This is a great time of year to come – and fab food is everywhere!
Ahh – those picture postcard beaches, fringed with palms, and a deep blue sky with little fluffy clouds overhead. And the best thing about Samui is that there’s something for everyone. Chaweng is our busiest spot, full of nightlife, and the bustle of street stalls and markets. Lamai is more low-key and laid-back. And if it’s unspoiled isolation you want, then just head off to explore the south of the island.
This time of year is pleasant, too. The hottest season has passed, and you can look forward to lower temperatures with dappled sun and broken cloud. There’ll be some rain, but this usually passes in half an hour or so, leaving everywhere fresh and sparkling once again.
And if it’s your first time with us, then you’re probably looking forward to lots of tasty Thai food. But did you realise that, size for size, there are more restaurants on Samui than in New York? Yes of course, there are hundreds of Thai restaurants of all shapes and sizes. But our little island has the distinction of being a gourmet’s paradise. You’ll find cuisine from just about every nation, and many of our better restaurants boast 5-star fare and chefs with an international reputation. And the best thing of all? You can easily afford to eat out every night. Even the finest places will cost a fraction of what you’d pay back home. Enjoy!
Chic et Charmant
MP Restaurant by Chef Mattias at Khwan Beach Resort Boutique & Gallery Pool Villas hits the ground running.
Singapore, Sydney, New York, Dubai and finally Hong Kong. But it was a good friend of his, Stephan Trepp, Executive Chef at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, who suggested he come and work in Thailand. It seemed like a good idea, and Mattias started as chef at Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa before opening the restaurant at Khwan Beach Resort.
His style is top-of-the-range nouvelle French cuisine, infused with touches of Asian flavours, especially Japanese. It’s definitely not about miniscule portions on vast white plates – the food comes in satisfying amounts and it’s all mouth-watering. His designs document the culinary journeys that have come about as French gastronomy has headed eastwards, taking on board the exotic touches of the Orient.
The setting is very intimate; MP Restaurant is open-sided and caters to just over 30 diners at any one time. Small numbers means that Mattias can personally cater for all his guests’ wishes. So, if there’s anything you'd like, just let him know. The waiting staff are all very welcoming, guaranteeing that your experience here will be a very enjoyable one. And incidentally, you can also see the food being prepared as the kitchen is open-plan.
The menu perfectly captures what nouvelle French cuisine is all about – and shows his flair for creating great tastes and adding innovative twists. If you look at the small details, you'll see just how much attention has gone into creating these dishes. Mattias offers medleys of tastes that are richly nuanced and pleasing to the palate, bursting with sheer goodness.
How many fruits can you name? Unless you're a botanist, you probably won’t get beyond a few dozen. If you're an expert, then you'll be able to name many, many more – but you'll need to have a first-class memory for names. Why? Because there are thousands of fruits out there, and they're still being classified. There's a whole world waiting to be discovered. This month we focus on one that’s half familiar, but still quite obscure to many of us: the passion fruit.
You may think it’s hard to grow, as it seems to be quite hard to find this fruit. But it turns out not to be the case at all. “Passion fruit? We've been growing them for years,” says organic farmer, Cameron Hansen. “Right now we have lots and lots of them growing on vines. They're coming on very well. The ones we have are green rather than purple. They taste really good.”
Cameron and his wife, Khun Lat, have a lush farm right here on Samui, and have larger than average specimens. Growing the fruit is relatively easy to do and it’s adapted well to very different areas across the world, such as Australia, where it’s been growing since the 19th Century. Seeds from Australia were successfully grown in Hawaii, starting in 1880, with the vine becoming popular in people’s gardens. You can also find it in Africa and in many parts of South-East Asia.
Heading up the hill to explore the culinary delights of The Barge at Nora Buri.
The Barge appeared back in 2009, and even before it was finished, it was the talk of the island. The design was stunning and went on to win awards. It’s just a short way north of Chaweng Beach itself, as you head on the road towards neighbouring Choeng Mon. Built on a short but steep part of a rocky cliff, this wonderful wooden edifice descends down the cliff side in three tiers, effectively creating three floors and a roof terrace. The inspiration for the design was that of the wooden sailing barges of old. But this interpretation was fresh and modern, drawing on the feel of the thing rather than merely trying to portray some kind of big wooden boat.
The project was a part of the flagship resort for the Nora Group, which had previously created three other notable resorts in Chaweng, and at that time was in the process of fashioning the 5-star Nora Buri Resort & Spa. In fact this building isn’t actually ‘a restaurant’ – there are two restaurants here, together with a function room that takes up one entire level. The top floor is taken up by the very stylish and glass-walled Thai fine-dining restaurant, The Rice Barge. (You really need to go inside to fully appreciate the sculpted wooden design.) And the lowest of the floors, which cleverly extends outwards in layers and terraces and lawned areas spreading down onto the beach, serves as the resort’s all-day restaurant. This is the part that bursts into life at night with live music (in the high season) and several buffet theme nights – but more about these in just a moment!
The sweet potato crossed the Pacific long before Columbus did, and is celebrated throughout the tropics.
Next time someone asks you to go and pick up some potatoes, don’t think of complaining that it’s too far to the shops, or you just don’t have time. Instead just think of the ancient Polynesians. Why? Their shopping trip is worthy of the Guinness Book of Records; for them, nipping to the market was not to be lightly undertaken. Here’s how they got their potatoes, or in this case, sweet potatoes.
Firstly they constructed inordinately seaworthy boats, big double-hulled catamarans that needed to be impossible to capsize. This was because they had to cross the Pacific and get to South America. Even though they were skilled traders and explorers, they had little idea where they were going, or if they would ever get there – or even get back. It was a seriously long-haul trip: some 5,000 miles of inhospitable ocean.
Their enormously long journey was filled with maritime perils, but they completed their voyage and lived to tell the tale – at least to their families – as well as bringing back sweet potatoes. The vegetable took off in Polynesia and it became part of the regional diet – no more long journeys needed to be made.
A look at one of the most romantic dining venues on the island – at Chaweng’s Baan Haad Ngam Resort.
Times change. Places, too. New ideas appear. And probably the ground-breaker on Samui was the ‘signature restaurant’ concept. Hotels and resorts are different. Samui has beach resorts. And while people would happily trot off across Bangkok to dine at a 5-star hotel, folks would feel shy about walking into an unknown beachside resort to do the same thing. So the first point to be made is that, today, outside guests are warmly welcome to visit any resort and enjoy their unique restaurant and cuisine. And that goes for their cooking classes, too. The latest idea that’s taken root is ‘romantic dining on the beach’. But this is the odd one out.
You see – restaurants are all pretty similar, in that you sit down to eat some jolly good food. Cooking classes? You need a couple of gas rings and a cheerful Thai chef who speaks English. But romantic dining? Just think about it for a moment. Take Chaweng Beach, which is wide and mostly the sea is a long way away. Hundreds of people go strolling there, day and night. Vendors of food, jewellery or souvenirs turn up every five minutes. And irritating promo boats keep cruising back and forth, yelling about the boxing stadium. Would you put a dining table out in the middle of all that if you wanted an intimate and romantic meal?
Who amongst us can resist a truly good curry? The vastly popular and versatile dish takes on a myriad forms and tastes, uses a host of different ingredients, yet it’s always recognizable. Most of us tend to associate curry with just one country, India, but like the dish itself, its roots are vague.
Possibly the first curry was made in Mesopotamia, almost 4,000 years ago. It must have been a popular dish; soon people were making it not just in Asia but in far-flung places where its tastes would have been totally original. Records show curries were being eaten in Britain in the 14th century.
Curry not only travelled west, but also east. It’s quite popular even in Japan, but in Thailand, it’s a staple dish, and one of the most popular versions is massaman curry. Thai curries have over the years evolved until they scarcely resemble anything found elsewhere. Borrowed they may have been, but now they're unique to the country, and massaman’s no exception.
However, massaman’s lineage is all but untraceable. King Rama II wrote a poem about food, mentioning it at the beginning of the verses – it was certainly popular even then. But precisely how it arrived in Siam is hotly disputed. One theory holds it was brought via land from Persia, with an influential trader introducing it directly to the court. From there on the recipe would have been gradually disseminated to other provinces. Another theory states that massaman came from the south of the country where it was introduced by Arab traders who would have tied up at the ports along the coast. Either way, the origins are definitely Muslim, and this is borne out by the fact that traditionally the dish was never made with pork. (Today you'll find pork massaman but it’s still far less common than beef or chicken.)
A few tips for avoiding unhygienic restaurants and dishes.
The little café on Koh Tao seemed as popular as ever that day. It took a while to get the waiter’s attention, and when he was finally making his way over to me I thought he had on some kind of military t-shirt. He was weaving through the crowd and it was hard to make out what was emblazoned across his chest. I thought I made out the words ‘Death or Glory’ written on his chest, just above a drawing of what seemed to be a tank or some other boxy-looking vehicle. It was only when he was right in front of me that I got a clear view of the t-shirt and realized I’d made a mistake. His t-shirt wasn’t military. And that wasn’t a drawing of a tank that I’d seen. It was a tin of sardines, the top rolled back to reveal some very tightly-packed and very rotten fish. And the words above them? They weren’t Death or Glory. Something much worse: Death From Within.
“You want to order?” he asked, noting where my gaze was now locked. Trying to appear casual I asked for a green curry. I looked around after he’d gone. Had he been trying to warn us all? Was there something wrong with the kitchen out back? In a classical response that psychologists tell us is all wrong; I looked for guidance from the other diners rather than thinking things through for myself. But they seemed calm and confident. Some, I saw, even laughed when they saw the t-shirt.
Exceptional food, service and prices – at the 5-star Krua Bophut.
Thirty years ago, it was nothing more than a tiny strip of land along the beach, with a dozen or so old wooden houses and a rickety jetty. Today, Fisherman’s Village is a tantalising attraction of street stalls, high-end jewellery and souvenir shops, with others selling fashion-wear and clothing, lots of small hotels and boutique resorts, pubs, bars and every kind of restaurant imaginable, from food stalls and cheap and cheerful beach cafes to Indian and Italian eateries, right through to 5-star restaurants with a matching standard of cuisine and service. And that brings us to Krua Bophut.
Krua Bophut is a Thai restaurant – but with a difference. It’s just about right in the centre of the ‘village’, on the sea side, just a short way away from the landmark of The Wharf. It doesn’t stand out and grab your attention. In fact, if you didn’t know about it, you may well walk on past, tempted by the glossier facades and brighter lights of some of the more showy places. And that would be a pity. Because there are only two 5-star restaurants here on this strip, and Krua Bophut is one of them.
Many people ask where good Thai food is to be found on Samui. And although that seems a strange question considering that we’re actually in Thailand, it can sometimes be difficult to find Thai food that’s close to its roots. A lot of restaurants over-cater for European tastes, while others let Thai food be upstaged by international foods. But it’s more difficult to find Thai food that focuses on just one of the regions, so we’re very happy today to present Ban Somtum, a wonderful find if you're looking for dishes from the north-east region of Thailand, Isaan.
The restaurant is located in the most traditional part of the island, in Nathon. It’s right on the coast road, just a few doors down from Win Hotel, as you head towards the piers. It’s easy to miss as you might be distracted by the sea view. But once you’ve found it, you'll know you're in the right spot; this is a largish eatery with tables and chairs that extend way back to the end of the cavernous interior. Most of the cooking is done out at the front, so you have a good idea of what’s going on.
Savour the sea while feasting on wonderful food at The Siam Residence Boutique Resort.
Situated on the west coast, with a backdrop of green hills, this Swiss-run resort provides a warm welcome to all its guests, whether they're staying here or just dropping in for food and drink. During the day, the serene beach that fronts the resort offers relaxation and shallow waters to paddle in, while in the evenings it becomes golden in the late, dusky light. Sunsets here are superb, and are enhanced by the photo-worthy backdrop of islands of the Angthong National Marine Park in the distance. The resort is in one of the quietest parts of the island, well away from the busy towns.
The Siam Residence has a restaurant that overlooks the beach, and you can dine inside either of the two pavilions, or outside in a very spacious garden. It’s a particularly beautiful spot, with shade provided by various trees. As soon as you arrive at the restaurant you’ll feel a sense of calmness – it seems to pervade the entire area here. It’s definitely a place where you'll want to linger, and you're encouraged to do just that and take your time. You're also free to use the swimming pool, which is just adjacent to the restaurant. It’s ideal if you're here with children; you can keep an eye on them from the restaurant while they play.
From its panoramic hillside perch, Dr Frogs Bar and Grill offers a fine dining menu to match its amazing views.
Italian cuisine! Most people love it and on Samui it’s the second most popular cuisine after Thai. There are some truly splendid Italian restaurants on the island, but alas also still some where visitors have to put up with default-quality pizzas, standard lasagnes and food, that well, just fills them up. There are still restaurants where cooks sling out food with mysterious melanges of ingredients. Listen quietly and you might just hear the thump of the freezer lid as another frozen product is taken out, or a microwave door opens (just how do you remove a bell from a microwave?). OK, all of this is still edible, but what about the price? It has to be cheap, right? Only sometimes.
The really good chefs – and there are plenty of them on the island – know how to import quality foodstuffs at very reasonable prices and then cook with expertise. The results? Costs are kept down, while value is kept top-notch. But how can you work out where the best places are? If you do a little research you'll come across the island’s best Italian restaurants quite easily – the ones that manage to tick all the boxes.
Chicken is the mainstay of Thai cuisine, but the whole business is actually a lot more complex than it appears!
Take a look at any Thai menu. Forget about the sort of food it is; whether it’s curry or noodles or soup. Think about the ingredients. Not the little green ones, but the big chunks that were at one time running around. You’ll see chicken (gai). Then pork (moo). Then there’s beef (neua). Plus you’ll also find fish (pla). And then quite often seafood (ahan talay), particularly along the coast, or on an island like Samui. And that’s about it. So now let’s dig a little deeper.
Even today, out of Thailand’s 67 million inhabitants, more than 40 million live in rural areas. Essentially this means farming. And around 85% of the farmers are deemed to work at subsistence level – Thailand is not a wealthy nation. However, if you were to be able to take a look at the state of play, say, 100 years ago, then you’d find that nearly everyone lived very simple lives and made their living from the land. So now let’s think about livestock.
Pigs are big, need a lot of feeding, and it takes eight to ten months before you can slaughter them. Then there’s beef. If you’ve ever been out and about on the roads here, you won’t see any cows in the fields or at the sides of the road. Buffaloes, yes. But to a farmer these are valuable beasts of burden, too useful to be eaten – at least not until they get too old to work. And then the results of this will keep the whole family chewing for weeks – buffalo meat is tough enough anyway, and when it’s from an old beast it’s probably best-used to repair shoes with. Then there’s fish, of course, and that’s plentiful and cheap, even inland, as there are markets everywhere. And that leaves chickens.
Chef’s Table restaurant at Sareeraya will tempt you in more ways than one!
It’s almost a fact! It’s a thing that gets said again and again, so it has to be true. An unwritten law – on Samui at least. And it goes like this: ‘for each one you can see, there’s a better one you can’t’. Restaurants, of course; we’re talking restaurants. There are two very good reasons for this. Firstly, just strolling about, you’ll see them everywhere. There are hundreds, all out in plain view. So what do they do? They try to look pretty. Every one of them is after your cash, so they try to tempt you in with fairy lights and glowing nooks and corners, wondrous displays and even a dancing girl or two. But what you can’t see, (and once you’re inside it doesn’t matter anyway) is the standard of the service and the quality of the food.
And the second reason? Simply that nearly all the best eateries on our isle belong to the resorts. Every good resort now has a signature restaurant that they’ve invested in, and of which they’re rightly proud. This is where you’ll find the top international chefs, not out there on the street. This is where the staff are hand-picked and then trained on an ongoing basis. This is where you’ll discover the finest of cuisine. And ‘this’ also is what you’re just not able to see – there’s a resort in the way! Such as with, for instance, Chef’s Table. And it’s sitting there right on the edge of the sand, inside that gentile and up-market resort that’s known as ‘Sareeraya Villas & Suites’, in the northern part of Chaweng.
Riesling wine has a colourful German heritage, and suffered a bit of a bad reputation in the 1980’s. Today, however, Riesling has emerged as the most collectible white wine among top connoisseurs and sommeliers. And the best dry examples are becoming very sought after.
Like so many other fine wines, tasting a Riesling starts in your nose. It’s one of the most aromatic grape varieties in the world. The primary fruit aromas in Riesling are nectarine, apricot, honey-crisp apple and pear. Besides just fruit, you’ll often smell things like honeycomb, and even a chemical aroma similar to petrol. And believe it or not, it’s exactly these weird smells that wine enthusiasts go gaga over. Riesling is very high acid, almost to the level of a tart fruit juice, making it a superb wine to pair with subtle food flavours.
When choosing a hopefully sophisticated white wine of pedigree, to accompany a fish or seafood dish, I find myself drawn to the filigreed, finely etched Rieslings of the Mosel, as delicate as any wine I know. And unlike almost any other Riesling producing region, Germany has made a specialty of Rieslings with a touch of sweetness. I‘m not talking about the thrilling dessert wines that Riesling so famously lends itself to, which are great in their own right. No, I mean the luscious wines from the Mosel, and their bigger brothers from the Rhine, that have some residual sugar, but are so beautifully balanced that the overall impression is of exhilarating refreshment.
But as much as I love these styles of wines, lately I‘m craving dry German Rieslings. Dry? Many wine consumers assume all Rieslings are sweet. In fact, most Rieslings, whether from Austria, Alsace, Australia or the United States, are dry. Even more surprising is the fact that many German Rieslings are dry, too, and that the preference in Germany today (and for the last 20 years) has overwhelmingly been for the dryer varieties. And the most surprising thing, to me, is how delicious dry German Rieslings have become.