minutes to prepare.
Koh Phangan’s primary industries before tourism were coconuts and fishing. Walking the small island’s main market street, you can see there is still an abundance of both. Prawns and a prolific number of small squid lay on ice each morning. Coconuts sit in large green heaps, ranging from $1-3 each. Fresh vegetables fill the stalls, some grown locally and much shipped by ferry from the mainland. Familiar staples like squash, eggplants, and carrots are easily found, as well as different vegetables I’ve never seen before in my life.
Once, picking up fruit from my favorite fruit stall, the woman running it, Jen, handed me a hard, black seed pod about the size of a watch face. She split it open with a slim knife and offered me the bean inside.
It was pale, hard, both acidic and savory. As I nibbled on it, we spoke in splintered English about her family, her daughter who just graduated from university in Bangkok, and her young grandson on the island. She gifted me a small batch of 20 or so of the beans and gave me a recipe to go home and cook them up with salt and rice. I drove away rich in dragon fruit, papaya, and these strange seeds that look like something from Jack and the Bean Stalk.
This is my experience of Thailand and the Thai people: Gracious, friendly, and family oriented. Eager to help, quick to laugh, easy to connect with.
Jen’s is one of three fruit stands at one intersection. In this part of the world, you can drive any street and you’re liable to pass a fruit stall at some point. Each is filled with a myriad of colorful and odd-shaped delicacies. Watermelon, mangos, and ripe orange—which are counter-intuitively green—lay out for display.
There’s the meaty sweetness of jackfruit, the gently floral dragon fruit, decadent papaya, zippy passion fruit, plump leechee, and “mangosteen,” which taste like heaven and look like a four-year old’s drawing of the word “fruit” came to life. Then of course, there’s the notorious durian, which I think (and I’m in the minority, here) tastes delicious, like a bizarre garlicky-caramel pudding.
I can’t have a favorite fruit. It changes with what’s in season. When mangos are ripe enough to fall on every street, nothing is tastier. Other weeks, it’s papaya—split and scoured, filled with coconut yogurt and granola. Even unripe, papaya is delicious. Shaved and covered in a sweet and spicy vinegar sauce with tomato and peanuts, papaya salad is a Thai classic.
One favorite dinner in Thailand was when a woman opened her kitchen to the public, converting her wooden Thai-style home to a restaurant once a week. Her husband cheerfully seated my friend and I in their backyard, getting us drinks before returning to play guitar and sing with his friends beneath their stilted house. After five courses of organic and locally sourced stews, lightly fried fresh caught fish, and hot curries, we were stuffed. All for about $30.
I’ve eaten large and lush, higher-price point meals in Bangkok and Koh Samui. And I’ve had plenty of 30-baht (roughly one dollar) street food lunches. But the best dining experiences I’ve had in Thailand have come from rickety joints with thin walls and corrugated metal roofs that hold in a lot of love. Places which cook home-style Thai food and serve lots and lots of smiles.
Editors note: Although our Samui Liveaway, which includes side trips to Koh phangan is full for 2023, we look forward to offering it again in 2024! Stay tuned for details.