One of the frustrations I have with Thai food is not knowing what I am looking at. A second frustration is looking at menu items, even if they are in English, and not knowing what is in the dish. The result, often, is if I find something I like, I will defer to that choice too often, not experimenting with menu items that are not familiar.
So, when an invitation was posted on one of the Hua Hin Facebook pages seeking volunteers to test a new food tour service in Hua Hin, I jumped at the chance. My surprise was that there was not a waiting line for the free tour. Perhaps posting on Facebook was not the best way to get the word out.
To those who didn’t sign up – you missed a great tour!
The tour is conducted by Feast Thailand Food Tours, a Thai-owned company operated by Wine & Food (Thailand) Co.
Leigh (general manager) and Shane O’Sullivan run the operation from a small office off Soi 74 and next to the Tanawit Hotel. Leigh’s past experience is in retail, particularly fashion and general merchandise, as well as new business development. Shane is a former musician and singer. Both are from Australia and have visited Thailand for many years before finally making the move to Hua Hin this past summer.
An always-smiling and energetic Kate served as the tour’s guide, but this day it was mostly Shane running the show. Leigh followed us around on a motorcycle, and another young lady, always smiling, stood silently nearby on the entire 3 1/2-hour tour to provide whatever support we needed.
I was joined on the tour by the effervescent Lynn, an inveterate traveler herself, and full of interesting stories about Hua Hin and her other travels. We compared notes a lot on our bumpy songthaew rides from one off-the-wall location to another.
Shane can best be described as a foodie, finely attuned to different tastes and subtleties of the food we were experiencing. His knowledge of Thai foods is impressive.
As the Feast Thailand website explains, this tour is about showcasing local food locations where local Thais love to eat. They take you off the beaten track to try Thai food in humble surroundings.
Shane explained that they rode around Hua Hin on motorcycles searching for restaurants and food stalls to include in the Eat Like a Local tour. They searched for venues with a high standard of food hygiene, family-run, used their family recipes, and offer 5-star flavors and appearance.
They are firm believers, as I am, that “Locals always know where to find the best food in town.” Look for a place with a steady stream of local customers and you know you have found good food.
Feast Thailand currently offers three different tours, with a fourth in the works. The existing tours, besides the Eat Local are the “Morning Market Tour” (1,350 baht/person) and the Chilli Lovers Tour (1,250 baht/person).” The Eat Like a Local tour is tentatively priced at 1,150 baht/person. In the planning stages is a “Four Corners of Thailand” tour, which will apparently be a bit more upscale than the Eat Local tour. The company also offers private and corporate tours.
It was a nice sunny, breezy day and we were ready to sample what Thailand has to offer. We would eventually try dishes at seven restaurants, plus two stops for treats at street stalls.
The Eat Like a Local tour certainly is not going to impress you with the upscale nature of the venues. Quite the contrary, several times we felt like we were eating in people’s homes. In fact, we were. One dining area had its walls covered in King Rama IX photos – the owner is a huge fan – plus sundry personal items such as hanging clothes. And we did not encounter a single farang at any of the restaurants. We usually were sitting on what I can only describe as foot stools, or wooden benches. But the food everywhere we went was always well presented.
We started at Dtai Tung, a hole-in-the-wall, 2-story Thai house with 3 generations working. It is located on a side street in a residential area that I’m sure I could never find again. The prices on the menu were the lowest I’ve seen anywhere, although it was all written in Thai, a recurring theme on our excursion.
Here, we tasted fresh-made pork noodle soup (Guay Tiaw Moo – pork soup with rice noodles). This is one of my favorite Thai dishes but I do prefer it with the knuckle-bone meat.
Next was Baan Rak Gui Chai, a business that needs to be written about. Here, there was no restaurant – it was being built. But in the back, past many dogs rescued from the streets, was a small kitchen where four or five people had been working since midnight on orders for their fried chive cakes (kanom gui chai). It was after 11 am when we arrived.
The amazing part is that a local girl and sister started selling the small cakes from the front of their family home. The cakes were so much in demand, however, that they started making them for wholesale sales. Business is so good they are building a 2-story restaurant and kitchen.
The tour called for us learning a little about the cooking, but their staff was far too busy for us. We did get some samples.
A short ride later found us at Sweet Treats, a street vendor selling fried banana (Gluay Thaawt), sweet sticky rice in bamboo (khao lam), and fried sweet potato. The khao lam is something I’ve seen at food fairs and was reluctant to try. Never again! Sticky rice is combined with sugar, black beans, and coconut cream and then stuffed into cylinders of hollow bamboo. The cylinders are then placed over a coal fire for an hour.
You crack open the bamboo – with a hammer if you have one, or maybe just on the street if you don’t – and inside is a delicious, eat-with-your-fingers treat. And the fried banana was also delicious.
Our next stop was at Ple SomTam for a taste of Isaan food, which you can find all over Hua Hin. Here we sampled spicy pork spare rib soup (Tom Saep), and sun-dried pork, Moo Daed Diaw, served with a Nam Jim Jaew dipper. It is basically pork marinated and left to dry covered in the sun. It is then deep fried.
Now, I have to say at this point that my taste buds had been almost neutralized by the spices we had tried already. I can tolerate some chili but much of the Thai cuisine is based on chili spices. To this point, I had already experienced teary eyes from the chili pain in my mouth. But it was all good, and one of the techniques we learned is to alternate what we eat – from spicy to rice or something sweet. So you try something that burns your tongue to a crisp and then stuff some white rice in to quench the fire.
That was good to know, as our fifth restaurant was all about curries.
Restaurant #6 was Khao Soi Jan Phen, and northern Thailand fare. This restaurant sits opposite Klai Kangwon Palace, where the owner moved one year ago to be nearer to the now deceased king.
On the menu here was coconut curry noodle soup with chicken (khao soi – a Burmese-influenced dish served widely in northern Laos and northern Thailand), northern Thai pork curry (gaeng hang lay), Chiang Mai sausage (sai ua).
Our final venue was a quiet little place off Canal Road called Krua Araya. There are even directional signs on the main road nearby. Inside were about 10 large clay pots with condiments and curries you can use with your noodles or rice. On our menu was Thai Rice Noodle with Coconut Milk (kanom jin sao nam), kanom jin with curry sauces (fresh, thin rice noodles in Thai cuisine that are made from rice sometimes fermented for three days, boiled, and then made into noodles by extruding the resulting dough through a sieve into boiling water), chile-based sauce or dip (nam prik ong – often paired with sticky rice), streaky pork and fresh vegetables such as cucumber, lentils, and Chinese cabbage.
I was sure my stomach would be full about halfway through the tour but I made it all the way, just barely. A finishing Chang beer topped off the final meal.
Feast Thailand Food Tours is located at 18/3 Amnuaysin Road, Hua Hin; Tel: +66 (0) 32 510 207; Mob: +66 (0) 95 461 0557; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.