Recognized by UNESCO as a Creative City of Gastronomy, Phuket is well-known for its vast variety of enticing and delicious cuisine. With the southern Thai tourism hub now vying to be chosen to host the 2028 Specialized Expo, it’s important to understand that its rich culinary tapestry is a reflection of an even richer history of multicultural melding and the coming together of different communities both within and beyond Thailand.
City of gastronomy
Encouraged, at the time, by the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture, Phuket in 2012 applied to be a UNESCO Creative City and was named a Creative City of Gastronomy.
Phuket’s selection underlined that through its varied mix of cultures, the city was naturally endowed with a wide breadth of dishes drawing on influences spanning Thailand, China, Malaysia, the Muslim world, and even Europe and India.
Moreover, the title highlights how modern-day Phuket is a wellspring of new culinary creations borne from its tapestry of cultures and an embracing of change. The City of Gastronomy offers not only dishes with origins from across the world, but unique dining experiences, rare gastronomic sensations, and the never-ending possibilities for new creations.
The cultures that comprise Phuket
Originally inhabited by seafaring ethnic groups of the Andaman, Phuket’s viability as a port town and rich natural resources have made it the adoptive home of various cultures and races for centuries.
Starting in the 15th and 16th centuries, Srivijaya-Tamil Jolha peoples began occupying the area, bringing with them a range of spices from what would today be Indonesia and South Asia.
With the coming of the Siritham Nakorn Kingdom in the 17th century, Phuket was given dishes and recipes that still pervade the Thai south to this day. Siamese, or Thai, cuisine would soon follow, with the influence of both the Sukhothai Kingdom and the subsequent Ayutthaya Kingdom, when trade with the Western world also introduced food cultures from further reaches.
By the time of the current Rattanakosin period, in which Phuket would come into its own as a province, the island would receive gastronomic traditions from places such as Britain, Portugal, China, and Malaysia.
The two latter groups have become particularly indicative of Phuket’s ability to not only embrace different ethnicities but to support their evolution and the birthing of completely new cultures.
Chinese immigrants arriving during Phuket’s most recent mining boom assimilated into the city and the region down to Malaysia by marrying ethnically Malay and Thai residents, eventually bringing about the Peranakan or Baba-Nyonya culture responsible for much of the town’s most distinct traditions and gastronomic offerings.
A look at Phuket’s favorite local dishes makes its diverse history and readiness to celebrate creativity abundantly clear:
Kanom Jeen Phuket
Phuket locals prefer starting their day with Kanom Jeen, or rice noodles, served with a variety of fresh vegetables, a boiled egg, fish cakes and an assortment of curries. While the noodles and their accompaniments are found throughout Southeast Asia due to the influence of the Mon people, Phuket’s approach is especially telling of its diversity. The morning menu item is eaten with bold curries featuring ingredients local to the southern region, mixed together for an entire spectrum of flavor ready to satisfy people of any background.
On the streets of Phuket is an item beloved by locals and notably rare beyond the province. O Tao is a Phuket take on the popular Hokkien oyster omelet unique for its creamier texture, versus the omelet’s usually crispy presentation, as well as its use of taro.
Usually stir-fried over a charcoal fire for a smoky fragrance, the savory pancake-like dish features small oysters in a batter of eggs, flour, and lard.
Cooling off during the afternoons, Phuketians choose Huchae. This colorful salad is equal parts tart, sweet, savory, and spicy, especially due to the distinct Huchae dressing put over its assembly of lettuce, bean sprouts, water spinach, cucumber, yams, corn, and deep-fried tofu. Crunchy and refreshing, the increasingly rare Huchae salad shares many resemblances to other southern salads that trace their origins back to what is modern-day Pakistan.
When it comes time for dessert in Phuket, it’s time for O-Aew. A shaved ice treat that has become a local specialty of Phuket, O-Aew is the island’s version of aiyu jelly, a Hokkien sweet that has made it as far as Taiwan. The kind found in Phuket split off with the arrival of people from Penang during the tin mining boom, and definitively local additions have made their way into the now multi-colored dish ever since.
Harmony and progress
With its long history of welcoming different ethnicities and cultures and providing them a place to thrive and meld with others, Phuket has been blessed with a unique and diverse array of cuisine. Importantly, the food of Phuket is a testament to its significance in Thailand and the world as a place for harmony and progress, a place where multicultural coexistence leads is fostering the future.