By Robyn Eckhardt
The problem with paradise is that the food so often falls short of its surroundings. For explorers of local cuisines in Southeast Asia especially, checking into a bungalow with an ocean view often means checking your gastronomic expectations at the door.
So I found on Koh Samui last autumn. Before arriving I’d envisioned scouring the island to mine the notoriously chili-lined depths of southern Thai cuisine. Samui – “Coconut Island” to Thais — is a huge exporter of coconuts to the mainland, and despite its tourism boom fishing remains a major industry. Coconut curries and food flavored with budu, a pungent fermented fish condiment particular to southern Thailand and the northeastern peninsular Malaysian states of Kelantan and Terengganu, were on my list of dishes to try during my sojourn.
So after a late arrival I walked from my resort to the main road, where I’d spied a row of food stalls on my ride in from the airport. But what I found was pad thai, noodle soup with fish balls, and grilled chicken and somtam, or green-papaya salad, dishes I could have eaten anywhere in the Kingdom. Driving Samui’s ring road the next morning I was dismayed to see restaurants touting French, Japanese and Italian fare, sandwiches, Sunday champagne brunch and hamburgers.
Surely Samui had a cuisine of its own. Where was it hiding?
The following day a wrong turn put me on a quiet two-lane road lined with coconut palm plantations and jungle, in the island’s less developed south. It wasn’t long before I came upon a roadside stall roofed in corrugated metal, its counter displaying several large pots.
The middle-aged female vendor smiled as I parked my car and approached, lifting lids so that I could survey her offerings. Mounded in a plastic basket set behind the counter were coils of vermicelli made from fermented rice dough – kanom jeen, eaten all over Thailand but especially popular in the south. To ladle over the noodles, I had my choice of a gaeng nam yaa, mustard yellow coconut milk and fish curry; gaeng tai bplaa, a notoriously spicy curry made with fish innards and fermented bamboo; and mild green curry with chicken.
I chose the nam yaa, sat at a concrete table and took note of possible accompaniments arranged in the middle of the table: fresh herbs and vegetables, pickled eggplants, fresh and dried chilies, a small bowl of gaeng tai bplaa. Curry to accompany a curry – this was something I’d never seen at kanom jeen joints further north.
When my plate arrived I tore over leaves of basil and sprinkled on fresh chilies and bean sprouts, then mixed everything together with fork and spoon. The nam yaa was rich with fatty milk made from coconuts probably harvested nearby, its sweet opulence masterfully balanced by the clean astringency of fresh turmeric, a favourite southern Thai ingredient. I dipped up a spoonful of gaeng tai bplaa; it was as numbingly spicy as I had heard the region’s food could be.
I’d found the true taste of Koh Samui, on a plate by the side of the road.
Robyn writes about food and travel. She’s lived in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City and Kuala Lumpur. Two years ago she moved to Penang — for the hawker food, of course. Follow her on Twitter @EatingAsia