I live nearby the mangroves in the forest of Phang Nga in the village called Thamapraw. I started my dream career as crab fisher since I was 7 years old. My house is located right at the best place to catch the crab. From now and then I have been fishing at the Thamapraw village for over 35 years.” — Saraut Khansan, Ban Thamapraw
Forty-five year old fisherman Sarawut Khansan knows a thing or two about trapping crabs. Soft-spoken and flashing a broad smile, Khansan, or simply Khun Oh as he’s known among friends, is full of stories about growing up in Ban Thamaparaw, a picturesque village of traditional wooden bungalows in the dense coastal mangroves in Phang Nga province, the northernmost tip of Phuket Island (the province is actually across the bridge, not on Phuket island). For as long as he can remember, Khun Oh helped his father lay bamboo traps on the beach at dusk, just as the sun was setting. “We were always after poo dum,” Khun Oh remembers, referring to Phuket’s indigenous black crab which is central to the island’s local cuisine. In the wee hours of early light, the sky flush with pale pinks and peach, Khun Oh and his father would return to collect the traps. For a young child, seeing the bamboo baskets brimming with glistening crustaceans, especially the succulent poo dum, was like finding gold. “The excitement of this moment has never left me,” Khun Oh recalls. “This is how my dream to become a crab fisherman began.”
Phuket is a meeting of land and water, in every sense of the word, but most people forget about the islands’ abundant mangroves. In tropical climates, like Phuket, mangroves’ dot the shoreline, their mangled, spindly roots rising mysteriously from shallow mudflats and briny, saltwater pools. A natural ecological bridge between sea and soil, mangroves create a rich habitat for all sorts of water and land critters. Like the indigenous poo dum,
Returning home with hand woven bamboo basket traps chock full of crabs slung over their shoulders, father and son headed straight to the outdoor kitchen where Khun Oh’s mother took over. Poo dum is a mainstay of island cuisine, used to flavor soups, fresh salads, curries and even fermented for extra piquancy. Like most island women, Khun Oh’s mum was a nimble chef. “Her poo phad pong kalee, stir fried crab in yellow curry, was very good. But my favorite is gaeng kua poo, yellow curry with crab and coconut heart,” he says. The family feasted together, sitting around kantok, or low table, enjoying the medley of poo-dum curries and larb (I am not sure if this is from Khun Oh himself, as Larb is more an Isan dish, not very local), or sour-spicy fresh salads. Today, Khun Oh continues the tradition in his own home. He weaves bamboo basket traps with his sons, and together they wade through mangroves by moonlight, set their traps and imagine the feast ahead.
When not fishing, Khun Oh works as a gardener at Trisara. “Often I see local fishermen and farmers bringing things to PRU kitchen. Often, I see fishermen bring (crabs?) from Surat Thani, but the crab from my village is different and tastier. So, I decided to show Chef Jimmy our beautiful crabs.”
These days, Khun Oh delivers freshly-caught poo dum to the PRU kitchen every two days, often staying to watch Chef Jimmy prep Ban Thamapraw’s trademark crustacean. First, the crab claws are blanched quickly, and the soft white meat is removed and set aside. Khun Oh watches Chef send the shells down the line, where it’s used to make stock for crab bisque and crab sauce, a fairly standard approach.
Then, things take a bold turn. Chef Jimmy sauteés the crab meat, diced green apples and tart finger limes in sizzling coffee oil—handcrafted in the PRU kitchen using northern Thai coffee bean, double roasted down the road in Cherng Talay, and infused in cold pressed XXX oil for 3 hours at 65 degrees.
Taking cue from gaeng kua poo—black crab with coconut heart in yellow curry, a local favorite—Chef Jimmy adds fermented coconut hearts. Piquant and wildly aromatic, the result is an exercise in vigorous creativity and a big “flavor bomb,” Chef explains to an incredulous Khun Oh.
“”Our menu is rooted in all-local ingredients, going directly to the source,” says Chef Jimmy. “In this way, Khun Oh’s poo dum has been a godsend. We have the best crab from a life-long fisherman. The spirit of partnership and collaboration is the core of what we do.”
PRU’s dining room may be more rarefied than his open-air kitchen, but the feasting and good will of sharing meals among friends and family, “that is the same,” he laughs.