Finding the Art in Phuket
The Art of Eating
by Anthony S. Cameron
I wish I could wax lyrical about the great restaurants that pervade this strange little island. I wish it hadn’t been done a thousand times already, in a thousand different ways for a thousand different blogs and online magazines. Imagine how many free meals I would’ve gorged myself on whilst overlooking the dazzling Andaman Sea? Imagine the seafood banquets I would’ve been forced to endure in the search for the perfect lobster dish? Imagine the wagyu steaks I would’ve feasted on whilst dripping juices over my notebook. Imagine the tapas treats I would’ve inhaled on my way to the bar to order another signature cocktail as the house band banged out their worn-out melodies, which make me miss even more the vibrant music scene that is Melbourne, my home town. Imagine all those interviews with chefs I would’ve done after they’d finished their shifts, and the whisky shots had started talking for them, and the really good food came out. Imagine all those invites to openings of new restaurants I would’ve been compelled to attend, all those photos of me and famous people eating food that cost more than a house payment here.
All I can do is imagine, and it’s lucky I have talent in that area, and it’s also quite fortuitous that some of the best food here isn’t in those kind of places. It is in the streets, in the markets, and it is dangling off the side of a motorbike’s sidecar as you ride past. Often they will still have their BBQs burning as they ride, the flying embers spraying those in their wake, the ridiculously overloaded motorbikes straining under the weight of what is essentially a fully functioning portable kitchen. Thankfully, there are no health and safety by-laws in existence here to crush their entrepreneurial spirit.
For this is the food of the people, the ordinary folk. You know, the ones that build the ex-pat’s villa, do their gardening, clean their house, drive their taxis, make their expensive cocktails and brush the sand off their beach chairs before their well-fed, entitled arses spread themselves over it like a big, ominous storm cloud, blocking out all available light.
It would be a massive understatement to say that food is central to Thai culture. It is no accident that people don’t ask how you are here, or not often anyway. Rather they want to know whether you have eaten recently, for that is a better gauge of your state of mind and general happiness. Eating here sometimes leaves little room for anything else to occur. Sitting down to eat five times a day isn’t uncommon here, nor is the search for more food in between meals an uncommon activity. That is why the da laats (local markets) are at the centre of all that matters here. You don’t simply go shopping: it is here that you present yourself to the wider community. Most will at least shower beforehand, others will don the make-up, brush that long black hair and fling it around as they peruse what fresh treats await their insatiable appetites.
The local markets are where the theatre of the everyday takes place, where the face gets thrown out and the relaxed stroll, often with one hand behind the back, becomes the dance that mesmerises long after it has gone. The lighting couldn’t be more theatrical, with its tropical sunset hues pierced by the smoke of the BBQs busily cooking fish, pork, chicken and shellfish to perfection as a hundred fluorescent tubes hang above it all, waiting for the sun to slink behind the distant mountains so they can add their eerie illumination to proceedings. More importantly, the fading sun signals the beginning of the evening and another chance to eat. The soundtrack is Thailand in a nutshell, lots of musical raised voices full of mirth and lightness coupled with the barking of the stall holders alerting passersby to the amazing bargain in their path. In the background you will hear the ubiquitous thai bass line that seems to be applied to every song written here, coming out of a speaker system that could be yours for less than a thousand thai baht. Add to that the distant roar of that frenzied early evening traffic the same the world over, and you’re nearly there. It is the daily symphony composed by the spirit of the people and conducted by tantalising wafts of the various food that got everyone up on this stage in the first place.
And what a stage it is. Liberal use of food colouring renders the markets a visual spectacle, the haphazard, chaotic layout is like some kind of organic set design made up on the spot, a cultural soup full of colour and flavour, with an arresting aroma that dulls all your other senses, the ingredients of which you probably don’t want to know. The da laats are not for the faint-hearted or the queasy. Every single part of every single animal grown here is used in some way, and on full display. I still don’t know what most of those cuts are, and I get the feeling that I probably don’t want to.
So, if you want to feel the pulse of this place, if you want to see some of the most beautiful culinary art works this place has to offer, leave the hotel restaurant, forgo the beachside bar with its 99 baht cocktails and follow your nose, listen with your heart and you might just find the wild, beating centre of one of the most fascinating food cultures on earth.
Anthony S. Cameron is an Australian ex-pat living in Phuket, Thailand, and the author of two novels, Driftwood (2014) and Butterfly on Bangla (2015). Born in Melbourne, he escaped in his early twenties to central Victoria, where he designed and built a sustainable house and raised two sustainable children. His books are available on Amazon here. You can find his sculptural furniture on Facebook here.