Like the towering limestone karst of Khao Phing Kan island made famous by a 1970s film, Phuket looms large over the perception of Thailand in popular culture. No other destination is more synonymous with the Kingdom’s idyllic beaches, opulent resorts, and of course, delectable cuisine.
From the fruit and vegetable sellers in the Phuket Town Morning Market to the food stalls along Kamala and Karon Beaches, Phuket’s vibrant, multi-cultural identity is a story best told through its gastronomic offerings.
Indeed, the diverse culture of the island—and the eclectic culinary identity it feeds—are just as central to Phuket’s identity as the visions of paradise its name evokes. Whether it’s fresh grilled lobster served at luxury resorts or savoury Khao Mok Gai curried rice and chicken served roadside, it is in-between bites of Phuket’s iconic food that its soul resides.
Cultural fusion developed over centuries
Over the centuries, the demography of Phuket has become richly diverse. Phuket’s population is a mix of Thai Buddhists, Muslims of mostly Malay descent, and the descendants of a variety of nomadic ethnic groups known regionally as Sea Gypsies. The Chinese influence in Phuket is extensive, thanks to 17th- and 18th-century Cantonese-and Hokkien-speaking Chinese migrants who flocked to Phuket to work in the tin mines.
The modern-day results are apparent in a skyline made distinct by Buddhist, Sikh, and Hindu temples, churches, mosques, and shrines. The cultural fusion can also be tasted in a truly unique cuisine. The island’s culinary tapestry is woven with Thai, Chinese, and Indian fibres, to name a few, which is why travellers can experience Phuket’s singular history, one divine dish at a time.
The day might start with Dim Sum, a Chinese dish and beloved Phuket breakfast. For lunch, one might slurp the gravy-broth of Hokkien Mee served by a hawker in Phuket Town, or enjoy an Indian roti and curry.
Of course, diverse Phuket tastes have also integrated into the more traditional foods of the Kingdom. Locals dip fresh veggies into Nam Prik Kung Siap, which is popular throughout Thailand, but in Phuket is often made with locally-produced shrimp paste.
Phuket’s innovative contemporary menu
Though it’s easy enough to find contemporary restaurants offering everything from pizza to English breakfast in Phuket today, travellers can still find modern dining experiences that showcase the region’s unique culinary traditions. From the crab curry dish Gaeng Poo at One Chun in Phuket Town to the roti banana pancakes from street vendors at the Malin Plaza Night Market in Patong Beach, truly local flavours are available for discerning Phuket diners.
At Jaras, InterContinental Phuket Resort’s contemporary Thai fine-dining restaurant, Executive Chef Marco Turatti aims to exemplify the region’s diverse culinary traditions while also folding in forward-looking ideas to recreate local recipes with a modern twist.
Turatti cites the example of Thod Man Poo, a Thai-spiced crab cake that closely resembles a doughnut. “Putting a hole in the middle of the cake allowed it to cook more evenly, and provided a canvas for the flavours to shine more brightly,” he describes. He insists that the doughnut shape, stylish as it is, was a lucky by-product of a decision that was substantive.
Another Turatti appetiser is Mieng Kana An-Chan, a shareable platter that puts a twist on the classic Thai starter Mieng Kham. A traditional Mieng Kham sees decidedly Thai ingredients like butterfly pea flowers, fresh ginger, toasted coconut (usually with a sprinkle of chilli and a squeeze of lime before eating). In Phuket, Turatti adds curious ingredients like the superfood kale and house-cured salted duck egg alongside some of the old favourites. This echoing of local cuisine in haute gastronomy continues with Turatti’s main courses.
For instance, Massaman Pae uses goat meat to complement spicy tamarind-coconut curry, a nod to the vibrant Muslim community that calls Kamala, the area around the resort, home.
A tradition of diversity informs Phuket’s culinary future
“Our chefs, who all hail from Thailand—primarily from Phuket and other parts of the south—all have an important role in the process of creating and preparing all our dishes,” Turatti says.
His menu, he adds, adheres to the principle that Thais, and Phuket natives specifically, are empowered to tell the story of their own cuisine. The result is a meal that is an authentic expression of the Thai mind, spirit, and, of course, palate.
Today’s Phuket is, in many ways, the same Phuket of yesterday. Much of what you find in the noodle shops of Phuket Town and the congee stalls near Patong Beach is the same sort of food you might’ve eaten 50 or 100 years ago: stalls and restaurants—and family kitchens. Chef Marco recalls the days when Jaras and its flavours first being developed, when the restaurant was still being built.
“We were cooking in someone else’s home, as if we were just preparing dinner for the family, as they and their parents and their parents always have,” he says. Members of the family (especially the grandmothers, who had cooked for generations), would give Chef Marco their input and their ideas, and was a big part of why the Muslim cuisine of Kamala figures so heavily into his dishes.
Similarly, at restaurants and food stalls throughout Phuket, the echos of those deeply embedded influences can still be felt—and tasted—to this day.
Visitors to Phuket can experience the region’s unique cultural fusion at the InterContinental Phuket Resort in Kamala, where the lack of development compared to Patong or Phuket town has allowed both the grounds and surrounds of the property to retain the same air of authenticity that infuses’ every bite of food at Jaras, the resorts inhouse restaurant.