Away from the beaches and tourist crowds, Phuket has one of Thailand’s most fascinating old towns. Built by Fujian migrants in the early 1900’s, the culture is more closely related to the British Malays towns of Melaka and Penang than Bangkok. They also developed their own very unique strain of cuisine.

Phuket teems with fabulous food. Not only are there scores of eateries serving Thailand’s indigenous sweet, sour and spicy cuisine but a string of international chefs has recently opened restaurants there. The late Keith Floyd launched Floyd’s Brasserie in 2007 with many old English favourites on the menu. Neil Perry fashioned the Thai-influenced menu at the exquisite Trisara Resort. Belgians Corry Ringoet and Marc De Schrijver relocated their acclaimed classical French restaurant De Tafeljoncker from Antwerp to a rural village, then renamed it Royale Nam Tok. But Phuket’s most exciting culinary discoveries are found in its age-old traditions, such as Baba cuisine, a strain of Chinese cooking brought to the island during its tin-mining days.

“Phuket’s Baba food is just like that found in China’s Fujian province but with Thai flavours,” says the director of the Phuket Old Town Foundation, Dr Prasit Koysiripong, over a plate of lo ba – a selection of prawn, tofu, sausages and pig’s ears that are dipped in a tamarind chilli sauce. “It’s native only to Phuket. You can’t find it anywhere else in the world.”

I am not entirely taken by the pig’s ears but lo ba is completely different to any Thai food I’ve eaten. The tamarind packs a punch, powering each mouthful with a fruity sourness. The aftertaste mellows sweeter, then comes the distinct scent of stinky tofu, a revered snack in China that is made by soaking tofu in rotten vegetables for weeks on end. It’s a process that sounds, and smells, considerably worse than it tastes.

Koysiripong and I are on a food-crawl through Phuket’s old town. Like most of the town’s residents, Koysiripong is ethnically Chinese. They migrated here from mainland China and the straits settlements of Penang and Melaka during the mid-19th century to work in Phuket’s prosperous tin mines. Marrying local women (Chinese women were not allowed passage to Thailand until the 1920s), they set about building a rich and storied community. Locally they became known as the “Baba” people, the male component of “Baba-Nyonya”, which was a term used to describe ethnic Chinese living in British Malaya.

Our next stop is Wilai, a local restaurant on Thalang Road, the commercial heart of Phuket during the island’s halcyon days of the mid 1800s to early 1900s. Wilai isn’t the classiest diner in town- with plastic furniture and a noisy open-air kitchen alive with nose-tickling aromas of fried chilli- but it’s one of the most popular. It is also, I’m told, the best place in Phuket to try Baba food.

I had passed by Wilai at breakfast time. At 8am it was brimming with Baba people feasting on bao tse, soft bread buns filled with sweetened pork mince; khanom jin, Chinese noodles mixed with handfuls of fresh herbs and doused in a sour and hot southern curry; and jok, Phuket’s version of rice porridge.

For lunch, we order yehu engchay, a plate of lightly boiled vegetables and squid rings served with a fermented soya bean sauce that’s far too intense for my foreign palate, followed by a breathtaking yellow curry with silken tofu called tawchaew-lon, and char guay tiou, a spicier and less sweet version of pad thai, which has been tossed with fresh molluscs. The chef tells me all are cooked in traditional Fujian style but with Thai flavours – shrimp paste, turmeric, chilliand lemongrass.

In Baba food I find many similarities to the Chinese food of Penang, a Malaysian island near the border with Thailand. Dr Koysiripong says a century ago it was easier for Phuket people to travel to Penang rather than take several days to negotiate the mountains and thick jungle to reach Bangkok. Phuket and Penang grew up as sister cities and retain many of the same customs, food and architecture.

A small patchwork of streets lined by Sino-Portuguese shopfronts, colonial-era mansions and ornate Taoist temples, some dating back hundreds of years, Phuket’s old town is a far cry from the hedonism of nearby Patong Beach, the island’s rambunctious – and most popular – stretch of sand. Although the old town is quiet, genteel and oozing with character, it’s estimated that fewer than 3 per cent of visitors to Phuket slide off their deckchairs to visit.

Koysiripong, a former mayor of Phuket, hopes to reinvent the old town. “There is a lot of potential to make Phuket town’s old quarters into a heritage centre,” he says as we tuck into our last course, ang gou, a soya bean desert shaped like a turtle (symbolising long life), which we find in a rustic streetside bakery.

A string of tourism-related ventures has already opened, including Chinpracha House museum, a Portuguese mansion with an impressive collection of Penang-style mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture on Krabi Road.

More recently opened is the Philatelic Museum in the 1830s post office and the Peranakan Museum, which showcases the culture and history of the Baba-Nyonya people. A host of cafes and shops has also opened in old Sino-Portuguese shopfronts, including cafe and antique gallery China Inn Cafe, tapas bar Siam Indigo, fine-art gallery Soul of Asia and Classic Barn, which features furniture made from Thai timbers and fabrics.

Local company Art & Culture (www.artandcultureasia.com) lists most of those sites on its free map (pick one up from your hotel or outside the company’s office at 16 Soi Romanee). The best way to explore Phuket old town is on foot. If anything, you can walk up an appetite for lunch.

Staying There

Sino House this Chinese-chic style hotel and spa in Phuket town is great value. Each of the 57 rooms has an oversized Oriental-inspired mural above the bed and free Wi-Fi.
1 Montree Road, +66 76232494; www.sinohousephuket.com; doubles from Bt1600 ($53), which includes breakfast.

This article appeared in a January 2010 issue of the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age’s Traveller.