Owing to Phuket’s strong Chinese roots, dim sum is an incredibly popular meal among locals and you can find a dim sum restaurant in almost every town or neighbourhood on the island.
As is often the case, particularly in Phuket, Thai-style dim sum has its origins in Southern China, where the practice of eating dim sum with many cups of jasmine tea is known as yum cha.
Naturally, over the years Thais have adapted the recipes for Chinese-style dim sum dishes to suit their tastes, and the tea to pandan tea, but many of the most iconic dishes remain quite similar to their Chinese predecessors.
Steamed dumplings are an essential part of any dim sum meal and several varieties are commonly found here in Phuket.
Har gow are simple dumplings made of minced shrimp wrapped in a rice based pastry and steamed until translucent.
Shu mai is a close cousin that is usually made with minced pork, prawn or crab (or a combination of them) and wrapped in a yellow or green won-ton wrapper that remains open at the top – they are also often topped with a pinch of crab meat or fish roe to give a visually pleasing and tasty garnish.
Perhaps the next most common dish you will see at dim sum shops in Phuket are simply minced, seasoned pork topped with anything from quail eggs, vegetables and tofu to scallops, mussels, black preserved eggs (also known as century eggs) and mushrooms.
This dish is the catch-all of Thai dim sum and comes in as many varieties as there are restaurants – and often changing depending on what was available at the market that day.
It seems that this style of dish is a unique Thai adaptation as I haven’t eaten dim sum dishes quite like this anywhere else.
Next up are the meat and seafood dishes. Boneless pieces of fish are often served quite simply with a touch of shredded ginger for flavour.
My personal favourite, although it’s often not easy to find, is slow-cooked pork belly, marinated in Chinese five-spice powder and cooked until the fat is melt-in-your-mouth tender.
It is then sliced into one centimetre thick pieces and served in the individual dim sum plated on top of a bed of pickled greens. Other seafood choices can include plain unseasoned mussels or scallops.
Most dim sum places will also offer a few deep-fried dishes – but be warned they can be quite heavy going at breakfast time.
Popular ones include crispy fried won tons filled with minced pork or prawns – delicious with some sweet chilli sauce. Crab and prawn cakes are also popular, and of course the ubiquitous spring rolls.
One my absolute favourite freshly-made dishes is served at Racharod Dim Sum on Yaowarat Rd north of Phuket Town.
The dish consists of a thin steamed-rice flour slurry spread over a cloth and steamed until firm, then filled alternatively with red barbecued pork (moo daeng), whole small prawns or pure crab meat, then wrapped up and served with flavourful broth – I highly recommend if you get the opportunity.
Many of the larger dim sum places will also serve a variety of other breakfast dishes, such as rice porridge or rice soup (jok and khao tom) with a choice of toppings.
One to try is eggs-on-a-pan (kai kratha) – typically two fried eggs sunny side up and served in the pan with a topping of Chinese sausage, minced pork and green onion.
Traditionally dim sum is served at tables from carts circulating in the dining room, but Thai style dim sum is a bit different.
Usually there will be several glass refrigerators with a wide selection of the dim sum plates – you simply select the ones you want and put them on your tray, then take them to the steamer and tell them where you are sitting.
Typically dishes are between B10-B20 with special dishes ranging up to about B80, and two people will usually have about six or eight dishes between them.
It’s always a good idea to go with several friends as that way you can try more dishes. Most good dim sum places open early at 5am-6am and are closed by noon.
Try to get in early lest you miss out on some of the most popular selections.
Here are four of my favourite Dim Sum restaurants, but no matter where you are, you’re sure to find one nearby:
• Ratcharod Dim Sum. Located on Yaowarat Rd, 1km north of Phuket Old Town, about 200m south of the Phuket Provincial Police Station and on the opposite side of the road. One of the best I’ve found in Phuket. A little bit more expensive but well worth it for the fresh ingredients and generous serves. Get there early or you’ll miss out.
• Bunyarat Dim Sum. Located on Soi Tilok Uthit in Phuket Town, about 200m south of the intersection of Phang Nga Rd. A long-standing favourite of Phuket Town locals.
• Mala Dim Sum. Located in Kata on the beach side of Patak Rd about 300m southward from the main Kata fresh market. A good selection of dim sum as well as other breakfast choices.
• Ketho Dim Sum. Located in Kathu on Wichit Songkram Rd 1km south of the new Kathu fresh market next to a klong and opposite a restored Sino-Portuguese mansion. Good selection, yummy jok and friendly staff.