Samui Wining & Dining
New Beginnings

It’s winter back home, but here, spring is in the air!

It’s winter back home, but here, spring is in the air!You might need those coats and hats when you get on the plane, but you certainly won’t be wearing them when you land! This is the time of year, for us anyway, when the rainy season has also turned the corner, and now we’re heading into calmer, milder weather. The sun is peeping out and the temperature is rising, but it’s still fresh and pleasant.

And this lends itself perfectly to strolling around, seeing the sights. Probably one of the most impressive of these is the number of restaurants that now abound. And there’s truly something for everyone, from fascinating food markets, to little street stalls, right through to cuisines of most nations and 5-star dining.

If it’s your first time here then you’ll take a while to adjust. Those solid midday meals are out; it’s just too warm for them. So you’ll no doubt find yourself doing what the Thais do – eating a good breakfast, and then nibbling a little at different times of the day; a salad or a sandwich or a pizza.

But then, the whole idea of dining is different here, too. Back home a ‘restaurant’ is a series of closed rooms indoors. But here most restaurants aren’t rooms at all. The standard style is to have a roofed-over space, usually open on three sides, with a wall at the rear for the kitchen. And always, everywhere you go, there are terraces outside, under the stars. What a great start to the New Year!

Eclectic Eats

Palm Grove at Centara Grand Beach Resort Samui offers affordable theme nights in a wonderful colonial setting.

Palm Grove at Centara Grand Beach Resort Samui offers affordable theme nights in a wonderful colonial setting.The story of Chaweng is a zippy one. Buildings go up, get refurbished, pulled down and built up all over again. The architectural giddiness and neon brightness of it all wows some, and bemuses others. However, there’s another aside to the story. A few places that are so completely, utterly different that they hardly seem to belong in the same town. Centara Grand is definitely number one in this category. Built 21 years ago, the resort is like stepping back in time. You might think you were in some stage set for a colonial film – except that everything is real here. Set back from the beach road in Chaweng, its location is ideal, but more than that, it’s a kind of iconic sanctuary in the bright heart of the town. The atrium is exactly what you’d expect of some grand old hotel, complete with a sweeping staircase, tall columns and the type of plush armchairs that look as if Somerset Maugham or perhaps Graham Greene chose them to pen a novel from. Take the stairs down to the impressive gardens and you'll come to Palm Grove, one of Samui’s longest-established restaurants.

Given the grandeur of the resort, the first surprise here is that the prices are all reasonable, and seem to be more in keeping with a much humbler restaurant. Palm Grove consists of a sumptuous dining room and an internal patio that seamlessly leads out into the main gardens, which in turn lead down to the sea. The setting is definitely sophisticated, and is in the hands of a very adept chef, Sandro Aguilera. He hails from Barcelona, and is a maestro when it comes to cooking anything and everything that’s even vaguely Mediterranean. The style of the food at Palm Grove channels much of that vast region, with its accent on freshness in seafood and meats, as well as fruits and vegetables. Wines have been imported from around the world, and perfectly complement Sandro’s à la carte menu, which is available daily.

Thai Recipe

Thai Style Barbecue Chicken - Gai Yang

Thai Style Barbecue Chicken - Gai YangBarbecued chicken is definitely a winner, especially if you're in a hot climate. Your guests’ enthusiasm may wane though if you're attempting to make this during a hard-hitting winter – the tastes of this barbecue are all light and summery, and are ideal for a dinner in a garden or on a balcony.

- 4 pieces chicken
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped
- 1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
- 1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves
- 1½ tbsp lime juice
Method :

First keep in mind that for the sauce, you may need to do some testing as you add ingredients – you may want to adjust according to your tastes. (It goes without saying that you shouldn’t taste anything once it’s been in contact with raw chicken.) Combine the garlic, ginger, coriander and lime juice in a big bowl then add the chicken and mix well. Cover and place in the fridge for at least a couple of hours or better still, overnight.

Next, prepare the barbecue. Grilling the chicken can be done over gas and this will work just fine, but the best way is to do what Thais have traditionally done for centuries, use a bed of red hot charcoal as this will add extra flavour to the chicken. Even if the dish is a cinch to make, you may need to get quite a bit of experience first when using Thai-style barbecues, especially if they're the very small type favoured by food vendors. You need the barbecue to be hot but not so much that the chicken burns. You may need to tone down the heat so that the coals don’t scorch the chicken. How do you do that? Simply use some leftover ashes from your last barbecue!

Italian Star

High over the sea Dr Frogs Bar & Grill offers all-day dining that's every bit as awesome as the view.

High over the sea Dr Frogs Bar & Grill offers all-day dining that's every bit as awesome as the view.Located right next to the foremost view point on the island, Dr Frogs wows with its beautiful views. Straight off, as soon as you walk in through the door, you'll see a vast stretch of ocean. And if you go to the balcony, the entire stretch of coast up as far as the northern tip of Chaweng. The setting is a delight in itself, and enough on its own to guarantee the restaurant success. However, the team that runs it are dedicated to providing quality dishes, and it’s their dedication, over the years, that’s provided the deep-down success that Dr Frogs Bar & Grill enjoys.

First off, the restaurant opens at 7:00 am and provides one of the island’s most sumptuous breakfasts. A whole range awaits, with everything you could desire, from eggs any style to salmon. Then from 11:00 am until 11:00 pm, or later, depending on the number of guests, Dr Frogs serves its very eclectic all-day menu. Browse at length – there’s a lot here, and you'll easily be able to find at least a half-dozen items that take your fancy. It’s like being in a well-stocked restaurant in Italy; nothing is missing and food is all fresh, whether vegetables, meats or seafood. Italian staples are shipped in, but wherever possible everything’s made from scratch. You'll find a full range of pizza and home-made pasta with mouth-watering toppings. Try, for example, gnocchi with gorgonzola, walnuts and cream.

Then there’s the popular selection of risottos, including the highly-recommended porcini, which has sautéed porcini mushrooms in white wine. For mains, try a hearty filet steak and jumbo tiger prawns, accompanied by French fries, mashed or sautéed potatoes.

Catch of the Day

Shelling out on cockles.

Shelling out on cockles.Accept no substitute. There are a lot of imitators about! For a start, there are Venus clams and ark clams, not to mention the Japanese little neck clams. All of these are quite often sold as ‘cockles’. They’re all about the same size, and the only difference is in the shell markings and the colouring. For that matter, even the sought-after and costly scallops look very much the same, although they tend to be larger.

But when it comes to brothers and sisters, you can line them all up: the smooth-shelled egg cockle, the blood cockle, basket cockles, rock cockles, hard shell cockles, even the inedible dog cockle – and these are just the common ones. Altogether, there are 200 close members of saltwater clams officially known as the Cardiidea family, but more generally referred to overall as ‘cockles’. In fact, there are so many shellfish like this, that the most common in the Cardiidae family are called ‘true cockles’ by fishmongers and fishermen, just to distinguish them from the others.

Actually, these ‘true cockles’ are the Jumping Jack Flashes of the mollusc world. Many shellfish put down roots and hang about in the same place for months on end, just waiting to be eaten. Others crawl languorously, like stoned snails, from one rock to the next. But true cockles have really big feet – well, one of them, anyway. And when they decide that it’s time for a change of scene, it’s a question of bending this foot underneath and suddenly twanging it, thus popping the cockle out from under the surface of the seabed, and jumping to a new place several inches away. Happily, they don’t do this when they’re on your plate – although it might be fun if they did.

Bountiful Burma

As tasty as it is unique, Burmese food awaits your discovery.

 As tasty as it is unique, Burmese food awaits your discovery.Cuisine that’s made to make the heart sing, Burmese food has been off the map for too long, but all that is undergoing a massive change as the country opens up ever more. It may be a few years away, but we can expect to see a slow, steady burgeoning of Burmese restaurants as word of the nation’s cuisine goes global.

Newcomers to Burmese food tend to imagine it resembles all the popular clichés of Thai cuisine: a repertoire of curries, with plenty of coconut on board and of course, above all, spiciness. The secrets of Burmese food may be legion, but one thing’s for sure: it’s not a variation on Thai food at all. The two are very different.

Classic Burmese cooking has evolved into a plethora of dishes that aren’t to be found anywhere else. There are rich, savoury and salty flavours, plenty of ingredients that are unique to the country, and influences from its neighbours in South-East Asia and China. In just a single meal there’s a lot to discover.

The best way to experience Burmese food is to sample it home-cooked, and eat along with a family – they’ll be able to explain what everything is and how it’s made. Or how about a tea shop? They don't just sell tea, and you're likely to find an amazing variety of dishes to try, depending on where the proprietor comes from. You may be offered a traditional ‘htamin thoke’, a type of rice salad, while an Indian or Muslim-owned place may sell ‘poori’ or deep-fried bread served with a potato curry or naan-style baked breads. Other tea shops are more Chinese-style and serve steamed buns and dim sum-like items.

Seek and Enjoy!

The Siam Residence in Lipa Noi is another of those hidden gems we all want to find!

The Siam Residence in Lipa Noi is another of those hidden gems we all want to find!The Siam Residence is no newcomer to the Samui scene. For those in the know, it’s become one of those special little places to drop into now and again. It’s boutique and family-owned – secluded and elegant, with acres of scrubbed white sand. The luxurious accommodation is on a par with the top hotels. There’s a super restaurant under the stars. And you’ll find it tucked quietly away, just south of Nathon on the fringe of Lipa Noi.

It’s difficulty to pick out just one reason that The Siam Residence is special. In part, it’s the location: this is what beaches on Samui used to be like. Scrupulously clean, with not a trace of litter or even debris cast up by the tide. Deserted and private. There’s not a jet ski or a row of beach umbrellas anywhere. And none of the wandering vendors or time-share people who congregate elsewhere.

But then there’s the way it’s managed and run. It’s a blend of Austrian ownership and Swiss management. Everything here is just perfect – in fact it brings to mind the sort of pristine care that you’ll see in a Swiss garden or an alpine town. The lawns are carefully manicured and edged by neat and brilliant floral borders. The glowing golden-toned paths are spotless. And the cottages themselves are picture-postcard perfect.

The restaurant here is simply titled ‘Grandma’s Kitchen’. But it comes as a bit of a surprise when you see the building for the first time: it’s actually two inter-connected glass octagons. (And this motif is repeated in the seafront massage room.). There are lawns all around, and often in the evenings, you’ll also find that there are tables out on the grass, under the stars and overlooking the adjacent beach.

Koh Convenience

Born in America, convenience stores play a big part in modern Thai life.

 Born in America, convenience stores play a big part in modern Thai life.Next time you're in one of Samui’s many convenience stores after midnight, you'll probably be appreciative that such stores open so late. If you're at all gemmed up on convenience store history (not many people are) you'll know that the 24/7 operating hours all date back to a ball game that took place in 1963, in Austin, Texas; a match held late in the day meant that the local 7-Eleven (the stores were named after their daily working hours) kept open way beyond its usual closing time. Business boomed that night, and the store managers looked in amazement at the takings. From then on it was clear: the store could and should stay open a lot longer– and so the 24 hour convenience store was born.

The idea of a never-closing store caught on in many countries, and especially Thailand, which ranks as number three in the world when it comes to having the most 7-Elevens. It’s only overtaken by the USA, in first position, and Japan, in second.

The other store of this kind in Thailand is Family Mart. Neither of them looks even remotely Thai, but they’re so ingrained now in the culture that without them Thailand wouldn’t be the place that it is today. Usurpers or part of the landscape? Many holidaymakers coming to tourist centres like Samui, Phuket or Krabi presume that the stores are there for westerners. Nothing could be further from the truth. Go into any of them and you’ll find that it’s mostly Thai people who are shopping. The stores are one more example of how Thailand is inspired by what’s happening in the outside world, and then begins to assimilate it until finally it becomes a Thai institution in itself. Today there can be very few Thais who haven’t been to a 7-Eleven or Family Mart.

Totally Tomatoes!

Marzano Pizzeria specialises in food fit for a queen.

Marzano Pizzeria specialises in food fit for a queen.Originally a food for the poor of Italy, the Neapolitans gave pizza some much-required pizzazz. The results so impressed Queen Margherita, that she endorsed the dish that now bears her name. Legend has it that Marzano tomatoes originate from the small town of San Marzano Sul Sarno, near Naples, Italy. They started growing here in the lush volcanic soil beneath Mount Vesuvius, after a gift of seeds from the Viceroyalty of Peru. The true recipe requires these tomatoes, along with mozzarella cheese and fresh basil.

Marzano Pizzeria is found right on the beach, in the heart of Chaweng, at Malibu Koh Samui Resort & Beach Club, and is named after these famed tomatoes, which it incorporates in many dishes. Here they make the traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas, with lots of attention to the dough, making it thin, light and crispy. And they only use the freshest ingredients and toppings; Marzano tomatoes, of course, amazing handmade cheeses, the choicest meats and seafood and freshest herbs and spices. All baked to perfection, in an old-fashioned wood-fired pizza oven that heats up to 400 degrees Celsius, giving the perfect pizza in only five minutes!

The most popular pizzas are the Margarita, and the Diavola. The Diavola has spicy salami, Parmesan, rocket and chilli oil in addition to the Marzano tomato sauce and mozzarella. If you love your cheese, try the Baci Quattro Fromaggi (Four Cheese Pizza), rolled with green apples, gorgonzola, parmesan, mozzarella, taleggio, rocket and balsamic vinegar. Simply divine!

Landmark Cuisine

At Nora Buri Resort & Spa, an architectural masterpiece houses top-notch Thai and international restaurants.

 At Nora Buri Resort & Spa, an architectural masterpiece houses top-notch Thai and international restaurants.Leaving your mark on a landscape calls for confidence – something that Nora Buri Resort & Spa, part of the completely independent Nora hotel group, have plenty of. They designed an award-winning building that houses both the resort’s magnificent restaurants. Approach from the beach, and you can’t help but notice how it looks a little like one of the rice barges, famed for plying the River Chao Phraya in Bangkok. The building’s riverine gracefulness ensures that it’s eye-catching, and completely different from anything you may have seen before. But what really makes it stand out is the deliciousness of the food, both the Thai menu served at Rice Barge & Terrace and the international menu at The Barge Restaurant.

Let’s take a look at each in turn. For Thai, at Rice Barge & Terrace, a musician sets the scene every evening by playing traditional melodies on a kim, a traditional wooden xylophone, popular in Thailand. Sit at a table, relax on triangular cushions or take your place on a patio with views over the sea. The Thai dishes come from all over the country, and most are well-known; all your favourites in other words. However, some are relatively new takes, for example, salmon with a deliciously creamy curry sauce. If you're new to Thai cuisine and not sure what you might like, then choose a Thai set meal. The selections are exquisite, with everything beautifully presented.

If you're more interested in international food, head downstairs to The Barge Restaurant, where you can enjoy a whole gamut of favourites, with many dishes being influenced by Mediterranean cuisine. There’s a big accent on seafood thanks to the island’s local fishing fleets which always bring back an excellent catch. Meats are plentiful too, and whether it’s a prime steak you're hankering after or some lamb, you'll find it here. Popular vegetarian dishes are also to hand, too, making it easy to find something delectable, no matter what your tastes.

Princess of the River

A look at one of Chaweng’s more stylish resorts, Sareeraya – and the excellent dining at their ‘Chef’s Table’.

A look at one of Chaweng’s more stylish resorts, Sareeraya – and the excellent dining at their ‘Chef’s Table’.Sareeraya Villas & Suites is one of Samui’s more interesting resorts. It appeared at a time when there was a fashion for minimalism – places were trying hard to make bare concrete and large empty spaces some kind of new trend. But what others did with no imagination, Sareeraya surpassed with a cool, clear essay in harmonious contrasts. There’s the continual interplay between rough and smooth, light and dark. And the harmonies of complementary natural and man-made items: wood, metal, stone and fabric. And everywhere the sight and sound of running water.

The name ‘Sareeraya’ means ‘Princess of the River’. And as you might have already gathered, water is a motif which permeates this resort. And that includes the understated frontage, too. It’s a large and imposing place, but you’ll get little inkling of this from the main beach road outside. But if you slow-down and look around when you get to the Samui International Hospital in North Chaweng, you can’t help but see the high, grey wall of Sareeraya directly opposite.

There’s something of a surprise as you come in towards reception; the crafted-architecture of cool space is delightful. I’m not going to be distracted by enthusing about the sheer opulence of the luxurious 49 five-star suites and pool villas here, but if you gaze around you’ll notice some of them discreetly tucked away as you make your way through towards Chef’s Table and the beach.

Betel Times Ahead?

Betel nut may seem like an obscure drug, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Betel nut may seem like an obscure drug, but nothing could be further from the truth.Taiwan. Early evening. Neon signs on a glass-fronted store, men stopping their cars outside while scantily-clad women inside prepare small packages. The same scene is repeated all over the country. What’s happening? Customers are stocking up on one of the world’s most popular drugs - betel nut. Six hundred million people use it, mostly by chewing until the drug gets into the blood stream. A cultural tradition in some countries, but a scourge in all of them, betel nut is a problem affecting huge swathes of the globe. From school children in Papua New Guinea, already hooked by the age of six, to construction workers in Dubai, trying to stay awake, to farmers in Bangladesh facing a long slog in the fields, the chewing of betel nut affects the populations of many countries. And it has done for many generations. Evidence from archaeological sites suggests that betel chewing is at least 4,000 years old.

It was in the 1500s that Dutch and Portuguese sailors first loaded the holds of their ships with betel and its paraphernalia, and brought it to Europe. It never really caught on there – thankfully, as we will soon see – though today you can still find it lurking in the dusty reaches of Asian supermarkets here and there. What most people know about betel is that it’s chewed, has some kind of drug-like effect and turns the mouth and teeth a bright red.

The term ‘betel’ usually refers to two components. The first is areca nut, which over time hardens to the point where it can only be cut using a special tool. It is commercially sold in various forms, but when it comes to chewing, just a few slices are wrapped in the second component, a betel leaf, often along with slaked lime. The combination of nut and leaf together becomes a psychoactive drug and is mostly referred to as ‘betel nut’. One thing’s for sure: if the combination of areca nut and betel leaf wasn’t a drug, few people would bother with it, due to its rather astringent taste. It’s very unlikely that any chef, no matter how inventive, is going to pen a tome along the lines of ‘Favourite Betel Nut Recipes’. It’s really only chewed for its stimulant properties.

The wine page

Do You Know The Lingo?

Do You Know The Lingo?Wine is an absorbing subject to write about, because it’s both easy and difficult at the same time. The often-bizarre descriptive language used in columns and books, is known as ‘winespeak.’ It is a lingo, or jargon, common among professionals, and people involved in the wine business. And like so many other trades and businesses, wine certainly has its own lingo.

I can admit to being guilty of over using winespeak myself, partly because it’s a way wine enthusiasts spot each other. But these days, I have come to realise that regular consumers of wine often read wine columnists and scour wine reviews looking for simple guidance. And they may well wonder which guides to trust. After all, what do the adjectives and nouns really mean? These are important questions for a wine buff. The conscientious writer tries to convey the experience you will have if you drink the wine. And this requires some objective details on flavour (the tricky bit). But what most people undoubtedly really want to know is, will they like it?

Flavour, especially when it comes to wine, is made up of two components, its aroma and its taste. The sceptic about the importance of wine aroma should try drinking a glass while holding his or her nose. Certainly, part of the pleasure of drinking wine is catching the differences between what a wine smells like and how it tastes. For many, the nose is almost more interesting, because layers of smell are sometimes more complex, and easier to discern than layers of taste. I met a professional wine taster who told me that when push came to shove on finally deciding which bottle to award the points to, he uses only his nose to judge a wine's true characteristics. Indeed, the aroma has produced some arresting characterizations of individual types of wine. Well-known, but usually prissy, wine writer, Jancis Robinson surprised everyone with one such statement, “Wines made from the Sauvignon Blanc grape, whether a Sancerre from the Loire or the popular wines from New Zealand, have the aroma of cat’s pee on a gooseberry bush.” The scent of gooseberries, yes, hints of nettles, elderflowers, and grass, absolutely. But cat’s pee? That is more difficult. What if you do not own a cat? Would you recognize this particular scent? And even more to the point, would this description necessarily encourage you to buy it?


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