Oysters in Thailand: Eating, Meeting, Diving, Surviving
It was the vacation of a lifetime. From slurping local and imported oysters to spotting wild oysters while scuba diving, Thailand has gifted us with an unforgettable oyster-dabbled getaway.
For the better half of January, B and I spent our honeymoon exploring the beautiful country of Thailand. Although I assured my husband that this wouldn't be a full-on oyster trip, we still managed to squeeze in a few great half shell adventures. Besides, having oysters on a honeymoon feels only appropriate!
[headingseparator]Are Oysters Really Aphrodisiacs?[/headingseparator] The connection between raw oysters and romance is more than just a cultural one -- there is some scientific evidence that backs it up. Oysters contain an incredible amount of zinc, which is known to boost testosterone in men and progesterone in women. These hormones are vital to our reproductive and overall health, so you could say that the Romans, Casanova, and King Henry VIII were on to something. Beyond the chemistry, our rituals of shucking, slurping, and savoring oysters can be undoubtedly suggestive. But seriously, get your minds out of the gutter, people!
We started and ended our trip to Thailand in Bangkok, a true foodie's paradise. Whether you're in the mood for fine dining or sketchy street food (I prefer the later), there's more to consume here than most appetites or travel schedules would allow. First, some non-oyster eating highlights: delicious Khao Mun Gai (chicken rice) at the elegant The Montien Hotel, midnight shabu shabu by Lumpini Park, several bamboo steamers of Din Tai Fung soup dumplings, and garlicky fried chicken at the hard-to-find Soi Polo.
Everything we devoured was great and all, but we know what we're really here to talk about...
The Oyster Bar Bangkok
For travelers like myself who are in search of a truly excellent oyster bar in Bangkok, there seems to be only one outstanding candidate. The Oyster Bar Bangkok is the brainchild of Bill Marinelli, an American shellfish importer, marine biologist, and OG of the US oyster market. To many around the world, he's simply known as Oyster King.
I had exchanged a couple emails with Billy prior to arriving in Thailand and his enthusiasm immediately jumped off my screen. In person, his energy was tenfold. Had I re-read Robb Walsh's chapter on "Wild Bill on Hog Island," from his charming book, Sex, Death & Oysters, I would have been better prepared. Still deeply jetlagged and worn out from a long day of exploring the city, Billy was like pounding three shots of espresso. Once our talk about shellfish began, I felt like I had tumbled down the rabbit hole into Mr. Marinelli's Oyster Emporium.
The ambiance of The Oyster Bar Bangkok is simple and somewhat industrial. Located on a quiet residential street, this neighborhood bistro caters to a mixed crowd of connoisseurs, families, and international visitors. A handful of shellfish posters (including Billy's very own design) and large regional maps of Puget Sound decorated the walls, making the restaurant feel more like a classroom than an eatery. My eyes gravitated to the two glass troughs that were sitting on both ends of the raw bar, one containing over a dozen oyster varieties and the other filled with fish and other shellfish.
I had hoped to find oodles of exotic Australian, Japanese, and local Thai oysters here, but to my dismay, I quickly learned that everything had been imported from North America. What?! Billy says that he only brings in product that is USDA-certified and Seafood Watch approved, which I suppose would sound like good news for most folks. But not exactly for me. This was foodie irony at its best: I had basically traveled for nearly 24 hours straight, to the opposite end of the world, to have oysters from my home country. To Billy's credit, his selection was still pretty eclectic nonetheless... and we were really there for his company!
Like many restaurant in Thailand, The Oyster Bar's menu was like a manuscript. We were presented with a presentation binder filled with details about each oysters and wine. There were a few West Coast varieties on the menu that were brand new to me. Billy ordered a platter of four varieties for us to try:
Kusshi from Deep Bay, BC: a tried and true favorite in the states, but apparently new and unfamiliar to oyster lovers in Southeast Asia.
Flapjack Point from Eld Inlet, WA: Next to the Kusshi's, these looked like giants. The Flapjack Point Oysters were bold and rich, meaty Pacific oysters. The ones we tried had varying degrees of sweetness and potency. Some were milder than others, but they were all generally delicious and fresh. These oysters are intertidally grown, bag to beach. Due to the size, they might be a little daunting for beginners.
Henderson Pearl from South Puget Sound, WA: This well-manicured bag-tumbled Pacific oyster features medium brininess and a sweet, clam-like flavor. The body was a little creamy, but also crunchy in some chews. I really liked its clean and refreshing milk finish. They are grown by the Nisqually Tribe in Henderson Inlet of the South Puget Sound.
"Iwagaki" from "Oki Islands, Japan": A true Iwagaki oyster is of the Crassostrea nippona species. However, the ones you see below are enormous Crassostrea gigas, as Billy admits. Hence the quotations. As Emily Dickinson would say, "Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant."
After the raw oysters, B and I sampled a series of beautifully prepared plates while we discussed the faults and merits of farmed vs wild salmon. I won't even get into how that went down... While Billy captivated us with his animated stories about the "wild west" days of the oyster industry, the swift and professional efforts of the staff should not be overlooked. The team at The Oyster Bar Bangkok had been very fast, friendly and efficient throughout the evening.
I'd definitely recommend a visit to The Oyster Bar Bangkok, but before you do, make sure the Oyster King is holding court. If Billy's not around and you're craving other varieties, consider Bélon Oyster Bar or The Raw Bar Bangkok (try to avoid Wednesday and Thursday if you can).
We first spent time on the beautiful Phi Phi Islands and then ferried down to Koh Lipe, Thailand's southernmost island. Koh Lipe travel tip: fly to Hat Yai (HDY), take a group shuttle to Pak Bara (2 hours, might get cramped), then take a speedboat (1 hour, might be bumpy) to Koh Lipe. This is far better than taking a ferry from Koh Phi Phi to Koh Lipe (7+ hours). It's a pain either way, but it will definitely be worth it. Trust me.
Here are a few of my favorite snapshots.
Oyster Culture in Thailand
Both pearl oysters and edible oysters are cultivated around Thailand. Although not much information is available online about the country's oyster industry today, there is a comprehensive bivalve report from the 80's that provides some basic level of understanding.
#1 There are three different species of edible oysters being commercially grown in Thailand.
Saccostrea commercialis / Saccostrea cucullata / Saccostrea glomerata / "Sydney Rock Oyster"
#2 A variety of grow out methods are employed.
Cement poles or pipes
The "being resourceful" culture (car tires, roof tiles, cement blocks, etc)
#3 There seems to be a lot of confusion and overlap with the local names for oysters.
[headingseparator]Sidebar About Pearl Oysters[/headingseparator]Phuket, also known as "The Pearl of the Andaman Sea" is home to many pearl farms and tourist traps. Several varieties of pearl oysters are cultured in Thailand, including the Akoya, South Sea, and Mabe. Akoya and South Sea pearls are gonad grown, usually one pearl per oyster at a time. Akoyas take 2-4 years before they're ready to harvest in Thailand. Mabe Pearl Oysters are also called Penguin Wing Oysters, and they are used differently to make "half pearls." It is accomplished by inserting the nucleus flush against the side of the mollusk, causing the oyster to make its nacre deposits over the nucleus, and against the inside of its shell, forming a semi-spherical pearl.
I had personal encounters with the Penguin Wing Oyster, Sydney Rock Oyster, and Crassostrea belcheri. More about all that below!
Discovering Bivalves in the Wild
During our time in Koh Lipe, I was able to get my PADI Open Water Diving certification with Adang Sea Divers. B was certified when he was a teenager, so he just tagged along and captured cool underwater footage with our new GoPro Hero 4. Fortunately, the course was pretty painless, thanks to my lovely instructor Claudia. We did four open water dives in total and were able to see a TON of sea life on each trip. Claudia even made a custom hand signal for "OYSTER" (by cupping both hands together to make an "O" shape), which we used several times.
Here's a still shot (above) of the Penguin Wing Oyster. The water isn't super clear because it happened to be coral spawning season. Nonetheless, we were able to spot several of these hanging around the coral. I'm going to try and post some video once I get a chance to edit the raw footage.
On our last day in Koh Lipe, we decided to take a private longtail boat tour around the inner islands. Our friends at Sawan Resort packed us a tasty picnic lunch to go. Near the deserted beach where we shared our afternoon snack, I noticed that the big rocks just off the beach were teaming with oysters. I believe these are the Sydney Rock Oyster species, but I could be wrong. Can anyone confirm?
Embarking on Some Risky Business
No trip to Thailand is complete without some sketchy street food and after our relatively tame Bangkok experience, I was craving for some action!
On the Walking Street in Koh Lipe, we happened across some live oysters at a seafood BBQ restaurant. These were large, Gulf-sized oysters with green and grey cement-smattered shells. They were kept in a dingy cement tank that pumped in lord knows what kind of water. Everything about this situation screamed, "Are you crazy?" But I couldn't help myself. I'm pretty sure these were the local Crassostrea belcheri's and I had to try one. Or maybe two. I inquired about the oysters, aka Hoi Nang Rom and here was the basic exchange that sold me.
"How do you cook them?"
"No cooking. You eat raw."
"Oh... is it safe?"
"Yes, no problem. It's very delicious!"
"Where are they from?"
"Around the islands. Nearby." (She gestures in swirls)
"Small one, 60 baht. Medium one, 80 baht. Big, 100 baht. But I think medium is best. Not too big."
"Ok, I'll take two medium oysters. And a kilo of squid, half kilo prawns. And big beers please!"
The waitress took down the order, smiled and walked off. Here we go!
A few minutes later, my local oysters arrived with an array of accoutrements. Deep fried garlic. Fresh wedge of lime. Chili oil/paste, and something else that I didn't recognize. These were pretty traditional Thai oyster toppings. B and I looked at the dark, scrunchy oysters and then at each other.
"Are you SURE you want to eat that?" My thoughtful husband started growing visibly concerned for me.
Before he could change my mind, I took a sniff (all systems go) and slurped the first oyster up. Immediate impression: it was very chewy, almost beef-like in texture. There was no liquor to sip and the salinity was very mild. In fact, everything was pretty mild. I chewed some more. Hints of iodine and minerality slowly started to emerge, then became apparent, almost pungent. It reminded me of eating a metallic European Flat from France or a piscine Tio Point from New Zealand. I tried the second topped with a squeeze of lime, a sprinkle of garlic and dab of chili. The combination was a nice symphony of flavors -- not bad! It definitely helped enhance the overall experience.
The next day, I felt perfectly fine. Phew.
I managed to complete my Open Water Diving certification and to celebrate, we had some steamed local crabs, a seafood stir fry, and spicy oyster salad. The oysters in this salad were raw, but fermented or pickled to an extreme degree. They were not my thing.
We spent our last several days in Chiang Mai, a beautiful city in the north. The food scene was very different from the south's. There were a lot of spices, herbs, and fresh vegetables. We stayed at the Anantara Resort, which happened to be quite close to a popular (read: touristy) night market. There, I attempted raw oysters again at another busy seafood restaurant. A couple large, white-bellied oysters arrived with the same sort of toppings. These were similarly mild and meaty, but with the accoutrements, were just right.
I also ordered a fried oyster omelette, and it ended up being far more tasty than its uncooked counterpart. The oyster omelette is a signature dish in SE Asia. Taiwan makes a mean oyster omelette, and I believe they are popular snacks in Malaysia and Singapore as well. Here's a great video (also below) and blog post by Mark Wiens about them.
Cooking With Oyster Sauce & Sexy Ladies
Last but not least, I have to give a quick recap of the amazing Zabb-e-lee cooking class that we took in Chiang Mai. Cooking classes are apparently all the rage in Thailand, but I would bet money that this school beats out the rest. Fon, our HILARIOUS teacher kept us chuckling and smiling all night long. She had the cutest mannerisms and jokes. "We will cook with our eMooootions," was the key takeaway.
Fon taught us how to use several fundamental Thai cooking ingredients, including oyster sauce! I never really knew what to do with it until now. Authentic oyster sauce is made from real oysters. The oysters are boiled and reduced to a salty, brown sauce. You add it to stir fry, steamed veggies, and noodles to boost umami and flavor. A little goes a long way and if you have a high quality sauce, it shouldn't taste fishy.
Over the course of the evening, we each made four dishes. One appetizer, one soup, one curry, and entree. My entree was a spicy seafood stir-fry (below), which somehow earned me and another gal the "sexy ladies" nickname from Fon. So every time when she'd call upon us, we were referred to as "MY SEXY LADIES." How fun! I highly recommend her class.
WOW. This was an epic post. I hope you enjoyed my whirlwind recap of our trip and about the oysters in Thailand. If you've gone on your own oyster adventure in SE Asia, I want to hear about it! Was it similar to mine or vastly different? Post a comment below. Until then, have a great weekend!
One year ago: Rapid Oyster Bar Hopping in Boston Two years ago: I Ate the Forbidden Oyster Three years ago: Oyster Magic at Saxon + Parole Four years ago: Oyster Extinction? Stop Panicking and Get the Facts