As a native Northern Thai, I like to think that everything up north is gracious and everyone there good-looking. But I have to say, right now I am smitten with the South: its weather, its beatific scenery, its beaches, its food. Especially the food.
Heading southbound by car from Bangkok to Phuket offers a great perspective on what Thailand has to offer. Even better, you get to stop at reststops that feature some truly outstanding food courts, offering some of the most underrated food in the country. Now, it’s true I try to avoid most food courts in Bangkok (except for the ones at MBK and at Bangkok Hospital, which are excellent) because — let’s face it — better renditions of these dishes can be found elsewhere, we know about these places, and we have the time to go to them.
Food courts by the highway in the provinces are another story. I love how they offer dishes that are basically a culinary Cliff’s Notes of what you would be enjoying in that region, were you to stop there — a “greatest hits” of each area, food-wise. In the south, a lot of those hits mirror the region’s large Muslim Thai population and are deliciously “exotic” and Other (note the widespread absence of pork. In fact, if you see pork, chances are you’ve stumbled onto a community of Chinese, who settled down south in the 19th century). A great case in point:
Take the mataba, a sort of stuffed crepe with minced vegetables and chicken or beef, served with a sweet shallot and cucumber relish (achad). It’s savory, sweet and starchy, cut with the fresh, crunchy snap of the relish, a great snack on the go. Another thing I love about food courts in the south are the free (!) pepper dips provided at every table, which are served alongside some of the more exotic vegetables and leaves I have ever seen. I love travelling to the south of Thailand because every time I go, I encounter some new and unusual green that I have never tried before. On this trip: a nam prik gapi (shrimp paste pepper dip) accompanied by the likes of an asparagus-like long bean, tannic baby eggplants to counteract the spicy dip, and sator, the peppery, bitter legume (which is in season right now).
Another current culinary obsession: highway-side food vendors. Notwithstanding how people manage to slow down enough to patronize any of these stalls, I love seeing the wide variety of things on sale depending on where you are in Thailand (and where you are in the season) — around Hua Hin, it might be limes and coconuts; in northeastern Isaan, probably grilled chicken and sticky rice; up north, you might encounter freshly pressed sugarcane juice. Even in parts of the south, you will find huge stainless steel steamers stuffed with steamed pork-filled dumplings (salapao) or steamed shrimp dumplings (kanom jeeb) for sale, more testament to the large Chinese communities here.
What you’ll also get is called roti sai mai — imagine a tortilla stuffed with cotton candy, and you’ve got a good approximation of what I’m talking about. It’s a popular southern streetside snack, and is chock-full of the double comforts of sugar and starch, all in one.
But the best southern Thai food, for me, is all about the seafood. Homebound again through a torrential downpour, we stopped at Phang Nga for some good food-lovin’ at Pu Dum (Black Crab), ordering its namesake, a barely cooked cracked fresh crab smothered in a black peppercorn sauce; a handful of deep-fried Thai smelts; freshly steamed hor mok (steamed fish curry); stir-fried sator with shrimp and chilies; a piquant sour soup with coconut shoots and the plump midsection of a serpent head fish; and best of all, sauteed bai lieng (the leaves of a local tree, stir-fried with dried shrimp), a new discovery. It was delicious.