Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern: Phuket, Thailand

When I found out that Phuket, Thailand was the setting for the kick off episode of the new season of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern on the Travel Channel, I flashed to images of tourist filled beaches where jet skiing and para-sailing are high on the list of things to do.

Not if you’re Andrew Zimmern who’ll eat anything with great gusto, and who has a penchant for heading off to places not highly traveled by throngs of the beach crowd.

“Bugs, bugs and more bugs.” “Squid, the new seafood jerky.” “Cashew nuts.” “Secret sauce.” “Unbelievably disgusting. I love this stuff,” and “Thailand is hard to pass up,” were within the string of descriptors in the show’s beginning, and Zimmern delivered.

Although Zimmern gave a nod to Phuket’s tourism–1,000,000 or so people come here every year infusing needed moola into the island’s economy, he headed off the beach junket into Phuket City for some market style eats.

As Zimmern explained, Phuket is the pearl of the Andaman Sea where Phuket City is a vibrant town, “devoted to a range of spiritual groups,” where “life is embraced at all levels.”

First stop: The fair at Wat Chalong during the Chinese New Year celebration.

First eat: fried grasshoppers with chilies and salt. “You can eat a bowl of these for the big game on Sunday,” says Zimmern.

At the market, Ko Liang, a tour guide headed Zimmern towards a bowl of noodle soup with ingredients like pork liver, intestines and stomach. “That tastes really clean. All tripe soup should be this good,” Zimmern said and explained how Thai cooking is a variation flavors that combines bitter, sweet, sour and hot.

“There’s nothing like a bowl of hot spicy soup on a 100 degree day. We have thin noodles, fat noodles, little bits of liver and heart. Wow, this is good. This is light,” he added.

My favorite part of Zimmern’s episodes is watching the background around him and his interactions with people since those details transport me back to my own travels. Watching women wash whatever they’re going to cook in a plastic strainer looks familiar. I’m reminded of plastic strainers in stacks for sale at a market and can hear the swishing sounds of water.

Other fair eats were salted fish, dried squid pressed into flat strips similar to jerky and a dessert made from rice flour, rice, coconut milk, melted brown sugar and flaked coconut that sounded yummy. I like the chewiness of those rice ball things, though. Zimmern pronounced all of these ready to eat snacks, “Fantastic.”

Because “you won’t find the best restaurant in touristy area of Phuket, ” says Zimmern, he headed to a small town near Bang Sak, where a mom and pop style thatched roof shack-like place serves up a menu of 100 dishes. Food choices range ran from sting ray to wasps to mackerel and other seafood like shrimp. One hit was the spicy stuffed mackerel which I would have devoured myself.

Not such a big hit was the yellow wasp larvae snack food. “Never ate it before. Oooh, those are mealy–soft–spongy, not a lot of flavor–texture of play dough. Not my favorite in the world,” said Zimmern as he sampled it.

The sting ray, though, was a hit. “Chewier than I thought. Drier than I thought. Got a kick like a mule. Meat is firm. That sauce is killer though,” he said lip-smacking it down.

One interesting part of this segment was the harvesting of sea cicadas. Zimmern happened on a few fishermen catching these small crab-like critters in nets. He stayed through the process of cooking them. One option is to fry them in garlic or in a tempura like batter. Zimmern called them the “popcorn shrimp of the Phuket beach scene.”

If you’ve ever wondered how cashew nuts are harvested and prepared, this episode was one to watch. Phuket has the Methee Cashew Nut Factory. Here’s Zimmern’s camera team filmed the whole arduous process of cashew production–time consuming. In the store, Zimmern tasted a few of the varieties. Turns out, there’s a lot more you can do with cashews then just put them in a jar by themselves or mix them up with other nuts.

There’s even a flavor that uses the same spices as Tum Yum soup. The best cashew seller is the one coated with sesame seeds, sugar and salt. From the Web site it looks like you can order them and have them shipped.

Although you can get the cashews where you are, in general, Zimmern said that you’ll have to head to Thailand for the juice made from the cashew apple. Because the fruit bruises easily, and the juice is highly perishable the tendency is not to export these products. The juice is also fermented into wine, he says. According to him, the juice tastes similar to apple juice mixed with ginger ale–a little sour and sweet.

Because the tsunami devastated much of Phuket, Zimmern talked about it as well a couple times throughout the episode and detailed what has happened since then. In many places, it’s hard to tell there was ever a tsunami, but in other locations, the effects still remain. One interesting result is the people who have moved into the beach area from other regions of the island in order to help the recovery process. Their food is different. To illustrate how different, Zimmern went on a red weaver ant hunt, followed by a lizard hunt.

Hunting red weaver ants involves covering oneself in talcum powder. The powder acts as a repellent against these mean, mean insects, explained Zimmern as he smacked and swatted the ants off him. One place the ant larvae was found was in an abandoned resort hotel.

They were then cooked in a stir fry with fresh green onion, chilies, lime juice. Zimmern said they tasted a like little pudding jelly beans. A whistle technique is used to coax lizards. One way to cook them is into a coconut milk curry.

Pointing out that fishing is one of the island’s largest economy, Zimmern headed to Phang-Nga Bay, made up mostly of Muslim immigrants. Here there were shots of “beautiful, beautiful shrimp” and pulling crabs from nets–a process that can take hours.

At what Zimmern called, (I think) Mrs. Ma’s Kitchen, a simple traditional, non-touristy beach eatery–basically an open air thatched roof hut with a few private tables in their own huts, Zimmern relished the crab stomach curry and waxed poetic about all the various curries to be found. “I like food with big flavors,” he said.

One interesting item Mrs. Ma prepared for him was a sea welt (?) that looked like a huge snail. It can be sliced and eaten plain or also cooked into a curry.

An aspect of Phuket Zimmern mentioned more than once was people’s tendency there to smile big. I’ve also found that true of other places in Thailand I’ve been. I appreciated this episode because from all I’ve heard about Phuket, it’s a tourist hot spot. Good to know that simple authenticity is a-plenty.

One last thing, Zimmern also paid tribute to the Tsunami Recovery Center in Bang Sak. When he went ant hunting an American volunteer with the recovery went along with him.

Regardless of how much the island seems like it’s recovered, there is still work to be done and people who are struggling. The photo is from the Tsunami Volunteer Center’s Web site for anyone who is interested in the latest recovery news. I’m not sure if this is the place to which Zimmern was referring, but it’s the one I found.

(* photos of Zimmern and food from Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern web site)

Next week, Zimmern heads to Sicily for another new episode.