Eating the island (re-run)

Many of the images and much of the content of the article below have been shown here on a previous post, but I'm reposting it to provide some info for a fellow foodie over at Chowhound. It also happens to be my personal favorite of the articles I did for ThaiDay, a now-defunct paper here in Bangkok. Enjoy!

Eating the island
ThaiDay, 22/07/06

Walk down the streets of virtually any part of Koh Samui and you can find restaurants selling the food Italy, Japan, Greece, Australia, England and Germany. Ironically, one cuisine missing from all this is the cuisine of Koh Samui, a variant of southern Thai cooking with a unique island touch. The cooking of Koh Samui remained relegated to home kitchens and housewives until relatively recently, when a few natives decided to share their secrets with the rest of us.

A fishing village on the coast of Ko Samui

“I was the first person to open a restaurant on Koh Samui featuring local food,” explains Sookhkoe Donsai, the owner of Bangpo Seafood (077 420 010). Wearing only shorts and a smile, Ta Koe (“Grandpa Koe”), as he is affectionately known, is a native of Samui, and owner of one of the island’s most well respected Thai restaurants.

“I used to be a lawyer and got to travel all over Thailand,” explains the 58 year-old. “I noticed that each province had a place to sample its local dishes, which made me realize that Koh Samui had nothing like this. So after coming back home, I opened this restaurant.” This was 13 years ago, and today the success of Ta Koe’s restaurant has largely been responsible for inspiring other Thai restaurants on Koh Samui to include local dishes on their menus.

Khoey jii, a dip of shrimp paste and coconut, Bangpo Seafood, Ko Samui.

The emphasis at Ta Koe’s restaurant, as well as the base for much of Koh Samui’s native cuisine is, not surprisingly, seafood. However, unlike the grilled prawn and phat thai cuisine featured in most tourist restaurants, the food of Koh Samui is spicy and salty, featuring strong flavors and making good use of the ingredients at hand.

Often these ingredients tend to be the relatively easy to gather items that can be found just offshore, such as the devoutly inedible-looking sea urchin. Ta Koe explains that during the right season, the people of Koh Samui would pry the sea urchins off of the coral, crack them open and eat the rich roe found inside. At Bangpo Seafood raw sea urchin roe is mixed with curry paste, shredded mango and chilies into a yam, or Thai-style salad. “The salad has to be sour and spicy to counter the fishy taste of the urchin,” explains Ta Koe. A taste reveals that the salad is indeed spicy, but rather than tasting simply fishy as Ta Koe describes it, suggests the pungent saltiness of Samui’s clear waters.

Yam hoy men, a 'salad' of raw sea urchin roe, Bangpo Seafood, Ko Samui.

Another fruit of the sea available at Bangpo Seafood is a small octopus known locally as waay. “It comes out early in the morning when the water is cool,” explains Ta Koe of the mollusk, which is considered a staple of Samui cooking. Ta Koe goes on to say that when in season, fresh waay is used in tom som, a spicy/sour soup similar to tom yam, and out of season, the dried meat is quickly rejuvenated in water before being stewed with fresh coconut milk and bruised herbs, a dish equal parts sweet, salty and savory.

Fish is another staple food on Koh Samui, and at Bangpo Seafood fresh fish is prepared using a local method known as hoop ping, meaning that it is splayed and rubbed with a mixture of coconut milk, fresh turmeric, black pepper and salt before being grilled over coals. The turmeric mixture gives the fish a pleasant orange hue, eliminates any “fishy” odors, and negates the need for any dipping sauce.

Grilled fish Samui-style, with turmeric and coconut milk, Bangpo Seafood, Ko Samui.

The residents of Ko Samui have long made use of the sea’s other treasures, notably its seaweed, and one place to sample this unique ingredient is Kin Khao Bang Kham (077 426 181), another seafood restaurant whose menu features a few local dishes.

Toom, the restaurant’s head chef and a native of Koh Samui describes how the seaweed, known as saraay khor, is gathered from the beach in the mornings after the tide recedes. “It’s getting harder and harder to find nowadays,” he laments. Toom, who was interviewed on a Thai TV program about this very ingredient, goes on to explain that the seaweed is then rinsed and par-boiled before being combined with other ingredients in a Thai-style salad, a dish that has made the restaurant popular among locals. “The seaweed [off of Koh Samui] is very good,” he says. “The ocean floor is muddy, which is good for the seaweed and makes it fat and crunchy.”

Local produce at a market on Ko Samui.

Not all of the ingredients found in the Samui kitchen come from the sea. Indeed, Koh Samui’s cash crop is coconut, the extracted milk of which seems to find its way into virtually every local dish. “People from Samui feel that if they eat a soup or curry that doesn’t have coconut milk they don’t feel full.” This according to Sermsi Thongrueang, a native of Samui and owner of a traditional sauna and massage business located in her family’s 80 year-old home just minutes from the sea.

Sermsi, who also has a reputation as a knowledgeable cook, has agreed to demonstrate how to make two local dishes, both of which include coconut milk. The first dish is known locally as khao man thua khiaow, and is simply rice cooked in coconut milk along with salt and dried beans, a dish that, despite its simplicity, has become very hard to find nowadays. “We used to make it in a clay pot,” explains Sermsi. “This adds to the flavor.” Today however Sermsi makes the dish in an electric rice cooker, something of an anomaly in her ancient teak wood home.

A grove of coconut palms, Ko Samui.

As an accompaniment to the rich rice dish, Sermsi makes khoey jii, a unique side dish of roasted shrimp paste. Marching into her sandy yard the energetic 65 year-old comes back with a single coconut that she thrusts onto an exposed stake to pry away its thick husk. Taking the coconut into the kitchen she cracks it open and uses a traditional sit-down shredder to extract some of the mature meat inside. This meat is ground up in a mortar and pestle along with shrimp paste, chilies, garlic and shallots, and the resulting paste is spread onto the inside portion of a coconut shell and grilled over coals until fragrant.

The dishes are, like much of local Samui cuisine, salty and pleasantly oily, and employ ingredients that can be found with little effort. “Before, people on Koh Samui didn’t have to buy anything,” reflects Sermsi. “We fished ourselves, raised chickens and grew coconut. The only thing we ever had to buy was pork.”

Sermsi Thongreuang grating coconut the traditional way at her home on Ko Samui.

Also making good use of the abundant coconut is Sabeinglae (077 233 082), an open-air seafood restaurant largely frequented by locals.

“I don’t know how to cook, but I know how the food should taste,” reveals Sabeinglae’s owner, Amnat Chotchong. “I grew up right here on the beach, and I’ve been eating this food since I was a kid.” When asked where the recipes in his restaurant come from, Amnat describes how at community or religious festivals, where there tends to be lots of communal food, he would taste the different dishes, find the best one, and ask the cook how she made it. “These old ladies don’t mind giving their secrets away,” he laughs.

A Samui-style stirfry of squid, coconut milk and fresh herbs, Sabeinglae Restaurant, Ko Samui.

One such find is Sabeinglae’s kaeng khua het loop, a rich coconut milk-based curry using het loop, the small anemone-like beche-de-mer found on the coral surrounding Koh Samui. The curry is thick but not oily, and is laced with a generous handful of fragrant-but-spicy cumin leaves, another common ingredient on Koh Samui. Like many of the ingredients in local dishes, the het loop is strictly seasonal, close at hand, and comes from the sea; just some of the elements of a delicious island cuisine that is finally being discovered.