Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals at Sweet Sisters Café.

 

18One of the joys of travel is to find climates and customs more exotic, varied, or delightful than our own. If you are that kind of traveller, eating local food is a high you’d seek out in any new destination. But with southern Thai cuisine’s fiery reputation, how is the average food pilgrim to gain even a foothold on these salty, fishy and super-spicy slopes?

    Southern Thai cuisine is defined by its regional ingredients: chilli, coconut, tamarind, fresh turmeric, kapi (fermented shrimp paste), wild lime and lemon-grass. And fresh seafood. Apart from the kapi, that probably sounds pretty inviting. Don’t be too quick however to drop your guard under the spell of swaying palms and the gently lapping southern seas: while many Thai dishes can be excellent even with the chilli toned down, southern Thai food is audaciously brash and unapologetically fiery.

      No need to despair as help is at hand for the curious traveller at Sweet Sisters Café, a laid-back restaurant near Baan Bang Khao in the south of the island. ‘Healthy, yummy and original’ claim the handy signboards along the surprisingly quiet route 4170, where you may have to slow down for a buffalo and its keeper wending their way home. While the accent here is definitely southern Thai, you won’t be talking idiomatically southern dishes like kaeng tai pla (hardcore piquant curry with fermented salty fish innards) or sataw (‘stink beans’) in shrimp paste.

      Here, proprietor and chef, Khun Noiy has created authentic southern offerings of her own with a reassuringly approachable menu. “I grew up surrounded by fresh, local delicious vegetables and seafood,” says Noiy. “My mother and all my aunties are great cooks, and my first job was in a five-star Thai restaurant in Bandon (Surat Thani).”

       While Noiy was supposed to be just a waitress, they couldn’t keep her out of the kitchen. “In the 15 years since, I’ve cooked for my family and friends, and for the last few I’ve been itching to get out and share what I love,” she confesses.

       And share she does. The menu features a generous range of soups, salads, curries, yams (spicy Thai salads), fried-rice dishes and a specials board with tempting, hard-to-find traditional ingredients like banana flower and fresh heart of palm.

      But we’re focusing on southern cuisine, remember? For starters try the delightfully refreshing parcels called miang kham - the southern Thai variety is prepared with taling pling (averrhoa bilimbi or cucumber tree) instead of lime. This appetizer comprises a parcel of tastes that party on the palate as you wrap crispy coconut, onion, chilli, ginger, dried shrimp, peanuts and bilimbi in bai cha plu (wild pepper leaves). Add the traditional sauce of palm sugar, local herbs and spices and pop them in your mouth.... Yummy!

      Other taste sensations include tom te po or ‘Sweet Sisters soup‘ a coconut-creamy southern version of tom kha broth. Delicious with a bowl of rice as a main course, or to complement other dishes if you’re eating with friends, the mildly sweet coconut is balanced with a perfectly sour note of tamarind juice. The southern flavours (not too spicy) kick in when the turmeric and kapi blend with the usual tom kha ingredients of galangal, wild lime, lemon-grass, and mushrooms.

      Gaeng liang is another southern flavour - a coconut-free clear soup with local mixed vegetables including Thai basil, gourd, onion, garlic and kapi. Kua khling - an incandescently hot dry-fried southern favourite - is not always easy to find in local eateries, and often the cook will insist on preparing it with pork. Noiy’s version with chicken, fish or tofu is suffused with wild lime leaves and chilli, with a twist of lemon-grass and krachai (finger-root) to bring out the flavours.

      One of the highlights of Sweet Sisters' offerings is locally sourced fish. As with all her purchases, Noiy never buys farmed fish or seafood, and she has a friend at the local market who calls her when the boats come in. Noiy’s personal southern fish dish she calls ‘Fish in the Garden’. Lightly fried king mackerel is smothered in fresh local herbs (I counted 11 different kinds), and tops it with roasted rice powder.

      The ‘healthy’ in Sweet Sisters Café’s slogan is the café’s third anchor. Rice is a deliciously nutty house blend of wholegrain brown and black rice served topped with sesame seeds. Wherever possible Noiy purchases in-season organic local produce, and you’ll encounter no MSG or food additives, ever! A storm in the Gulf? You’ll find no fish or prawn on the menu. Organic cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, and surprise in-season ingredients such as fresh palm hearts grace the salads. Even dairy is eschewed (except for some dishes lightly fried in butter and specified on the menu), and the kitchen’s versatility and readiness to tweak what’s on offer makes this a mecca for health conscious and lactose or wheat intolerant patrons.

      Sweet Sisters’ twice monthly friendly Friday buffets offer a great way to sample a variety of dishes, as well as to meet many of the local southern island clientèle. There are also health products for sale, including home-made muesli, healthy cookies baked with love and fresh butter, organic cashews, cold-pressed coconut oil, palm sugar and rices.

      As much as one appreciates the diversity of Thai food, frankly desserts are not always so satisfying. Noiy however has developed a wonderful farang-friendly list of toothsome offerings with home-made brownies, Belgian chocolate fondant, calamansi parfait, and her own power balls - delicious morsels of seeds, dried fruit and nuts. A sweet treat after the meal makes a comforting end to a fine adventure.

      Open every day from 11:00 am – 8:00 pm, except Wednesdays, you’ll find Sweet Sisters Café just off the Ban Bang Kao intersection of routes 4170 and 4173. The easiest way to get there is to turn south off the main ring-road from the Namuang intersection.



Annie Lee.


 


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