Southern and Under the Radar
There are theories about the eateries of the Thai South. The elongated strip of land that is known as the ‘axe-handle’ of Siam is flanked with two seas – the Andaman Sea in the western side, and the Gulf of Thailand in the east. This geographical specialties gives the region some unique delicacies unlike others.
The official starting point of The South begins at the province of Chumporn, about 500 kilometres down from Bangkok. Before the direct flights and overnight trains, Chumporn used to be a vibrant ‘middle-way’ town where south-bounders stopped for a night to recoup their energy. Although those days are long gone, walking the streets of Chumporn today and you can still see the reminiscences of those heydays. But that would be for another story.
From Chumporn onwards, a meal that has become a regular sight from morning until nighttime would be an elaborate set of ‘kanom cheen’ or fermented rice vermicelli served with assorted curries and baskets of different vegetables. For me, what makes this meal so magnificent is the way each place arrange and serve these crunchy accompaniments, some to the point of bewilderment. And that can be a daunting affair for those who want to tackle it for the first time, hence this column.
While you might have acknowledged the fact that Thailand now has its own Michelin Guide, this year onto its third edition, but for most locals, we still eat by the ears and eyes. And most of the places that we truly like and keep near and dear to our heart are thankfully ‘undiscovered’ hence magnificent in their own innate right. And that, for me, is the sign of real good food, and I am so happy that they are still abundant and perpetuating their great jobs of cooking.
In the sleepy town of Phang Nga, not too far from the main shrine, is this hole-in-the-wall type of ‘kanom cheen’ eatery that even people familiar with the veggie wonderland would still be impressed. Their narrow dining tables are all communal, meaning they are put together in a long, adjacent format. You sit on a long bench. The feeling was like going back to my university’s canteen, elbow grazing, people watching, and yes, eating.
On each table, there are about twenty bowls of accompanying vegetables. As you can see from the pictures, they are in all possible forms – fresh, whole, sliced, julienned, cut, bouquets, blanched, coated with coconut milk, pickled, and salted. Also on the table are also a bowl of dried salted small fish and a basket full of pre-boiled eggs – all supposed to be complimenting each bite with different layers and nuances of new additional tastes. Isn’t it wonderful?
Kanom cheen is a staple, and a ritual, of the Thai South, where, if you have been there, you know how multi-cultural they all area. Chinese clans live side by side with Muslim folks, and also with Thai Thais. In Phuket, as touristic as they are, a breakfast in a Muslim restaurant that serves breakfast burrito of a local greasy roti, there are also assorted curries (Thai and Muslim styles) in the background, ready to be ladled over a plate of rice vermicelli. Baskets full of such vegetables are handy, some already on the table.
To enjoy a real taste of southern style rice vermicelli, you might want to know the types of typical curries they usually serve with. Nam Ya is a mild, fish-based curry with the fish shredded so fine it looks like the fine curds in the curry. Nam Ya is usually a little spicy, with the dominant fragrance from the fingerroots. And then, there is ‘Nam Prik’ – the peanut-based curry with a red sheen of frying oil floating on top. This curry is more sweet than spicy, with a fragrant note from bergamot orange.
But the signature, super-southern curry of the area is not the above two, but the fiery ‘Gaeng Tai Pla’ known as the king of southern Thai curry. An acquired taste, Gaeng Tai Pla is made from fermented fish innards and strong, highly spicy curry paste with loads of turmeric as a supposed healing and soothing part for the stomach. Gaeng Tai Pla, if consumed alone, can be too much of a burning taste, so the locals usually order it half-and-half, with the other half being one of the two curries above.
For me, I think the most fun thing eating such a jovial meal of southern style of kanon cheen is not only the taste of the main dish, but the experience trying each bite with different types of vegetables and sides. And talking about sides, the usual staples of this spicy meal are deep-fried chicken and steamed curried fishcake known as ‘Hor Mok.’
By : Ohhappybear