Samui Wining & Dining

A look at a street stall that’s become an institution.

16In every person there’s a hundred stories. And each new day there’s a thousand tales to tell. There are sagas of stars and fables of the rich and famous. For every hero there’s a headline, and a million gossips whisper across the world, each one with a show on TV or a page in the press. Just poke a few keys and you’ll Facebook into what Hollywood’s having for breakfast. In today’s world nobody is invisible. Except the ones you never notice, that is.

    In her own way ‘Khun Joe’ is as famous as them all. But I’ll bet you a Euro to a dime that you don’t know her. I’ll bet you anything that, even if you’ve been living here on Samui for 10 years straight, you won’t know who she is or what she does. And then I’d better add just a few quick overrides on that! You might have seen her if you’ve ever stayed at Tradewinds Cottages or Centara Grand Beach Resort. If that’s the case then you may even have talked to her without really knowing. But the odds go up a notch if you live or work in Chaweng and also have a partner from Issan. Because, once we begin to talk about this rural farming region in the north-east of Thailand, then the goal posts shift to a totally different place.

    You see, folks from Issan are generally not so rich. In fact very many of them have moved away to other places. Areas where there are more jobs, better pay, and where they can stay for a year or so and send (comparatively) lots of money back home each month. Samui is one such place. You’ll discover that, in amongst all the others who’ve come here to find work, there are thousands of workers from Issan. Khun Nongrak Kongthong (nicknamed Khun Joe) was born in Issan, close to Yasothon, but she’s been here for the last 13 years. She came here just like everyone else; she was used to working hard but the prospects on Samui were better. And, after a while, she found a formula for success.

     In general the cuisine of the north-east of Thailand is simpler and hotter than the food you’ll find further south. There is less variety on offer but it’s like mother’s milk to the locals. Away from home, they crave it. So what better idea, if you come from Issan yourself, than to make it and sell it. This isn’t exactly original; you’ll find that there are Issan restaurants dotted about everywhere. But what Khun Joe did, that was unique at the time, was to set up a roadside stall. Not a fixed one, but one on wheels – a motorbike with a side-box attached. And the other thing that’s exceptional is that she’s been in the same place, selling her wares, for the last nine years.


In general the cuisine of the
north-east of Thailand is simpler
and hotter than the food you’ll find
further south.


      “I began by driving round every day,” she explained, “but that was not so good; most people were out working and I spent more time travelling than I did cooking. But then I found this spot on the street right outside what is now Zico’s Brazilian Grill & Bar. The first year was slow but then people came to know me. They liked the food, the price was good and they knew where I’d be each day. I have to pay fees but it is nothing like the overheads with a shop or restaurant, and there is no staff to pay, as I do everything myself.”

      But Khun Joe discovered that she has an even wider audience. As well as the fiery laab and the ubiquitous som tam, she’s selling skewers of chicken and pork, plus kidneys and Issan sausages, too. The cuts of chicken are prime; big, succulent, aromatic, and gleaming with a golden sugar glaze that tastes as great as it looks. It’s just the job to halt passing tourists in their tracks; a tasty snack to stave off the pangs and perfect to quieten-down the kids for half an hour or so. Visitors staying at nearby resorts tend to stop off at least once each day for the duration of their stay. And the local shops and massage salons are regular customers, too. All-in-all, it’s a real gold mine.

      But she does work for it! For a start all the dishes are made on the spot, and that’s not a quick and easy thing. And often she has to cope with multiple orders; one person wants three som tam, three nam tok, two laab, four prime chicken skewers and a sausage. Another wants a different order – and they’re both standing waiting. She has to multi-task; seven skewers go on the charcoal grill while she pounds up a huge crock of som tam whilst sizzling up a pan of laab at the same time. To give you an idea of how non-stop it all is, I turned up at 1:00 pm to talk to her. I thought to wait until the crowd had cleared and then catch her in a lull. An hour later I was still hoping . . . she hadn’t stopped for a moment and there were already four more new customers waiting in line. And, she tells me, it’s like this from the time she sets up at 11:00 am until she begins to clear away six hours later.

      Another reason for her success is the prices she charges. They are notably lower than other, similar set-ups which you’ll see at temple fairs or around the island in general. It’s affordable, it’s top quality, and everyone wants it.

      Khun Joe lives with her husband, Khun Na, in a house that’s not so far from Tesco Lotus. But she’s up each day at 4:00 am and, around about the time when the sky is getting light, she’s off to Laem Din market to buy the new day’s supplies. Then back to the house to prepare everything; it’s by no means an easy ride.

      Regular customers? Hundreds. But I’ll let Khun Joe tell it. “I’ve been doing the same thing here for nine years,” she said. “And when I get a customer they always come back again. But they always move on, too; everyone goes home in the end. There’re no customers left now from nine years back. They come and then they go. But I’m still here. And I really can’t see how that’s going to change!”


Rob De Wet


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