Alex Garés is not your typical chef. He is so passionate about authentic Thai cuisine that to ensure visitors to Koh Samui get a taste of it, he is offering to be your dining companion for the night.
Dining in inexpensive local eateries chosen for authenticity, this Spanish native orders dishes (at times off-menu) in fluent Thai, and has an in-depth knowledge of the ingredients of every dish.
There is a catch – you need to be a guest at the Four Seasons Resort, Koh Samui, where he is the executive chef, to snag a dinner date with him, if his schedule permits.
“I think that in the three years I have been in Koh Samui, I have eaten everywhere. I eat Thai food the majority of the time, and I only go back to restaurants with true Thai food,” says Garés.
He is equally insistent about the authenticity of his own menu at KOH, Thai Kitchen & Bar, which opened at the resort in December 2013.
“I will not compromise on spice. If a dish traditionally has a certain spice level, that is how it comes. If a diner does not want that level of spice I will suggest another Thai dish that is inherently less spicy,” says Garés enthusiastically.
When we dined with Garés, it was the evening before a planned dinner at KOH, and we found it a good measure by which to compare and contrast. Were the chef and his Thai team serving true Thai cuisine that catered to the local palate? If so, it was a brave move.
As with many other tourist hot spots, there are many restaurants in Koh Samui catering to the tourist palate, which is sweetened-up, spiced-down versions of Thai cuisine. Our first stop was Haad Bang Po.
This unassuming restaurant has the ambience of a Thai island spot – rustic dining right on the beach, spectacular sunsets, and curved coconut palms jutting out of the sand.
Standout dishes here include wok-fried bindweed (which appears as pak liang on menus), and a creeping vine in the same family as morning glory, with a chewy texture and slightly bitter note, cooked with egg and oyster sauce. The plant is also featured on Garés’ menu with egg and garlic.
The use of ingredients that are seasonal and locally sourced, such as bindweed and seaweed, is one way to get an authentic taste, says Garés. Another is spice; he considers southern Thai cuisine the spiciest regional cuisine.
A dish from Haad Bang Po that lit culinary fireworks consisted of blanched prawns fried with roasted chilli paste, lemon grass, tamarind, kaffir lime leaf and fresh chilli. It was spicy, salty, sweet and sour, with a lingering kick.
On Garés’ menu, which changes three times a week, spicy signatures include a sensational wagyu beef cheek massaman curry – the cheek itself was fork-tender, deliciously gelatinous in a complex curry with a memorable heat level – and a steamed sea bass with spicy lime sauce ( pla kapong neung manao).
His team was very involved in the creation of dishes for KOH, including the flavour profile: “I told them I was looking for dishes they would be proud to serve to their family.”
They were also asked to come up with dishes they remember their grandparents preparing to see if they could rediscover and revive dishes of the past. Some dishes could be adapted, but others just didn’t work: ” Gaeng tai pla, a fish curry with half fermented fish stomach, heart and intestines, was not for everyone.”
Som tam yot maprao, a spicy variant on green papaya salad made with palm heart, and tom pla meuk yot makaham, a squid soup with young, sour tamarind leaves, were far more successful. “We went back to the roots of Thai cuisine to offer dishes that feature genuine, clean flavours using top quality local products.
“Many of our recipes have their origins in southern Thailand, and we’re excited to bring these dishes to our guests,” says Garés.
He and his team also eat out together, to continually explore and understand the cuisine, including at restaurants such as Haad Bang Po, and the nearby Bang Por Seafood (Takho). Also by the beach, this restaurant is larger and busier, with a traditional open kitchen where diners can see dishes prepared.
Served here, and at KOH, are sataw, or stink beans, so called because of the unique, possibly fermented odour that results when you eat them. They have a strong umami intensity, and are cooked using a southern recipe of prawns, chilli and red curry paste.
The star seafood dish is the sautéed clams with roasted chilli paste, and spices that cleverly enhance their flavour. Garés is soon to bring a crab-based version of this dish to KOH.
The food at KOH is more refined than these two low-key restaurants (and the setting more breathtaking), but it still serves Thai food with punchy authentic flavours. The menu features a couple of dishes that you wouldn’t normally find on a high-end resort menu, like the seafood dish tom som pla taling pling. This is a clear fish soup with a sour flavour that comes from the taling pling and is made from sea bass, finger ginger, kaffir lime, shallots and turmeric.
Taling pling is intensely sour when eaten raw, and still sour when cooked, but with a clean note that distinguishes it from other citrus fruit flavours.
One of the few deviations from southern Thai food on the menu is the larb tuna. This has a traditional larb spicing that ignites the palate but doesn’t overwhelm the marinated tuna. The addition of cracked rice gives it textural contrast.
It’s all part of Garés’ commitment to give his guests a true taste of Thailand.