Hot weather has the unpleasant effect of retarding the appetite, but Nakhon Si Thammarat has plenty to coax it back. It’s best to start lunch early, before the afternoon heat and humidity overwhelms and take advantage of the very controlled portion sizes that this town offers. Drink plenty of icy water and thai tea, and even if you think you’re not hungry, give it a go.
First is a kind of all-Asia line up, pork satay, wonton soup and an interpretation of chicken rice all with a Thai bent. Thin pieces of pork take on a new persona when a dressed in a spicy peanut sauce so good I want to eat it with a spoon. Add a sweet cucumber and shallot pickle for freshness and acid and this could just be the perfect light summer lunch.
Chicken, red-roasted pork, and meaty, rich liver on rice get soy and sweet chilli sauced, a different take on the classic comfort of Hainanese chicken rice. We share a soup (geaw nam), loaded with as much flavour as ingredients. Wontons, pork, insides, fish balls and green vegetables are barely covered by a light, cleansing broth. I leave the add-your-own flavourings up to the experts, and the result is an extraordinarily good blend of sour, meaty, herbaceous freshness and chilli-hot. A kind of China meets Thailand by way of everywhere in between.
We swat the flies away and linger over the iced-tea and peanut sauce dregs. It’s cool inside, but although lunch is winding down this place is still packed, popularity deserved.
Khao Mok Gai
Our next lunch may be similar to the first, rice and meat with a shared soup, but it’s on the other end of the spectrum. Today we’re in a Khao Mok shop (Muslim food shop) to eat Khao Mok Gai (pictured above), a kind of Thai Biryani first brought, along with Buddhism, to Nakhon Si Thammarat by Sri Lankans lifetimes ago. The rice and chicken is pleasant but ground breaking only in the fact that these tastes are unexpected, being more subcontinental than Thai. Unfortunately the chicken and rice is served cool, which dulls the flavours and hardens the grains, so this dish is only a shadow of what it could be.
Beef soup (soop nua, pictured above), on the other hand, arrives steaming hot and punchy. It’s is all great viscid hunks of beef, tender enough to bisect with the touch of a spoon. The rich beef stock is robustly flavoured with fresh coriander, spring onions, fried shallots and chilli. It’s firmly in ‘last meal’ territory, and paired with raw cabbage is clarity and simplicity in a bowl.
This Ran Kanom Jeen (Chinese noodle restaurant) is understandably popular. Kanom jeen are round rice vermicelli noodles classified here as Chinese, though they’re most similar to Vietnamese bun. Served with curry sauce, of which there is a range available: green, coconut, peanut and more. My dish is a mix of coconut (nam ya kati) and peanut (gaeng nam prik tua) curries, which frankly look a bit like kimchi vomit, but tastes spicy, creamy, rich and nutty all in the right measure. It’s served on the cool side of lukewarm and the noodles are a touch too soft for my liking causing first impression disappointment. I had high hopes for this dish as we’d been turned away at lunchtime the previous day when we’d arrived too late and they’d already run out of food.
I felt let down, until an enormous platter of fresh, raw vegetables is brought out. Some parts recognisable, green and winged beans, baby eggplant, cucumber, green peppercorns and herbs. The leaves of the cashew tree which seem to suck all the moisture from your mouth, not yet opened flower buds and baby green fig-like fruit, purple on the inside, were all new to me and the kind of interesting flavours I crave. Also provided was a light pickle of beansprouts, cucumber, chilli, cabbage, carrot and more. A coconut milk and softened greens side dish was vegetal and comforting, while the dark liquid curry with potato was just plain delicious. Mix any of these additions into your curry as desired and the tepid sauce and soft noodles seem intentional. The firey and deep curries and the generous side dishes combine to create a wholesome and altogether outstanding meal. Though I still would prefer a bit more bite in my noodles.
I finished with a sweet taste of grass jelly in iced syrup, a refreshing dessert similar to those enjoyed in Malaysia and Laos. With that I retreat to my hotel room, with plastic bags of pre-cut mango and pineapple, to wait out the heat of the day, full and relaxed and ready for what comes next. Dinner.
This is the second post in a short series about my time in Nakhon Si Thammarat. The first, morning edition, is available here.