Southern Spices – The Flavours of a Culinary Crossroads

Southern Spices – The Flavours of a Culinary Crossroads
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Food from southern Thailand is bold, straightforward and electrifying—just like the people from this region.

A long, narrow peninsula flanked by coastlines on both sides—southern Thailand is surrounded by sea life. The region’s diverse geography, including oceanfront, river plains and mountainous jungles, provide it with a variety of unique ingredients.  

Situated between the Indian Ocean to the west and the Gulf of Thailand to the east, the southern region has been a culinary crossroads since the early days of international maritime trading. Many new ingredients and ideas from both directions landed in the south and took deep root there, including people of many ethnicities, cultures, languages and culinary traditions.  

The hallmark of southern Thai food is its tremendous use of spices.

Good ingredients in good hands: Southern Thai food’s culinary backbone is a mix of spices from India, Indonesia and local sources.

For thousands of years, India has been a top international spice producer, accounting for around 75% of the world’s total production. Sailing eastward from India, one quickly reaches the shores of Burma and southern Thailand. Spices arrived here along with Indian and Arabic food, and their unique recipes and cooking techniques.

These spices were a perfect match with southern Thai dishes. Their strong aroma, specifically turmeric, covered up the smell of fresh ocean catches. The Indians surely brought their rich curries here.

Nakhon Sri Thammaraj’s daily fresh “Khanom Jean” rice noodle with choices of “Jungle,” Coconut Milk and “Tai Pla,” preserved fish kidney toppings. Served with a platoon of local fresh greens.

Coconut plays a major role in southern Thai cuisine. The beach climate is the best environment for the plant to grow, especially on islands like Koh Samui. Fresh coconut milk makes southern Thai curries richer than curries elsewhere. It also adds a creamy touch to a variety of Muslim sweet treats around the region.

Narathiwas’s “Ah Koh” custard is baked in an ancient-style oven and served only during the Ramadan fasting month. / “Kanom Buang,” crispy pancake of Takuapah, Pang Gna, stuffed with condensed red sugarcane, red bean and scraped coconut. / Squeezed pandanus juice mixed with rice flour and limewater create another Narathiwas treat, “Lorpadikae.” It is topped with coconut milk and condensed brown sugar.
Satun’s ancient royal treat, “Bu-gna Buda,” is served at weddings and at “Harirayor,” the end of the fasting ceremony.  It mixes “Tun Tuk” coconut, sugar and pandanus, wrapped in super-thin sticky rice flour, which requires gentle and sophisticated handling. 

The Chinese also arrived by boat and settled in major cities along the coast. They brought with them innovations like noodles and metal pans. Stir fries, wok cooking, and steaming are among the techniques they introduced to southern Thailand. The Indonesians brought their world-famous grilled satay.

Cantonese Chinese yellow noodle in Trang are for special occasions such as funerals and worshipping god.  / Beef or Chicken Satay in Pattani marinated with lemongrass, red onion, galanga, turmeric and salt, served with a creamy peanut-coconut milk dip. / Woking the Watercress, Guangxi Chinese-style in the cold sierra region of Baetong, Yala. Watercress grows best near waterfalls at a temperature under 25 degrees celsius.

Locals who were already living in southern Thailand blended their own resources with the new arrivals. Preserved sea produce is the same today as it was a thousand years ago. Salted and fermented food is still practiced in many fishermen villages. “Tai-Pla,” or fermented “fish kidney,” is one of the most popular ingredients in the upper south, while “Nam Boo Doo” is favoured among the Muslim-majority deep south.

In the jungle, people still cook rice by wrapping leaves inside bamboo cylinders and heating them over a fire.  

Local “Kloom” leaf and “Chieng Roon” bamboo are keys in this ancient bonfire rice-cooking method in the deep rainforest of Pah Toh, Chumporn.
Chumporn’s “Kaeng Pah” pork gristle with “Lady’s Fingernail” banana and bamboo rice sets for Pah Toh’s rafting adventure through the deep rainforest jungle.

The word “local” rings truest when we’re in far away places. Local ingredients mean they’re only available there, and not anywhere else.  

Kluay Leb Mua Nang, or “Lady’s Fingernail banana,” is a Chumporn original. “Look Choke”, infant jungle palm’s fruit, which is featured in “Kaeng Som,” or sour yellow soup, is famous in Phang-Gna.  

Black squid is Krabi’s. The healthy meat of the muscular “Pla Krabok” fish is from Pak Panang’s delta. The giant fresh oyster is caught off Surat Thani’s shores.  

“Leb Mue Nang” or “Lady’s Fingernail” banana is Chumporn’s local speciality. Sweet, lean shaped with a thin peel, the banana fits perfectly in “Kaeng Pah” pork’s gristle.
Stir-fried black squid with lemongrass and its initiators on “Koh Klang,” Middle Island, just 10 minutes from Krabi’s sea port.
Giant fresh oyster at Simana Farm Stay just off Surat Thani’s shore.

The lotus root that replaces ordinary papaya in the spicy salad is from the great “Talay Noi” lake of Patta Lung and the “Lady’s Hair” seaweed is from the lake of Songkhla. The freshwater crest and the “running wild” chicken are from the cool waterfall and high mountains of Baetong district in Yala.

A one-month road trip I took in southern Thailand a couple of years ago shifted my perception of certain foods. Along with my photo buddy and our food stylist, we were assigned to report a story that sent us on the road for 30 days, travelling throughout all 14 provinces in southern Thailand’s peninsula.

Chumporn’s fisherman village of “Koh Pithak” island has long preserved their catches by salting and sun drying. Like treasures, they buried them under the sand for 10-15 days before digging them up to dry.
“Under the Sand” salty fish of Koh Pithak, Chumporn. / “Pla Krabok” fish from Pak Panang delta cooked in a special palm skin vinegar, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, red onion, lemon leaf, and fresh chilli. / Sour yellow soup with “Look Choke,” exclusively available in Pang Gna. The infant jungle palm’s fruit grows naturally during a short period of time. It is extremely difficult to cultivate and handle. 

We watched dish after dish come together from nothing. We observed extremely sophisticated ways of cooking. We listened to countless amazing stories behind those dishes: where they came from, how they evolved through time, and how they combined what already existed with exciting new ingredients and ideas that kept arriving from other places. 

We moved around constantly. We went to bed and woke up in different motels in different towns every morning and every night. Every meal we ate was unpredictable and full of surprises. It took us away from our norms.   

The terrain changed dramatically from place to place, from wide open beachfronts to deep rainforests, and from bustling Chinese business districts to chilly mountains. This is said to be the primary reason why southern Thais are so bold, genuine and honest. People from such diverse places need to rely on these qualities in dealing with each other for survival.   

On the bustling business street of Had Yai, Songkhla, the “Bakud Tae” pork gristle soup and steamed Dim Sum is available on many corners from early breakfast to late at night.  The soup is Penang’s local style, with 15 ingredients of Chinese herbs and spices.  

We saw how each culture and community was unique. We realised how deeply these culinary traditions influenced their way of living. They truly bonded harmoniously with whatever was in their backyard.  

They took us back, for a glimpse at least, to the very basics of life. They demonstrated to us the simplest idea of how everything is connected. The true identity of people is perhaps best reflected in their pots and pans after all.

“Shun Pia”, a fish cake-like appetiser dish from Ranong’s Chinese immigrants from Penang. The stuffing is made of crab meat, pork meat, and liver, mashed together with eggs, onion, and sesame oil. It is flavoured with coriander root, garlic, and pepper, and wrapped with thin intestine or tofu skin.  It is deep-fried with Ranong’s exclusive “Parrot” black sauce served with pineapple chilli dip. / Baetong’s Guangxi Chinese immigrants brought along their “Liang San” chicken and made them famous all over the country.  The chicken is known for its healthy meat without fat under the skin. They achieved this by letting them run wild in the jungle and on rubber plantations.

Cover Photo Caption:

(Left) “Krue Poh”, famous Narathiwas crispy fish chips, originated as a by-product of leftover catches. They are mashed with flour, flavoured, cast in long round tubes and boiled. Then they are sliced in pieces and eaten boiled or deep-fried. They can be preserved for years.

(Right) “Nase Dakae,” meaning “The Outsider’s Rice.” The name refers to the Indonesians who brought the popular breakfast food to Thailand’s deep southern regions of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwas. It mixes jasmine rice and sticky rice with coconut milk, ginger, and onion, then steamed with garlic and local Haluebo nut. It is served with chicken or O-fish curry, green pepper, boiled egg, and Sama fish or shrimp as a side dish.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:

Patt Tanyarat : Super Food Stylist

Tuek S. Chantorn : Super Photo Assistant

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