“We cut the spice because too many people were crying,” Chalio Tongsinoon tells us. Tongsinoon is the 73-year-old co-owner (along with sisters Nongnapat Srisuwan and Phanthip Srisuwan) of Sydney’s only southern-Thai restaurant, Caysorn.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m crying. It’s the tai pla, a thin, herbal and ominously dark curry made from fermented fish guts. Even a small taste reveals its vicious spice. When I ate it in 2011 – Caysorn’s first year – I was far less prepared for the fieriness of southern-Thai food, and it made me sweaty, light-headed and full of stomach-churning regret.
Southern-Thai cuisine is a mash of influences – Malaysia, Myanmar and India – and is famously intense in almost every way. It’s richly savoury, spicy, sour, fishy, salty, punchy, herbal, sweet and stinky. But never all at once. No one in Thailand would ever eat a tai pla on its own, they would get something else to give it balance. It’s fishy and spicy, so ordering a caramelised pork belly will add sweetness to the meal, and a mackerel-and-green-papaya curry will add sourness. Get a salty hit from the turmeric-battered whiting, and bitterness from a fish curry with cassia leaf and cassia flower. Combined that would be an arresting meal, but to soften the experience there are side dishes of rice, fresh herbs and vegetables.
In the middle of the Haymarket restaurant is a help-yourself salad bar giving you access to the cooling qualities of bean sprout, pickle and sliced cabbage, and the fresh crunch of a cucumber and the bitterness of Thai basil.
Generally, the only dishes Thais eat solo, sans accompaniments, are noodles and street snacks. In the south the most famous and popular is khanom jeen, soft and springy fermented rice noodles that are generally served in a spiral patty with curry. Blended crab and coconut is the classic order.
Finding any of this in Sydney is remarkable – dishes like tai pla are rare even in Bangkok. Before Tongsinoon opened Caysorn he was told by another Thai restauranteur it was impossible to sell regional specialities. “One day I went to a restaurant in Thai Town and I asked for Khanom Jeen, [the chef] was from the south too. She said, ‘No, no-one will buy it’. I don't believe. I said, ‘Okay, one day I will cook it myself in my own restaurant’. I always had that in the back of my mind. Everyone was scared to cook spicy food; I was not scared.”
Both the Srisuwans and Tongsinoon grew up with this food (Tongsinoon used to help his grandma make chilli paste to sell door-to-door, and the Srisuwans lived above their parents’ restaurant), but before Caysorn the only time they ate it in Sydney was when they cooked for themselves. But here we are, eight years later in their busy restaurant. “We grew up making this all [from scratch] every day. We want to bring that [experience] here,” says Phanthip. “We cook from our heart.”
106/8 Quay Street, Prince Centre Building Level 1, Haymarket
(02) 9211 5749
Mon to Sun 11am–10pm
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.