Samui Wining & Dining
Samui Source
The island’s local markets are where you’ll find the best home-grown produce.


Samui SourceThai cuisine is highly regarded right around the world. Its popularity continues to grow each year. And enjoying the local food is a significant reason why so many people choose to come to Thailand.


Some international restaurants import products such as beef from Australia, lamb from New Zealand, scallops from Japan and salmon from Alaska. But their aim is to offer something different from the local fare. All the Thai restaurants that you visit will use produce that’s grown, reared or caught in this country or in the seas around it. That’s why Thai food is so much cheaper than imported foods; there’s no duty payable on it and the transportation costs are considerably less. On Samui, fishermen will land their catches beside the local markets and no one has to travel very far for a coconut on this island.


Thailand has always been a strong agricultural nation with many neighbouring countries relying on exports from Thailand to sustain their populations. It has the highest percentage of arable land, 27%, of any nation in the Greater Mekong sub-region, and around half of it is used for rice production. And of the 27 million tonnes of rice that’s milled annually, about 25% of it is exported; much of it to China which can’t produce enough for its home market. It’s estimated that 50% of Thailand’s labour force is employed in agriculture. Although this is less than the 70% employed in 1980 which is mainly due to less labour intensive methods of farming being introduced. As a comparison, only around 7% of the working population is employed in the tourism and hospitality sector.


As you’ll know and can clearly see at local markets on Samui, Thailand has hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables. Many are seasonal and Thai people seem to know instinctively when it’s the right time of year to expect to see each one. In the West, our supermarkets are filled with produce from all around the world and we’ve lost some of that knowledge about our locally grown foods. One of the reasons small restaurants on Samui will just have menu listings like ‘fresh fish with vegetables’ is that both the seafood and the choice of vegetables at the markets change throughout the year and they’ll only buy whatever’s freshly available each day.


Fresh herbs and spices are integral to Thai cuisine and those used are all grown in abundance. Not only do their flavours enhance the dishes they also have health benefits. Galangal is used in the ever popular dish tom yam goong and it aids digestion and has anti-inflammatory properties. Chiles are good for your heart and insulin levels; lemon-grass is said to help with arthritis, headaches, and stomach pains; coriander is good for digestive problems and is an appetite stimulant; turmeric improves the circulation; and kaffir lime leaves have antioxidant properties as do several other herbs. All of these are used extensively in Thai cooking.


In terms of livestock, Thailand produces around one million metric tonnes of pork annually, mostly for the domestic market. And it also produces another 1.4 million metric tonnes of chicken meat. What might come as a surprise, though, is that Thailand has approximately nine million beef cattle according to the Department of Livestock Development. Much of the beef produced is considered inferior to Western grades of beef and it’s best when braised, stewed or marinated overnight. However, Sunthorn Farm in Kanchanaburi province in the western part of Thailand is striving to change that by increasing the production of premium beef. Only 1% of the beef produced in Thailand is of premium standard. Its beef is produced from cattle that are crosses between imported and native breeds. The premium beef female lines are derived from Brahman and native breeds crossed with imported breeds, such as the Charolais.


Second grade beef has a market share of 49% and third grade 50%. The second grade beef is sourced from two-way crosses, mainly Brahman and native breeds, whilst the third grade comes from breeds such as the Brahman and other individual native breeds. Sunthorn Farm is taking the fight to the world’s best beef producers in an effort to have home-grown beef that competes with the imported beef that dominates the top-end restaurants in Thailand.


There’re markets all over the island. These tend to be used by the local population and small restaurant owners. Large hotels and bigger restaurants wouldn’t be able to source everything they needed from local markets nor in the quantities required. They invariably order directly from farms and wholesale suppliers on the mainland and get deliveries every day. As a tiny rocky island, Samui isn’t suitable for grazing animals in any number and the soil makes it difficult to grow many fruits and vegetables. It is perfect though for coconuts and almost 50 million are harvested every year for the flesh, milk, oil and shells. Some resorts, like Fair House Villas in Mae Nam, have their own extensive private gardens and can grow some of the fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs that they need. Others have their own in-house hydroponic gardens predominately for growing organic salad leaves. And there’s a number of large hydroponic farms on Samui now that supply directly to the hotels and restaurants.


Most of the major resorts run cooking classes and some of them include visits to local markets with the chefs. And this is an ideal way to get a guided tour, some tips on what to look for and a hands-on lesson on how to prepare and cook the produce. As you wander around the island you’ll see lots of roadside shops with bananas, papaya, green mangoes and rambutans sitting on tables outside the stores. They’re grown by locals in their gardens and when ready some are eaten and the remainder sold to the local shop. They’re always ridiculously cheap, delicious and outstanding value for money.


Thai cuisine is all about fresh, local, seasonal produce. It’s just one of the many reasons we all seem to love it so much.


Johnny Paterson


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