I don’t have a very good visual memory, but I travel all over the world cooking and eating everything I can get my hands on, so the way I remember things is through taste. That’s because the very first dish I cooked was from the memory of a flavour, so each time I taste something, it really brings me back to a specific time and place.
On my recent trip to Phuket, not only did I enjoy some of the familiar tastes of Thai cuisine (one of my favourites), but I also tried some new flavours that I’ll always remember. To better understand what makes southern Thai food unique, I spent an incredible day with the chefs from Ta Khai, an open-air restaurant at the new Rosewood Phuket. The restaurant’s name translates to “fishing net” in Thai, which is appropriate considering they specialise in serving fresh, local seafood dishes.
Ta Khai’s chefs, who go by “Uncle Nun” and “Aunt Yai”, have actually been married for 30 years, and they’ve been cooking just as long. I think their story is very special. My day with them began on a traditional longtail boat, a beautifully rustic wooden vessel that we took out into the waters surrounding the island to catch fresh fish. The waves were strong and the waters a bit choppy, but the young Thai men operating the boats managed to keep us safe while we were fishing, and in the end we managed to snag two big ones for dinner later that day. Obviously, cruising on the water and enjoying the island scenery was a perfect way to start the day.
Our adventures didn’t end there, however, as we got back on dry land and headed southeast to the Rawai Seafood Market, a simple but authentic stretch of stalls where the catch of the day is sold. The market may be no-frills, but the seafood selection is unbelievable: clams, mussels, giant prawns, lobsters, crabs, fish, squid and snails were all for sale. Of course, it takes special knowledge to know how to pick the best seafood, so I left that to Uncle Nun and Aunt Yai. We may not speak the same language, but the highlight of my day was visiting each stall with them and watching them inspect every item to determine what was good enough to be served in their kitchen.
Back at their restaurant, I watched as they placed the seafood selection into the restaurant’s pond to keep it fresh and clean, and they also selected ingredients from the nearby garden to cook with. I may not have mastered any new recipes that day, but it was very special joining Nun and Yai in their open kitchen and seeing how they cook, what their process is like.
After the fishing and the market visit and the cooking, it was finally time to eat. I settled into one of the restaurant’s semi-open pavilions for a seafood feast. I loved the fresh spring rolls with prawns, chowed down on the moreish braised pork with black pepper and garlic, devoured traditional tilapia fish mousse flavoured with curry, and practically licked the plate clean with my favourite dish: curried crab made with the restaurant’s signature curry paste, which I found out took Nun and Yai years to perfect.
Whenever I next taste these dishes, I’ll instantly be transported back in time and space to this day, and whenever I return to Phuket, I’ll definitely be making a visit to Ta Khai. Be sure to check out the other highlights from my stay at Rosewood Phuket in the video below.