(CNN) – The most difficult booking in Bangkok? It’s almost certainly a place called Sorn.
It’s all the more astonishing that the Michelin-starred restaurant’s five-course tasting menu costs over US $ 100 – this in a town where a tasty dinner can easily cost less than $ 10 and a bowl of noodles can cost as little. that $ 1.50.
But the majority of Bangkok diners tend to associate southern Thai cuisine with one thing: warmth.
It has a reputation for being spicy. And often, this reputation is justified: I remember eating a curry on Ko Samui that was so hot my ears were ringing.
But in nearly three years of searching for my next book, a cookbook describing the food of southern Thailand, I’ve learned that the food of the region is quite a lot.
Yes, many dishes in southern Thailand are spicy, but their heat doesn’t just come from the peppers; Southern Thais also love the slow and unique burn that comes from the addition of black pepper.
They can also be sweet. The south is home to some of the country’s most prized palm sugars – a dark, earthy sweetener found in both sweet and savory dishes.
The cuisine of southern Thailand is often herbaceous and aromatic. It can be very salty and it can also be sweet and rich.
Take Phuket food, for example. If you’ve been to the island, chances are you’ve had a seafood buffet or maybe a plate of fried rice at a beachside restaurant. But for real local food – the kind of thing you won’t find elsewhere in Thailand – you have to head inland to the landlocked town of Phuket.
There you will find a whole repertoire of dishes that do not correspond to the general perception of southern Thai cuisine; light dishes on chili and which have more links with China than with Thailand.
“Our food is not spicy, it’s Chinese influence,” explains Varerat Chaisin, originally from the island and for 35 years a culinary arts teacher in a professional high school in Phuket.
This is evident in the island’s deliciously sweet and savory dishes – mii hokkien, yellow wheat noodles sautéed with pork, seafood, and greens; mii hun, thin round rice noodles fried with soy sauce and served with peppery pork bone soup; oh tao, tiny oysters fried in lard with pieces of taro and eggs – many of which were introduced or created by Chinese Hokkien workers.
Blurred culinary lines
Indeed, outside influences have had a huge impact on the food of southern Thailand. This is particularly the case in the predominantly Muslim provinces of the country, including Pattani and Yala. There, the dishes emphasize the smooth, rich, sometimes sweet flavors favored just across the Malaysian border.
“Thai Muslims love coconut and dried spices. We also like sweet flavors, ”says Farida Klanarong, owner of Barahom Barzaar, a restaurant in Pattani province.
In her restaurant, Farida showed me how to make a deliciously mild, turmeric-rich fish curry, and a salad of wild fern sprouts served with a rich, peppery, flavorful, coconut milk-garlic-based dressing. which reminded me – no kidding – ranch dressing, two dishes that were unlike anything I had encountered before in Thailand.
In some cases, the line between foreign cuisine and Thai cuisine is completely blurred. In towns like Phuket, Phang-Nga, and Trang, foreign ingredients, dishes, and cooking techniques have been merged and blended with those from Thailand, resulting in a whole new cuisine known as Baba or Peranakan.
“For Thais who like spicy food, they may find Perenakan food bland,” says Khanaporn Janjirdsak, herself Peranakan and owner of Trang Ko’e, a Peranakan restaurant in Trang province. “The flavors are not strong, we try to balance them.”
Bland is not the word I would use to describe Khanaporn’s mother’s recipe for mii hun yam, a Peranakan-style fine rice noodle salad in a vinaigrette that derives its unique aroma from calamansi limes and a little funk from the shrimp paste.
It’s also one of the most colorful dishes I’ve come across – this in a region of dishes resplendent with green, red, yellow and orange sourced from ingredients ranging from turmeric to so-called stinky beans.
Nakhon Si Thammarat: Setting the Standard
Nakhon Si Thammarat curry stalls are legendary.
Courtesy of Austin Bush
To get to the heart of southern Thai cuisine, the type that now obsesses Bangkokians, you might have to visit the city of Nakhon Si Thammarat.
The city’s cooks are legendary, having opened curry stalls across the region, setting the standard for southern Thai cuisine.
It is in this city that you will find essential dishes of the repertoire, recognizable by Thais: the fiery stir-fry of minced meat and curry paste known as khua kling; the tangy and spicy fish soup known as kaeng som; rich curries made from coconut milk; fish, fried and served under a hill of crispy fried garlic and turmeric; and funky, spicy Thai-style chili relishes.
“The dishes at Nakhon Si Thammarat are more intense, they have more flavor,” says Yupha Ninphaya, who, along with her mother, runs the Paa Eed curry stand in the city.
Each day, the duo prepare around twenty different dishes, served in pots and trays in a display case. There is no menu here. Instead, diners roll over and point to what looks good, perhaps a peppery curry countered by a mild, vegetable-based stir-fry; or maybe a bowl of fiery and tangy soup and a side of sweet and rich braised pork belly; or a crispy fried fish with garlic accompanied by an herbaceous curry with coconut milk.
Yes, there is chili – a lot – but in southern Thailand it doesn’t take long to see that the real goal is balance.