Phuket Culture: In search of Baba-Yaya...
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Phuket Culture: In search of Baba-Yaya...

Phuket : Thailand | Nov 29, 2011 at 8:10 AM PST
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I love the local Phuket food.

But I never really thought about where it came from until the other day.

You see, I read an article by Dr Kosol Tang-Uthai.

He's President of the Thai Peranakan Association, also known as Baba-Nyonya.

The Baba-Nyonya feel so strongly about their cultural foods, they are busy collating recipes and historical information to send to UNESCO.

They hope to make Phuket City the fourth UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the world.

In case you're interested, the others are Popayan City in Colombia, Ostersund in Sweden and Chengdu in China.

So, it would be quite a coup if Phuket was added to the list.

But who are the Baba-Nyonya?

The Baba-Nyonya are descendants of Chinese, Malaysian and Indonesian men who came to Phuket in the 16th century.

Many worked in the tin mines.

Others were employed on the ships of the British India Company and British Burma Company, transporting tin from Phuket’s mines to Penang for smelting.

They weren't allowed to bring girls from home, so many married local Thai women.

Their mixed race children were called Peranakans, which in Malay means 'descendants'.

Men are known as Baba and Women as Nyonya.

But because Nyonya is unpronounceable in Thai, here they are called Yaya.

So in Phuket you have Baba-Yaya.

Have I confused you yet?

Apparently about 75% of Phuket's population are Baba-Yaya.

And quite rightly they are keen to preserve their culture and history.

If you've been to Phuket Town recently you may have seen the restored houses on Romanee, Krabi, and Thalang Roads.

These are traditional Baba-Yaya houses - often referred to as Sino-Portuguese.

http://blog.phuketoceanvillas.com/in-search-of-baba-yaya/#baba-yaya-houses

Soi Romanee, in the picture above, used to be the 'red light district' in tin mining days - now it‘s full of trendy cafés and handicraft shops.

The oldest Baba-Yaya business still thriving in Phuket town is Nguan Choon Tong - a Chinese herbal shop on Thalang Road.

http://blog.phuketoceanvillas.com/in-search-of-baba-yaya/#nguan-choon-tong

It was opened in 1905 by a Chinese herbalist who immigrated from Ta Pu province in China.

Today it is run by his 70 year old daughter, Mrs. Sodsri Bumrungwong.

The shop supplies top spas and hotels all over Phuket.

If you want to try the local Baba food, a good place to start is China Inn on Thalang Road.

http://blog.phuketoceanvillas.com/in-search-of-baba-yaya/#china-inn

It's one of the first places I went to when I moved to Phuket and is still one of my favourites.

The restaurant is in an authentic Baba-Yaya shop-house which has been carefully restored.

There's an antique and handicraft shop at the front and behind it is a restaurant and garden.

You can try all sorts of local dishes; salted boiled Pork (Moo Hong); stir-fried Hokkien noodles (mee hokkien); andstir-fried white noodles served with spare-rib soup (mee hun).

Another place to try is Mee Ton Poh.

http://blog.phuketoceanvillas.com/in-search-of-baba-yaya/#mee-ton-poh

It’s a small restaurant on the corner near the clock tower in Phuket Town.

They sell the best Hokkien noodles on the island and delicious satay.

It may not be fine dining, but the food is top notch.

So what recipes are the Baba-Yaya sending to UNESCO?

It has not been decided yet but they could include:

  • Battered morning glory with small shrimp (Bue Tord)

  • White jelly made from squeezed Chinese herbs and bananas, served with boiled red beans and shaved ice (Oh-aew)

  • And local favourite, Lo Ba - a mixture of prawns, tofu, sausages and pig's ears dipped in a tamarind-chilli sauce

I wish them the best of luck.

If you are in Phuket or planning to visit, drop me an email or give me a call and I'll show you around.

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Phuket Culture: In search of Baba-Yaya...
I love the local Phuket food. But I never really thought about where it came from until the other day.
Rebecca Smith is based in Phuket, Southern, Thailand, and is a Stringer on Allvoices.
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