Samui Wining & Dining
Going Native

Joining the locals at Zaab Samui.


Page-18Samui is largely an island of immigrants. Traditionally the native population outnumbered any newly-arriving group - whether they were Chinese in the 18th century who married local women, or foreigners arriving in the latter half of the 20th looking for beaches. In their wake, seeking business opportunitvies, came Thais from the central or southern regions, and workers from the northeast of Thailand.

      The northeast, or Isaan as it’s also called, borders Laos and is the most agricultural and poorest part of the country. But out of its hardscrabble soil and paddy fields, it has conjured up a delightful cuisine that embraces extremes - the fiery and pungent flavours are tempered by the brightest green herbs like dill, basil and mint. With the addition of toasted rice, salty seasonings and grilled meats, you can almost taste the land itself on every plate.

       Many of these ‘migrants’ from Isaan have made a permanent life on Samui, and created successful businesses. Many have seen their children educated here. Zaab Samui restaurant is testament to that process. Owner and manager, Khun Pai, grew up under her mum’s apron in an Isaan kitchen on the island. She graduated high school here, and went on to study business administration in Australia. In her twenties, she quit her job as restaurant manager in Sydney and came back to set up a bright new and spacious restaurant. “I want it to offer something for everyone, and make it affordable, too,” she says. We can be grateful for her vision!

      ‘Zaab’ or ‘sep’ is the word in Isaan dialect for delicious (Thais say ‘arroy’), and the food here is authentic, clean and lives up to the name. As each dish is prepared fresh, the cooks can modulate the spiciness to please the most red-blooded north easterner, or the newly arrived tourist. Even more fabulous, the kitchen can prepare anything without the pernicious MSG powder so loved by many Isaan establishments.

      We order sticky rice off the bat, and this simple steamed glutinous staple is served hot and moist in a small woven basket. It’s perfectly cooked at Zaab Samui - fresh, soft and malleable and an ideal

      The som tam we try is with pork, more exactly pork neck, which is fatty and succulent, and when soaked in the lime and green papaya salad juices, turns almost white as in a ceviche. Overall the salad is crispy, fresh, and nutty with the pork more of a background flavour.

       With som tam you need to decide upfront how many chilli peppers you want to spice up your salad: the chilli factor is determined at the onset of the pounding process. The range is generally one to ten tiny chillies, but if you are extremely heat-shy, you may be happy with none, as the residual chilli flavour in the pestle may be enough of a homeopathic dose for you.

         We also order a ‘yam’ - another kind of pounded salad, and here the pork is perfectly roasted - succulent but also crisp and satisfyingly meaty when combined with the fresh onion, spring onions, tomato, carrot, cucumber, fresh chilli and lime juice. Other yams include seafood, glass noodle with sausage, spicy cockle salad and ‘mu manao’ or pork in lime. There is also a Thai grilled beef salad.

         Another perennial favourite is laab, and Zaab Samui offers beef, chicken and roasted pork neck. We opt for a chicken version of this minced salad with mint and other herby accompaniments. Actually a lot of the herbs and spices are similar in this cuisine, but with different accents.

         We also ordered a ‘soup nommai’ a vegetable dish made of fresh bamboo shoots, steamed and shredded, before being combined with chilli, fresh onion, lime, herbs and fermented fish sauce.

         All in all the meal is delightful, and served with a healthy complimentary plate of fresh beans, cucumber and cabbage for crunch and freshness.

         It’s fun being able to watch the cooks at work in the open kitchen, and the ambiance at Zaab Samui is spacious and cheerful, with black tables and orange chairs arranged in tiers. The venue would be perfect for a party - seating up to 120 people.

         The menu is not that extensive yet, but there is definitely something for everyone. Besides the ‘tams’, ‘yams’ and ‘laabs’, there are a variety of soups such as tom yam with fish, chicken, shrimp and seafood, and tom ‘sep’ which is more deliciously spicy.

         Since the restaurant extends its egalitarian vision to include International dishes, you can order green salad, potato salad, Caesar salad and even tomato and mozzarella salad. There are also sandwiches, hamburgers, cordon bleu, steak and salmon for the Western palate.

         Zaab Samui is to be found about halfway down the road that links Chaweng Beach Road and the traffic lights on the ring road near Tesco Lotus Chaweng. There are not many handy landmarks, but it’s on the north side of the road east of the PTT station opposite a car wash establishment. There is a large cement mortar and pestle on the front lawn. (Note: it’s not to be confused with the enclosed restaurant immediately next to the PTT station.)

         Open from 9:00 am to 10:30 pm, with live music every Friday night, Zaab Samui is friendly, cheap and cheerful. And ‘zaab’ for sure!


Annie Lee


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