Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals at Bang Po Seafood.

 

7Two decades ago this was the one outstanding restaurant in Bang Po. You’d probably have been directed by locals to ‘the shack opposite the mango tree’, and found it because it was the only lit establishment on the beach. Now you need to look out for a small signboard somewhere along the main ring road opposite Soi Bang Po 4, and not to be confused by larger imitations: It’s not Haad Bang Po, or Krua Bang Po or any other but Bang Po Seafood (Takho).

      And, when you do find it, the shabby frontage is not reassuring. There’s a red neon Coca Cola sign with the name in English, a weird cement fish, and a higgledy-piggledy collection of roofs of various miss-matched materials, tethered to beams like a jerry-rigged pirate boat. But yes, this is it, and that’s the sea glistening out there.

      You’ll be drawn to the beachside tables, shaded by great sea-chestnut trees. I make it tough for the restaurant staff: I arrive alone, I arrive in the afternoon and I arrive hungry. But the genuinely friendly crew are unfazed. Even as they sweep the beach and cheerfully arrange the furniture for the evening rush, and I sit down at a big empty table to scan the menu, the house appetizer arrives promptly. ‘Khuy jee’ was a quick snack prepared in

the coconut groves of yore, and it’s redolent of the Samui when everyone ‘worked coconuts’, not just the chained monkeys. For lunch you’d take along a pounded smear of kapi (fermented shrimp paste) with grated coconut meat, shallots and garlic. Then you’d grill it over the fire on a shard of coconut and eat it with some local herbs and greens.

      Mine comes to the table with young cashew tree leaves, albeit on a melamine plate, with cucumbers and green beans. In an interview for the Bangkok Post many years ago, owner Khun Sukkho explained that the restaurant’s khuy jee is adapted slightly from its original recipe by adding a little crab meat. “Giving it to our customers free is our way of saying, ‘This is something that you won’t find anywhere else. You’ve arrived on Ko Samui!’ ” He ruefully admits that “after the foreigners have tasted it, some say they’d have preferred some other way of letting them know that they’d arrived on Ko Samui!”

      That is probably still true. And another truism is that the menu authentically reflects its Samui roots, not just in its simple plastic folder. Among the seasonal local foods you’ll find an island delicacy called ‘wai’ - a large squid resembling an octopus. Islanders eat only the tentacles, roasting them for a curry called ‘wai khua’, or steamed in the sour curry ‘tom prio wan’. My personal favourite swims in coconut cream and young tamarind shoots, where the divine rich sweetness of the coconut is perfectly usurped by the sour tamarind. And I love that, in a region famous for its terseness, there is no short cut for the languorous literal lilt of ‘‘tom gatti yod makaam say pla muek.”

       Another local delicacy is the rice. Khaao man is prepared by soaking dried mung beans and then cooking the rice in coconut milk with a pinch of salt. A first for me, and I enjoy how the beans impart an extra nutty flavour.

      Seaweed or ‘sarai khaw’ is another original staple on Samui. Collected from the sea floor, it’s boiled very briefly and prepared as a salad (or ‘yam’) by pounding it with green mango, garlic, shallots, chillies, fish sauce, lime and peanuts. I order one with cockles and the combination of chilli heat, saltiness, sourness and nuttiness seem to bring the sea to life in my mouth. The texture of the seaweed is hard to pinpoint - not quite rubbery, but not quite crunchy.

       Staying with an island palette of flavours, I ask for some simple grilled fish. While the mullet is perfectly roasted, a slight sweetness in the seafood sauce is not to my taste. However, the ‘yam’ stands in as a perfectly bold companion to the rich smoky salty oily fish.

         I make it a ménage à trois by adding ‘sataw’ which is sometimes translated as stink bean or bitter nuts. A southern seasonal favourite, these crunchy beans, stir-fried lightly with kaffir lime leaves, kapi, garlic and prawns, release a nutty sulphurous essence. Not for the faint-hearted!

         Southern Thai food is also fond of turmeric and you’ll find its distinct yellow hue in the flying fish grilled in coconut milk with black pepper, as well as the ‘gaeng som’ (sour curry fish soup), and the free-range chicken broth with turmeric.

         You’ll find many types of ‘nam prik’, a spicy dip/sauce usually accompanied by a plate of fresh and/or steamed vegetables, all over Thailand. Referred to here as a spicy ‘pate’, these multifarious concoctions are fresh-pounded to order in a mortar. Bang Po Seafood makes bilimbi (a sour member of the star fruit family), sweet and sour mango, fresh shrimp, and lemon nam prik.

         I like the simple layout of the menu, and the local suggestions. It’s easy to navigate and with the aid of the simple pictures, you can’t really go wrong. But invite some Thai friends to join you if you can. That way you not only get to share a variety of dishes, but you benefit from native wisdom in ordering. Not that you’d be lonely - in fact, it’s hard to get a seat, especially on weekends. You’ll find few will dispute that this is still one of Samui’s enduring food landmarks.

         

Annie Lee


 


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