Durian is the king of fruits in Thailand and mangosteen the queen. As the former is considered ‘heaty’, you’re supposed to pop in a ‘cooling’ mangosteen after each bite of the durian,” guide Khun Pat advises me as I take in the cornucopia of fruits at the 100-year-old Chanthaburi street market, a four-hour drive from the capital, Bangkok.
Chanthaburi is the first stop on my food trail along Thailand’s eastern seaboard that will later take me to Rayong and Pattaya. Pat tells me that in the olden days, Thais used to wrap durian skin around their fists for Muay Thai (Thai boxing ) fights. If the fruit’s thorny exterior didn’t scare the antagonist, its stink would! Exactly why the Thais are so enamoured with the fruit “that tastes like heaven but smells like hell” remains a mystery. But Chanthaburi breeds the best durian, say locals, with the fruit finding its way into candies, smoothies, ice cream and even curry.
Thailand’s streets have countless options for local specialties | Photo: Neeta Lal
With its lush green forests, waterfalls and fertile plains, Chanthaburi’s tropical climate also breeds other gorgeous fruits such as rose apple, pomelo, papaya, dragon fruit, laksat, longan, snake fruit and many more that I’ve never seen or tasted before.
I move to a stall where papayas, raw mangoes and pineapples are being sliced and diced for salads. The shopkeeper places cut fruit on a banana leaf, splashes some nam pla (fish sauce) and palm sugar on top, and hands it to me with a sprinkling of chilli flakes and a squirt of lemon. The dish is like a party in my mouth — a gazillion flavours exploding on my tongue all at once.
Chanthaburi has been home to Chinese, Khmer and Vietnamese communities that settled here centuries ago. It also has Burmese and French influence, the latter having ruled the province from 1893 to 1905. The region’s eclectic cuisine is a product of this cultural heritage.
Thai meal of freshly caught steamed crabs, prawns and sea bass with lime and ginger sauce | Photo: Neeta Lal
At the market I sample pathangko — round, golden-fried, vada-like breads doused with chillies and a sweet-and-sour sauce. Then there are tiny crabs simmered whole in piquant sauces or gigantic crispy ones or deep-fried blue swimmer crabs eaten with salads called “tams”.
I head for lunch to Chanthorn Restaurant, a family-run eatery in the heart of the city. I eat succulent prawns, crispy chicken with sweet basil, fragrant platters of morning glory, crispy vegetables, varieties of rice, curry and tofu bowls. The pièce de résistance is pad thai chan — Chanthaburi’s version of pad thai made with sen chan (local thin rice noodles) sprinkled with crab meat and fresh greens.
The chef tells me that the food here is popular among tourists because it is fresh and healthy. “A few flavours and ingredients are predominant though,” he explains. Fresh, savoury salads form the bedrock of the region’s meals. The salads are usually had with marinated and grilled, or fried, meats with sticky rice.
Thai food | Photo: Neeta Lal
Only two hours by bus from Chanthaburi, Rayong overlooks the Gulf of Thailand. With its pristine sands and unspoilt landscapes, it seems a world away from the urban whirligig. Our main focus in Rayong is, of course, its spectacular seafood. Atmospheric sea-fronted eateries — many of them jutting right into the waters — offer a seafood smorgasbord.
I am told that the street market of Baan Pae is a good place for a quintessentially Thai meal of freshly caught steamed crabs, prawns and sea bass with lime and ginger sauce. However, having had our fill of Thai cuisine earlier in the day, I opt for something totally different — pizza. Bali Pizzeria, a Balinese-style beach resort near the Laem Mae Phim Beach, is where we sample delicious wood-fired pizzas topped with fresh seafood.
Fare at the Chanthorn Restaurant | Photo: Neeta Lal
After breakfast the next morning, I head to the last stop on my food trail — Pattaya. The city, I’m told, is reinventing itself from a sun-and-surf-only place to a wholesome destination with many top-end restaurants.
Photo: Neeta Lal
After a day of frolicking on the beach, I head for dinner to Greyhound Cafe at D’Luck Cinematic Theatre, which offers an inventive Euro-Thai menu and local specialities with a twist. Our table is soon creaking under the weight of an array of dishes — spicy squid ink tom yum soup, grilled Thai fish cake, fried crispy baby blue crab, turmeric whiting fish and chips, crispy ravioli with salsa, salmon sashimi in a spicy hot sauce, tofu preparations and more.
My fresh lasagna basil and soft-shell crab salad have lingering flavours of the sea. The Italian style clam and mussel soup comes anointed with a dollop of cream and a garlic-infused baguette on the side. Bowl and spoon licked clean, I’m convinced I’ve made the right life choices.