Samui is a lovely little island. But just what is it that makes it so very popular?
Every year more than a million people come to Samui for a getaway break. Why do they come? Well, yes, of course there’s the weather. And then it’s unique; lots and buzz and life in some places, and yet still rustic and unspoiled in others. And also it’s not expensive – far from it. And, more than anything else, that applies to eating out.
There’s always been Thai food. But now the quality and diversity of this has increased beyond belief. You can stroll around the traditional Thai food markets – it’s an experience! But now so many 5-star hotels have arrived you don’t need to be that adventurous. Try to find ‘Royal Cuisine’. It’s unlike any other kind of Thai food you’ve come across, with recipes and presentations that have supposedly been handed down from the Royal Courts of old - milder, richer and tantalizingly different.
But why limit yourself? We’ve got everything from full-tilt Irish gastro pubs to Tex-Mex eateries. Indian? There’s some of the best anywhere. Korean or Japanese? Of course! And then there’s German, Swiss and French cuisine, and even a couple of Scandinavian restaurants if the fancy takes you. And more. And all of them are so much cheaper than the ones back home that you can afford to try a different one each night – that’s what’s so special about Samui!
EAT YOUR HEART OUT
Right on the south coast Beyond The Sea, Siamese Brasserie at ShaSa Resort & Residences offers casual fine dining at its very best.
Seeking to get away from it all? Venture off the ring-road in the south of the island and then keep on heading south and you'll come to Shasa, a resort that many residents, even ones who’ve been here for years have never seen. That’s because it’s tucked away down a tiny lane in a very private spot. It’s a remarkably green and verdant here; gentle breezes keep everything cool, and gardens step away down towards a resplendent sea. Shasa is a resort that's held in high esteem, especially by visitors seeking respite from busy Chaweng and its environs. But that's not all. There’s also the food, which attracts not only in-house guests here but many diners from outside.
It’s easy enough to find the resort and its restaurant, Beyond The Sea, but you may wish to avail yourself of the free transport that will take you there. Just call Shasa, and no matter where you are on Samui, they'll send a comfy courtesy van to collect you. There’s no minimum spend, and no minimum number of guests – you could even just come by yourself, in other words. You'll naturally be brought back home afterwards. What could be better? No need to stress out with maps and directions, and no need to have to think about how much/little alcohol you can drink. It’s something that many diners opt for.
Make it yourself: ( Khao pad gai, or chicken fried rice. )
One of the easiest of all dishes to make, fried rice nonetheless seems to daunt many a cook, and there are a few things to know before you reach perfection. Most important, don’t worry about having fine ingredients to hand; popular as the dish is all round Asia, it’s invariably made when there are leftovers to use up. In fact, it can only really be made from them: the main mistake many people make is to start from scratch with making a nice batch of fresh rice. It doesn’t work. The rice ends up tasting rather mushy, and is no comparison to anything that a street vendor would make. So the first rule is to have some day-old rice that’s ready to use. The reason for this is that the grains of leftover rice are firmer and the excess moisture has all evaporated, making it easy to separate. If you use fresh rice, there’s simply too much moisture and once you start frying it, you'll see it simply turns to mush. It’s not inedible, but won’t taste as good. If you have no leftover rice to spare, then you can get away with making some rice and letting it cool for a few hours. Once you get in the habit of keeping your leftover rice either in the fridge or freezer, then you'll never be short of a good meal.
Each Asian country has its own variations on fried rice. In China, for example, you'll find plenty of sweet sausage used, along with ginger and scrambled eggs that are folded into a very tempting mix. You can also find this variation in Thailand, due to there being so many Thais of Chinese origin. If you're in Korea, your fried rice won’t be just leftover rice but old kimchi as well, which results in a piquant dish. Everybody has of course heard of nasi goreng, which is the Indonesian version and relies on a soy sauce that’s sweetened by palm sugar. Sometimes chilli paste is also used, and nasi goreng is popular not just at lunch or for dinner, but for breakfast, too.
There are some great places to dine on the island, but only one in-the-trees experience at Anantara Lawana’s ‘Tree Tops’.
Are you looking for one of the most spectacular places in Thailand to dine? Somewhere that the location, setting and ambiance are unique and without parallel? Where you can enjoy the finest of imported ingredients, each carefully cooked to perfection by an international award-winning chef? If so, then look no further. It’s right on your doorstep, in north Chaweng. It’s exclusive. It’s romantic. And it’s world class. In fact, you could say, this place is the ‘tops’.
I’m taking about the very exclusive Tree Tops restaurant at Anantara Lawana Resort & Spa at the very northern end of Chaweng Beach Road. The Anantara Group is not a name that’s on everyone’s lips, although perhaps it should be. It’s hard to believe that the group only opened its first 5-star resort in 2001, in Thailand’s Hua Hin. Since that time, the Anantara collection has grown to encompass over 40 luxury hotels and resorts in city, island and desert settings across Asia, the Middle East, the Indian Ocean and Africa, and is operating under the umbrella of the venerated Minor International group, one of the largest hospitality groups in the Asia Pacific region.
One of Samui’s best-known culinary personalities is on the move again – we take a look at what 2017 has in store for Don Lawson.
“It’s a heavy-duty job! You’re working 12 hours a day, and staying late every night, you’ll never see your wife or friends, and you can forget about a social life, never mind going to parties! Right. You’ve got five minutes to tell me if you want it or not.”
These were the words that were spoken to Don Lawson way back when he was offered his first appointment as a chef, in his native Canberra. And that was more years ago than he cares to remember! Today, just about everyone who’s been working in the Thai hospitality sector will have heard his name, if not know him personally. Don landed on Samui in 2003, having been transferred from the 5-star Dusit Thani Dubai to what was the then-named Santiburi Dusit on the north coast in Maenam. There’s sure been a lot of water under the bridge since then. But now, once again, that familiar offer is ringing in his ears.
Don spent the best part of a decade on Samui, but never really let go of it, and now he’s back again. He’s a cheerful and light-hearted individual who handles things with a feather-but-firm touch. But he’s probably best-known for his long and committed stint working at Anantara Bo Phut, where he ran the kitchen from 2004 to 2012. During this period, he also lent his time and effort selflessly to local organisations and charities. The Samui Culinary Circle is a loosely networked group of people who are all associated with the food and beverage scene on Samui. They have regular meetings, sponsor new chefs, host different sorts of F&B promotions, exchange and update news – as well as also engaging themselves with various deserving and charitable causes. And Don was the much-liked and well respected chairman from 2007 to 2012.
A long time ago now, notorious American journalist Hunter S. Thompson was staying in a sweltering tropical bay. It was late at night, he was drunk, and the ice cubes were all gone. There were no convenience stores nearby, no bars, restaurants, not even friendly neighbours. But he did have some friends on the opposite side of the bay. The type of people who though they might not have a phone, had plenty of ice-cubes. Thompson had an extraordinarily powerful sound system which was already rigged up, and luckily for him (these were pre-karaoke days), a microphone. He describes how, as he spoke into the microphone, his voice all urgency, the sound thundered out across the bay, a deep bass that shook up the neighbourhood: “Ice cubes ... ice cubes ... ice cubes ... we need ice cubes.” He recounts how his willing friends brought them over. Or maybe they were frightened by someone with so much determination. It illustrates a point: running out of ice cubes isn’t tolerated by everyone. If you're in charge of a bar it’s one of those things that just can’t be allowed to happen. And usually, it doesn’t.
How often have you ordered a drink and the staff tell you they've run out of ice cubes? I’ll warrant: probably never. Ice cubes are everywhere, and as ephemeral as they are, unable to exist at normal room temperature, they seem to appear out of nowhere. Perhaps because they have to; nobody wants to go without them. They're so plentiful that you might suppose there's an ice cube industry. And despite having no special name to designate it, and without being formally recognized by most of us, there definitely is.
The ice industry stretches back a long, long way. From the first moment the first fridge came into existence, right? No. It turns out to have a far more ancient pedigree. At the court of Constantinople, the nobility, even in the desiccating heat of the summer, could enjoy icy drinks. They relied on ice houses, special buildings that would store winter ice and keep it solid for months on end. During the winter, ice and snow would be taken into the ice house and insulated against melting with straw or sawdust. The ice houses might have been far from the city, but a large block of ice could easily survive the journey. However the Ottomans in their elaborate palaces weren’t the first people to enjoy chilled drinks; they were simply continuing a time-honoured tradition; for them it was nothing really special. In Mesopotamia, just over 3,500 years ago, a scribe chiselled onto a stone tablet the fact that his king had commissioned an ice house, and added that ‘never before had any king’ built such a thing. The Chinese got into refrigeration some 500 years after that. They stored their ice in pits or in mounds for later use. By the time the Greeks and Romans got their empires going, ice production was already old history; Alexander the Great used ice pits around 300 BC while Romans used them in the 3rd century AD.
Chef Bee at Silavadee Pool Spa Resort homes in on what makes good food great. Enjoy the results in a beautiful setting.
Silavadee is a Thai word that translates as ‘beautiful rocks’, which is quite a humble way of describing the resort’s magnificent setting. It’s located on a headland in the midst of a lush garden dotted with boulders, trees and all manner of tropical foliage. Every part of it, not just the rocks, is beautiful. And then there’s the sea. The resort, situated up a lane close to Lamai, overlooks one of the most private bays on the island, a sweeping cove backed by still more trees. Not surprisingly, the resort is favoured by couples, families and others seeking seclusion and respite from a frantic world.
Many resort owners would be content with just the setting, but at Silavadee, the management care very much about food and accommodation, too. Both are on the luxurious side, with beautifully appointed villas and rooms, and then there are the resort’s dining outlets that afford great value and the most tempting of foods.
Chef Jumpol Hiran is the executive chef at Silavadee, a professional who’s had two decades honing his skills. More usually known as Chef Bee, he's an approachable figure, as are all the staff in the hotel, and is able to provide just about anything his guests might require, whether it’s a romantic dinner or a full-scale wedding reception. He’s very gifted when it comes to Thai cuisine, but is equally at home when it comes to preparing international food – he worked in Cyprus for a while, and has also gained considerable knowledge of Scandinavian cuisine.
Coast Beach Club & Bistro offers a Sunday brunch that goes well beyond the ordinary.
Brunch. The word conjures up alluring food served neither too early, nor too late, more or less just when you want it. Along with perhaps a delicious coffee, shake or even a cocktail. Spanning two meals, brunch has you covered, whatever your needs and fancies.
And what better than to indulge yourself with a luxury brunch than when you are visiting or residing on a tropical island? Brunch might seem to some to be an urban affair, but once you see it set up under the palms fronting a blue sea, then you'll agree that it’s just made for the summery, idyllic days of Thailand. Samui is good at brunch – it’s popping up more and more at the island’s hotels, restaurants and beach clubs. Once hard to find, now the challenge is to make sure you're attending one that meets all your needs.
What sets apart the brunch at Coast Beach Club & Bistro, is the fact that the event is geared towards socializing rather than partying. Though there's music it’s in the form of a solo acoustic guitarist, Michel Boghers, who sets a mood that's laid-back. As you may know, some brunches are way more party-oriented, where the music’s loud and the vibe is a kind of daytime version of a night-club. Those who attend the brunch at Coast are after something quite different: the chance to socialize, enjoy a very leisurely few hours or just unwind after perhaps a busy week at work. Incidentally, the brunch is attended by quite a few general managers of the island’s resorts – just the kind of people who recognize exactly what constitutes great food and drink. Coast is located at Centara Grand Beach Resort Samui, one of the island’s premier resorts. You'll also find quite a few children having brunch here, as it’s ideal for them, too. What’s the draw for them? For a start there's so much good food that even the pickiest of eaters will find something they like, especially as they have their own menu, too, making life a lot easier. But just as important, with the resort’s privilege card, they and their parents get to use the swimming pool, which is one of the largest on Samui. The card also entitles holders to a hefty 25% discount.
Rice is actually one of the strangest basic foodstuffs in the world, and vital to the Thai economy!
Rice? What’s strange about rice? What is this guy on about? Rice is rice. There are two or three basic sorts, and 33% of the world’s population eat it every day. You can boil it, steam it or fry it. And that’s it. So what’s the fuss about?
Ah, well, yes. Except . . . nothing is ever as it seems. Once you start poking around, looking at things a bit more closely and digging under the surface, there are always a few surprises to be found. It’s certainly true that rice is the staple diet of some 2.5 billion people. And everyone’s first thought is that we’re talking about the Asian races here. But then there’s also a large belt of the southern part of North America, quite a few of the less-developed nations in South America and a large part of the Caribbean, too. And in the last 20 years the consumption of rice in Middle Eastern countries has similarly doubled – and that’s something that can’t be said about other staples like pasta, grain or potatoes.
But here’s the first oddity. Rice is biologically classified as one of over 10,000 types of edible grass. And, no, I’m not going to get into all the scientific names and jargon; we’ll keep it simple. But out of all these thousands of types of rice, only three sorts are eaten universally. They are easily categorised into long, medium or short grain varieties of one particular type, with the most-readily identifiable variety belonging to the ‘oryza’ family. And then, persisting with simplicity, there are three-and-a-half colour variations on the shelves to go along with this.
Krua Chao Baan offers traditional Samui food, along with plenty of other delicacies.
Samui has become quite modern in just a few years; before that it used to be very traditional, the kind of place that hardly changed over decades. The same applied to the food. Once fairly limited, nowadays it offers every kind of fare possible, all of it cooked to perfection by world-class chefs, who may be Thai, or who may have come from anywhere in the world. Yet before it became a holiday destination, the island still abounded in great recipes and dishes. The Gulf of Siam cuisine in this latitude was mostly southern-style Thai, with a few fiery dishes and plenty of seafood. And then there were the dishes that were even more local, being confined to just the islands of Samui, Koh Pha-ngan and Koh Tao, which were then only very sparsely inhabited.
Many visitors to Samui these days believe that most of the local ways and traditions have been totally lost. But this is simply not true. Ask a local person where to eat local-style food and they'll be able to tell you. The island’s roots remain intact – despite all the changes. And those in search of the old island ways can do no better than pay a visit to a restaurant that’s stood in exactly the same spot for 17 years; Krua Chao Baan is on the ring-road, just after Wat Sila-ngu, as you head south from Lamai to Ban Hua Thanon. The restaurant’s name is written in Thai only, but you can’t miss it; just look for a group of thatched roofs.
Why is it that fruits are always round? Don’t you ever wonder about that? I mean, why aren’t some fruits long and thin like runner beans? Or flat, like peas in a pod? No – oranges, cherries, peaches, apples, even coconuts (although hairy), are all round! Did Nature design them so that they could roll away downhill, in order to go forth and multiply more effectively? If that’s the case, then after millions of years of evolution, fruit ought to have developed little legs by now. No. There must be another reason why fruits are round. Except for just one thing, that is. Not all of them are.
The real truth of the matter is that it was all down to God. He made the world in seven days. Pretty good going. But the little-known secret is – he had help. He delegated. But somewhere towards the end of that week of furious creativity, the angel in charge of fruit – name of Del Monte – got bored. His instructions were straightforward enough – to create thousands of different sorts of round fruit – but sometime during Thursday he began to digress.
At first, he tried a few different variations in texture. He made hairy fruit and spiky fruit; and then some with wrinkles too. And it was late on the Friday afternoon that he began to disobey his orders, and started messing about with the shapes too. He made several of these, each one increasingly more complex. But his best design of all was the star fruit.
Chaweng is definitely the place to experience an extremely cosmopolitan cooking scene, but in the town’s haste to please the different cultures that come to dine here, Thai food still remains one of the top cuisines to enjoy. There are countless eateries, stalls and restaurants, wherever you look. But in all of this, it seems that some of the most traditional ways of preparation have too often been sacrificed for modern convenience. Not at Yaito Noodle, however. What makes this restaurant stand out amongst so many others is the way that old-style preparation methods are still adhered to. As any visitor to the island can surmise, corner-cutting is easily done – island supermarkets and wholesalers ensure fair-quality ingredients are available at the drop of a spatula. But what if you want quality that really stands out? Life, then, as well as cooking, suddenly gets a lot more complicated.
At Yaito Noodle, the dishes may arrive quickly at the table, but that doesn’t mean that the entire process is speedy. It isn’t. Far from it. There's a huge amount of preparation that takes place, for example, making relishes or simmering broth for three hours at a time. And before any of that can take place, the ingredients all have to be purchased. A lot of them come from outside the island; these are traditional ingredients that simply taste better. The real thing, in other words. And thanks to a very efficient supply system in Thailand, it’s possible to get them to Samui in good time.
A name has appeared that’s re-defined Thai food completely – and that name is Supattra.
Here’s an odd fact: Thai food varies hugely in taste and flavour from one place to the next. If you’re a casual visitor to Thailand you might not be aware of this. But, firstly, there are four very different regional cuisines here. And then; every single place will make the same dish in a different way. What this all boils down to is that westerners who’ve lived in Thailand for a while are very, very fussy. If they want a red curry, they’ll go to only one particular restaurant for it. If the yearning comes for a prawn tom yum, they’ll head for a different place. You get the idea. It’s difficult to find a Thai restaurant – from street-stall to 5-star – in which every dish on the menu is good.
However, in the case of Supattra Thai Dining, I can honestly state that after 20 years in Thailand, this is the only Thai restaurant I’ve ever been in where every single dish on the menu is not merely good – it’s totally and utterly sublime and deliciously, absolutely, out of this world.
Everything about Khun Supattra’s restaurant is interesting; from the story of where they buy their curry pastes to even the location itself. It’s easy to get to from just about everywhere, being located on the road that runs from the Thai market at Bangrak towards the airport; just head away from the market and it’s about 100 metres on the right, and with a parking area at the side. And you’ll also notice there’s an elegant wine shop, too, built-in and fronting the road.
It’s shocking, don’t you think? The way that people go to extremes? I mean, all those young people staggering around in a daze from those psychoactive drugs. It’s disgraceful – even though I’m talking about what was going on thousands of years ago. In fact it was probably way back in the Stone Age that the first humans got high on fruit. Yes, the fallen fruit that had been on the ground for a while and started to ferment. Maybe it was a giveaway that the spot was already marked by half a herd of woolly mammoths, all giggling and falling about. But, however it happened, the fermenting fruit filled with ethyl alcohol was certainly worth taking home and storing for the winter.
Hardly surprising then, that it was something which knew no boundaries. It happened all over the world and with all sorts of fruits and vegetables. The Irish, seeing they had plenty, went for potatoes. The French did a lot with grapes. Down in Mexico they were using cacti. Pirates did it with molasses. Closer to home, it was rice that made the Asians smile. And in that gigantic nation, together with its neighbours, the Russians were using potatoes, sugar beet, grapes, apples, plums, berries, roots, acorns, nuts, wheat, corn barley, rye – just about anything they could get their hands on. And it was from this region that the tipple we know as vodka emerged.