If you arrive on a Friday or Saturday, the first thing you will notice is the smell of grilling seafood.
The smell is a mix of wood charcoal, a whiff of salt, and the distinctive savory aroma of fresh fish meat cooking over an open fire.
I have missed grilled seafood, especially jumbo prawn. The last time I had this simple dish was last July in Phuket. So my taste buds were overdue for a treat.
The first thing I did upon arriving in Amphawa on a Saturday at midday was to find some jumbo prawn being grilled. Fortunately, just a few paces from the Southern Bus Terminal in Amphawa (a table in front of a shopfront) is a couple places serving the grilled prawn.
The first is a sit-down restaurant also serving baked fish, grilled cuttlefish, grilled scallops and barbecued chicken and som tam, the green papaya salad which you can order with fresh crab (som tam poo) or with dried shrimp (som tam thai). About 30 meters from the sit-down place is a grill on a boat with metal tables and chairs on the steps beside it.
I sat at the metal tables and ordered a portion of grilled prawn. Five pieces for 200 Baht with a sauce that was just right.
When it comes to grilled prawn, the secret IS the sauce. The sauce is what makes a winner grilled prawn dish. Some sauces, like the one I had from the street in the evening, are watery. On Sunday, I had grilled prawn on the street near the police station, and their sauce had a little too much lime.
The best sauce for grilled prawn is at the boat grill. It was thick with finely chopped garlic and the Thai chili, so you can scoop the sauce with a piece of prawn and bring the morsel to your mouth slathered with that sauce.
Amphawa is populated with food stalls. For a traveler coming here to spend the night or the weekend, it’s essential to sample at least a few of the food and dishes that Thais come here to enjoy. (Fortunately, portions come small and inexpensive, so you don’t have to worry that you won’t be able to sample as much of the different dishes – portion control allows you to make like Bourdain and Eat Everything.)
This berry might be seasonal, and I was in Amphawa at the beginning of Thai summer season. The mullberry is excellent for detoxification. And, it’s nutritious and tasty.
Watermelon smoothie in a watermelon
Fried baby crabs with chili infused batter (or plain)
Other than grilled seafood, there are five other foods in Amphawa that I would recommend.
Boat noodles or Kuaitiao Ruea
Boat noodles are rice noodles in a brown, soy-sauce broth. The dish comes with both pork and beef, pork or beef meatballs, morning glory, and fresh bean sprouts. Sometimes, it can be served with tofu pieces or pork liver. There are three places that serve great boat noodles in Amphawa. Two of them are on the market side and one is on the opposite side. The noodles are served in coconut bowls, so the amount is just right for a taste, especially if you are saving space for other food on your 48 hours in Amphawa.
Stir fried baby clams with basil or Hoi Pad Nahm Prik Pao
Stir fried clams with basil is served on the shell, so even though the portion looks huge, it really comes down to less than 100 grams of clam meat. Perfect for the tasting traveler. This dish can be found in the evenings off the canal street, a food stall street that opens only in the afternoons for visitors looking for dinner. The food stall serves out of large vats of food, so it’s hard to miss them. There are metal tables and stools set out for those who want to eat on the spot.
The dish is spicy, and since it is ready made, there is no way to order it with half or no spice. For those who do not have iron tongues made for the Thai chili, order a plate of plain rice to help offset the spiciness.
The holy basil cooked into the clam dish is a burst of freshness both as part of the aroma of the dish and the flavor in the mouth. The salty clam with the slightly spongy texture is succulent. The chili burst pops into consciousness a moment later.
Mackarel with fermented fish dip or Nam Prik Pla Too
Amphawa sells mackarel, usually dried and sold in trios or pairs in the market stalls. As a food, the dried mackarel goes well with nam prik, a Thai dip of fermented anchovies, chili, garlic, shallots and lime juice. It can be thickened with either shrimp paste or fish paste.
The dish is served with the mackarel, steamed vegetables and the dip and usually eaten with steamed rice. The secret to this dish is the nam prik or the dip. It is such a powerhouse element that King Chulalongkorn touring Europe in 1907 mentioned it as the taste he missed most from Thailand.
Mackarel braised in chili with soy sauce
This is a new dish for me, and I had not seen or tasted it in over a decade of living in Thailand, so it was a no-brainer to sample it. The mackarel is braised in a stock with chili, so it can be super spicy for the uninitiated. The umami of the soy based stock adds a punch to the dish. Best eaten with plain rice to cut the spice.
Khanom luum kuun (translates as dessert of no return)
This is a delightful dessert or snack made from glutinous rice flour. It’s sticky in texture and has a coconut taste. There is only one stall that serves it on a layer of pea-flower infused flour, which makes the 5-Baht coin sized blob a deep shade of purple. 50 Baht will get you four sets of five blobs, so share with others.
There are lots and lots of other dishes to try in Amphawa, and for a lone traveler it’s a bit of a challenge to choose which dish to try. Apart from the recommendations above, there are a lot of other dishes that they make well in this town. You can also try:
- Phad thai with dried shrimp
- Barbecue pork with sticky rice
- Tom yam noodles
- Tom yam soup with prawn
- Baked whole fish with lemongrass stuffing
- Mango and sticky rice
- Khanom krok (crispy sliver of batter with sweet coconut & palm sugar topping)
Amphawa is only open on weekends, and the food stalls are at their peak from around 12.00 well into mid-afternoon for lunch, and around 5.00pm to midnight.
To get to Amphawa, take a van from the Sai Tai Mai or Southern Bus Terminal on Pinklao for Baht 70 per person. A convenient way to buy a bus ticket is through the 12Go website.