Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals for lunch at Tua Gai restaurant near Nathon.

 

18If you're looking for the heart of Samui you may not find it in downtown Chaweng. It could be on the very opposite side of the island. Here in the west, on a quiet road leading to the Hin Lad temple and waterfall, is a busy little local restaurant serving primarily 'khanom jeen', and coffee.

    Tua Gai is definitely ‘out of the way’, but for lovers of this special genre of Thai noodle, it’s well worth turning inland off the ring-road onto road 4172, and looking for the red flag signs about 300 metres on the right depicting a chicken bowl, from which this delightful garden eatery takes its name. Right next door is a coffee shop, which turns out to be part of the same establishment.

  Khanom jeen are fresh thin rice noodles coiled in rounds, served with a variety of curries on a scale of spiciness to suit every palate, and topped with as many fresh, pickled and blanched vegetables as you care to add.

      This favourite snack is almost always a breakfast-lunch dish and most vendors pack up by early afternoon. It’s also the perfect ‘up to you’ dish: you elect which curry or combination of curries you’d like on your noodles, and then you choose your own selection of green accompaniments.

       At Tua Kai there is a choice of four homemade sauces ranging from mild to radioactive: a mild nam ya plaa (fish curry), a sweet curry,

 the classic gaeng kiaow waan gai (mild and lightly sweet green curry with chicken), and gaeng tai plaa. The latter is a southern-style fish innards curry with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, palm sugar, tamarind, fresh bamboo shoot and eggplant. Not for the faint-hearted, but you can also combine curries and temper a fierce flavour with a sweet curry.

 

      In urban areas they may serve khanom jeen with only mild fish-based or chicken-based curries and some store-bought vegetables, and greens will vary according to the region and noodle stand. Vendors in the south however take great pride in the variety of vegetables - and you are most likely to be tipped off to the presence of a khanom jeen stand by a huge platter of exotic greens on every table.

      You may not recognize them all as vegetables. The pickled selection on the day of this writer’s visit included young papaya, bean sprouts, riang (a large local bean), and a cucumber achar made with vinegar, onion, chilli and sugar. In addition there were cucumber, green beans, round eggplants, fresh bean sprouts, chaom, three kinds of coriander, purple and green basil, lemon basil, pennyroyal, winged beans, fresh banana flower, and the freshest youngest shoots of bai liang, mayom, Thai olive, and cashew nut trees. Some of these greens may be almost inedible on their own (try the cashew nut for bitter!), but chopped or broken up over the sauces, the effect is extraordinarily refreshing and exciting to the palate.

      And you may also want to add chillies, pepper, fish sauce or white vinegar, and if you are craving protein, fresh boiled eggs. All these accompaniments are part of the price of the meal (eggs are 10 baht extra) and it’s entirely acceptable to keep customizing your dish by adding to your plate as you munch your way down to the saucy noodles.

      For 40 baht a plate, that’s a generous deal. Owner Khun Da says, “Quality and price are often opposite on Samui. Things don’t need to be so expensive! I don’t think we should be so greedy that we forget about being happy. I want everyone who comes to my shop to be relaxed.” Her honest price belies the quantity and quality on offer, and just a bite into the crunchy cucumbers or green beans will tell you that the vegetables are all sourced from local growers and markets. Khun Da uses no MSG or food additives either.

      Servings of khanom jeen are light enough to leave room for seconds. If you aren’t sure you can take another full bowl, you can order an additional half portion. If you are still hungry, Tua Gai also serves classic mee pad, noodles stir-fried in a pre-made sauce made of chilli, garlic, onion, tamarind and coconut cream. This is traditionally served with young mango, banana flower, bean sprouts and garlic chives as accompaniments.

      Manning the curry pots you’ll find Khun Da, a thirty-something Samui girl who spent many years in Bangkok, where she graduated and took up a successful career in hairdressing, qualifying at the highest level with Toni&Guy. “I am proud of my profession, and still work sometimes with private clients,” she says. “But I love to share - and there’s nothing as satisfying as sharing food.”

      “When I first moved back to Samui, I wasn’t that happy, and worried about material success. But it was my dad who reminded me that we need to live more simply. Real priorities, I’ve learned, are food, home, taking care of yourself, and your health.”

      Da and her husband Suea are happy that Samui is progressing, but she appreciates her simple roots on Samui and wants to share that with her customers. While the restaurant and coffee shop are modern, clean and comfortable, the garden setting is chilled and relaxed, with a collection of potted plants and garden decorative items that say ‘local, authentic and well cared for’.

      Tua Gai has lots of happy customers. Between 12 and 1:00 pm, you’ll find the place buzzing with Thai clientèle - always a good benchmark of quality. Open only from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm, Mondays to Fridays, and serving a simple but high quality product, this little restaurant is a friendly meeting place for many locals living and working around Nathon.

      Tua Gai also serves its own roast of excellent hilltribe coffee. Da and Suea’s coffee shop (open daily 9:00 am to 6:00 pm) at the end of the street opposite the Hin Lad temple offers the same blend of coffee, as well as cool drinks. Cakes and snacks are on the cards, says Da. At this delightful cul de sac, you can find a waterfall market all day on Saturday’s and Sunday’s, with locals bringing fruit from their orchards (durian, rambutan, langsat, mangosteen, bananas) and home-made desserts, haw mok (fish curry steamed in banana leaf), durian chips and more.

      I stop to buy some plump langsat, a local fruit with a sweet sour twist. This fruit can only be appreciated fresh and eaten locally - within a few days the skin will blacken. The old man who sells them to me grins when I ask if they have been sprayed. “There wouldn’t be any ants on them in that case,” he giggles. And adds an extra handful of fruit to the scale.

      Local, honest, authentic and generous. Like I said, the heart of Samui.



Annie Lee


 


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