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Eating Thailand: Big Food, Small City

A Day of Incredible Food in Southern Thailand

by Ben McCarthy
It’s hot, blisteringly, soul-swelteringly hot–108 degrees Fahrenheit, to be precise. My travel companion and I are in Nakhon Si Thammarat, a city in Southern Thailand that sits 10km from the Gulf of Thailand and rarely makes its way onto most tourists’ itineraries. We’re in Nakhon for one reason: to eat unadulterated southern Thai food. The food of the South is vastly different from that of the rest of the country. It relies heavily on turmeric, coconut and the bounty of the sea and is by far the spiciest of all of Thailand’s regional cuisines.

Khanom Jeen at the Khao Kaeng

Southern ThailandAcross from our hotel: a small but clean five story building on an otherwise unassuming local street. A crowd of vendors is setting up. There is a Khao Kaeng stall selling curries with rice or fermented rice noodles called Khanom Jeen. (Khao Kaeng, which literally translates to “rice curry or curry rice,” stalls are found throughout Thailand.) Another stall sells fried chicken parts with sticky rice and crispy flecks of garlic and shallots. The entire stretch of sidewalk is covered with food stalls and aluminum tables where people are eating.
We order two curries with Khanom Jeen and a few pieces of fried chicken with a heaping mound of sticky rice. In Southern Thailand curries are always served with a tray of fresh vegetables and herbs and leaves, which serve as a brief respite to the scalding chili heat. There is bai makok, the leaf of the spondias mombin tree, chalky and slightly bitter; it coats your mouth while you chew it. There are leaves from the young cashew tree and a heaping pile of tiny Thai eggplants and Chinese long beans. The food, while infernally spicy, is nuanced and complex, and I find myself saying what I so often say in Thailand: “This is one of the best meals of my life.”

The Next Morning: Hao Coffee and Khao Tom Kluai

The next morning we head to Hao Coffee, a traditional Kopi shop, and drink strong coffee with condensed milk. The coffee is chased with hot jasmine tea, a refreshing, cleansing accompaniment to the strong and bitter coffee. It’s 9:30a, and it is already sweltering out, the glasses on our table sweating in the heat.
There aren’t many conventional tourist attractions in Nakhon Si Thammarat; for the most part people simply do not come here. The city is too far south to serve as a jumping off point for the popular Chumphon Islands (Koh Samui, Koh Phnagan and Koh Tao) and at 10km, too far from the coast to truly be a beach town. We don’t mind the absence of manicured temples and museums–after all, we have come to Nakhon for the food and there is plenty of it.
On the walk back to our hotel we stop to buy Khao Tom Kluai: tiny finger bananas buried in coconut scented sticky rice, wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal. They are sweet, fragrant and smoky from the charcoal grill and we devour them as the vendors, a pair of older women, laugh and smile.
Outside of a 7-Eleven, Thailand’s favorite chain, a young child points at us, laughing, and shouts “Farang, farang,” the Thai term for foreigner. This sums up the paradox of Nakhon to a tee: it’s a city that is almost completely isolated from foreigners in a country that has become the number one tourist destination in the world.
As we walk around the city in the blistering late morning heat people stop or shout “Hello” from their cars, relishing the chance to use their English. Like in so much of Thailand, the people are kind and welcoming, eager to share their food and culture with you if you only ask. Later that night, a young man stops and helps us order a traditional Southern style meal at a stall without a menu. A traditional Thai meal usually consists of a curry, a stir fry, a soup and lots of rice to share, he tells us guiding us through the options the vendor is offering. The food comes, stir fried water morning glory with crispy pork belly, studded with garlic and chilies, a spicy and sour Tum Yum soup with seafood from the coast and squid dry fried in a fragrant and scalding curry paste. The food is eaten over a heaping mound of Jasmine rice and washed down with tall bottles of cold Leo beer.

After Dinner: Tea, Beer, and Serenity

After dinner, we sit at another stall and drink light but floral tea made from Pandan leaves. Behind the row of food stalls is a park where a few children play and couples lounge on the grass. The evening is cooler now and a hot, dry breeze is blowing, shaking the leaves of the acacia trees above us.
Nakhon Si Thammarat is in many ways a quiet city. There are no full moon parties or warehouse raves and no bars crammed full of backpackers and college students; in other words, there’s not really any reason for most tourists to visit.
Before bed we head to the open air bar next to our hotel and listen to a Thai band cover The Eagles and play traditional Thai pop songs and drink Singha poured over cups of ice.
The next morning we are flying back to the hectic frenzy of Bangkok via Nakhon’s tiny airport. Back in Bangkok people seem perplexed that we have gone to Nakhon at all. “There is nothing to see there” seems like the standard response. But I have begun to think to myself that perhaps that is the point.

Nyack’s Ben McCarthy is the lead guitarist in the alternative rock band Regret the Hour and the chief Thai culinary correspondent for Nyack News and Views.

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