Over the years for this column we’ve talked to a lot of Thai people: chefs, community leaders, strangers on Instagram and anyone else willing to chat. We’ve been told about the rare spot that serves spicy southern Thai food; a restaurant inspired by the snacks Chiang Mai clubbers eat after they party; a Pitt Street joint that’s all about Thai desserts; and a casual eatery down in Kogarah serving some of the most powerfully spicy and pungent dishes on Earth. We’ve heard a ton of opinions on where Sydney’s Thai community eats noodles too, and the name that pops up the most is Abb Air in the CBD. (The now-closed Thai Thai in Alexandria also had a cult following.)
Restaurant founders Chayakorn Kulthanachaidech, Kittipong Tuangsit, Naruedom Nukraihong and Khomsan Chittimani opened the city eatery in 2013 (it recently reopened after a cool new makeover) with the goal of capturing the street-food flavours of Thailand’s four culinary regions – and playing with them, too. “Our team travelled around the country to get the best recipes from each state, then we mixed it,” says Kulthanachaidech.
The menu riffs on famous dishes such as pad thai, pad kra pao and Cantonese/Thai-style barbequed pork. Sometimes the changes are subtle, like mixing the dried chillies they use in the north with fresh chillies to make a stir-fry or noodle soup. Other dishes, such as the pad thai, are probably unrecognisable to most diners. In Sydney the dish is usually made with tamarind, fish sauce and palm sugar, but here Tuangsit prepares it the old-fashioned southern way – with shrimp paste, shallots and dried and fresh chillies that are crushed together in a mortar and pestle. That mixture is combined with the noodles, then cooked with tamarind, palm sugar and coconut cream.
“For me, that taste is more interesting,” says Tuangsit. For Thai diners, it’d be a bit like ordering avo toast only to find it arrive with a surprise layer of vegemite. The boat noodles (listed on the menu as namtok) are also prepared with a twist on the traditional method. Usually, pork blood is added to the soup to order, but here it’s cooked into the broth for extra flavour and texture. “We cook it for 10 hours [with a second round of bones part-way through], like a ramen broth,” he says.
Abb Air’s menu goes beyond noodles, though. This is a street-food restaurant, and the owners want to represent the scope of Thailand’s street cuisine. For a tiny kitchen, it’s impressively extensive – there are curries, stir-fries, grilled meats, garlic-and-chive dumplings, desserts and six kinds of papaya salad (including the most pungent and fiery version, made with pickled crab and a fermented anchovy sauce). “In Thailand [street-food places] usually sell only one dish,” says Kulthanachaidech. “It’s different here – we have, like, 100 menu items. We would like to only do one because you can make it the best, but the business cannot survive.”
One thing you find all over Thailand – but rarely in Sydney – is kra dong, a lunch-box-style package of sticky rice, fried onion, chilli paste and snackable meats (maybe jerky-like air-dried beef, some grilled chicken thigh or sweet preserved pork). “Ninety per cent of our Thai customers are ordering off this [kra dong] menu,” says Kulthanachaidech.
Abb Air Thai Cuisine 1982
Shop 9.60 World Square, 40 Goulburn Street, Sydney
(02) 8068 2564
This is another edition of Broadsheet’s Local Knowledge weekly series, where Nick Jordan explores the eateries at the heart of Sydney’s different cultural communities. Read more here.