Chinese tourists are the largest single market of inbound tourists in Thailand and Thailand is the number one destination for outbound Chinese tourists. While many come for the sand, sea and sun, more and more are looking to experience Thai culture and cuisine.
By Duncan Gordon
Koh Samui, Thailand’s third largest island, is renowned for its beautiful beaches and tropical rainforest, while the world class Ang Thong National Marine Park is only a stone’s throw away. Tourists from all over the world flock here year round for some rest and relaxation. As well as the fantastic environment, many come to sample Thailand’s world renowned cuisine. Ying’s Thai Cooking Home gives visitors the chance to discover real Thai cooking first hand.
A cookery class with Ying is a full-on experience which lasts most of the day. We were picked up by Ying’s husband Daniel, who was on his day off work as a diving instructor, and crossed the lush rainforest and steep hills of the island’s interior in the family SUV. Daniel also explains that tourism is still growing in Samui, each year more hotels are built, often to cater to the increasing number of Chinese tourists who visit the island.
First stop is the local market to buy the day’s ingredients. Every type of vegetable and seafood imaginable are displayed on overflowing wooden tables. Ying stops to chat and share a joke with several stall holders as we stroll down the aisles. It is not just because of her work that she’s well known here:
“My mother used to work here and my grandmother before her,” Ying explains. “They used to sell khanom jeen, a dish of fermented rice noodles served with curry and lots of herbs, vegetables and leaves. It is very popular in southern Thailand.”
Many of the stall holders busy fileting fish are women wearing headscarves. There is a large Muslim community in the area, centered on the fishing industry. Fish are caught by the community’s boats, loaded onto the back of motorbikes, and driven to market.
Ying says that the market has changed a lot in recent years. In the past, merchants and customers used to trade under the beating tropical sun. Now it is more comfortable for everyone as they can barter in the shade provided by an aluminium roof over their heads. It is not just local people who do their daily shopping here though.
“Many people have come over from the mainland to work in tourism. Everybody here used to be from Samui but now it is only maybe 40%,” Ying explains. Several foreigners peruse the market stalls as well as the mainlanders and islanders.
Eager to throw the ingredients together and get cooking, we headed to Ying’s beautiful home. While we were shopping, Ying’s parents, her father Sit and her mother Un, had been busy preparing some of the staple ingredients. They gave us a warm welcome while we sat down in the shade and drank from the coconuts grown in the garden. The family cultivates many ingredients typical of Thai cuisine. During our visit, some plants were still recovering from the severe floods that had left much of southern Thailand inundated.
We picked fresh coriander, Thai basil, and butterfly pea flower to add to our dishes. Ying tells us about the many uses of this particular flower. It is believed to be good for one’s hair and eyes. It can also be used to make dye, food colouring and tea. Pointing to a coconut tree, Ying says, “If you want to know how old the tree is, count the rings. Every twelve or thirteen rings is one year.” Our host is full of interesting facts about the plants growing in her garden. The day becomes a lesson in botany as well as cooking.
The first course of Banana Flower Salad got us off to a flying start. We peeled and carefully sliced the thick petals of the banana flowers that we had bought and added coconut powder, the white flesh of the fruit freshly scraped from the coconuts by Ying’s father. Together with nuts, chillies and herbs, our banana leaf creations looked and tasted fantastic: an intense balance of sweet and sour, soft and crunchy.
If the first course was good, the next two were sublime. Stir-fried garlic and butter and sweet and sour king prawns followed by yellow curry barracuda and deep-fried Indian mackerel with tamarind sauce. The flavours were stunning and unbeatably fresh. We felt like we had become master chefs after eating the gorgeous dishes but the truth is Ying uses her expertise to make sure everything goes to plan.
After a delicious dessert of bananas fried in coconut powder, we sat back and relaxed in the shade of Ying’s living room, full and content. The day was a wholly enriching experience; having fun with an excellent host and learning a little more about Thai cooking and culture. We drove back across the rugged, lush hills of the island as the sun began to set on Samui.