At last count, Newtown had 16 Thai restaurants. All but one of them specialise in Bangkok-style Central Thai cuisine: green and phanaeng curries, basil stir-fries, tom yum soup and popular lunch-special noodle dishes. But Central cuisine is just one of the four in Thailand, and sits alongside Southern, Northern and Isan (or Northeastern). Newtown’s Saab Wer is one of the only restaurants in Sydney that serves genuine Isan cuisine.
Central Thai cuisine is the tamest of the four – it’s sweeter, milder, less sour and less pungent. When we ask Noi Yutasane, Saab Wer’s co-owner, to describe Isan-style cooking he says, simply, “It’s strong.” Somm tum, or papaya salad, is the perfect example. The common Bangkok version sees unripe papaya beaten and ground with lime, fresh chilli, fish sauce and palm sugar. Folks at Saab Wer can have theirs with whole brined rice field crabs (the crunchy shell is eaten too), and pla ra – a fish sauce that’s fermented with roasted rice until it takes on a semi-putrid aroma. “I'm from a very poor family. I didn't have meat to eat. [When I was a boy] I ate sticky rice and pla ra every morning.”
Yutasane’s story has taken him far from his early farming life in East Thailand. In the ’80s he moved to Bangkok, and met Bruce Laidlaw not long after. The pair eventually married and moved to Sydney. And despite having no hospitality experience (Yutsane’s brother-in-law came in to cook), they opened Thai Tha Poh in Surry Hills, which has a more general take on Thai. Saab Wer, on the other hand, is a foray into the traditional food Yutasane grew up with – and he’s very proud of that.
Yutasane is still a little hesitant to share som tom pla ra with the white side of Sydney – or goi dip( a by-request raw-beef larb made with a bitter sauce containing cow bile).
It’s not all stench and fire though. Most Isan restaurants, Saab Wer included, serve pungent stars beside some of the world’s easiest pleasures, such as grilled meat and sticky rice. Of the grilled meats, the most common in the Northeast is gai yang (chargrilled chicken marinated in garlic) – but that’s notably absent at Saab Wer. Instead, most Thai customers at Saab Wer choose barbequed pork neck; mu ping (slightly sweet skewers of grilled fatty pork); or a plate of Isan-style fermented-and-grilled pork sausages. Those or the sun-dried and fried pork, moo dad deaw.
The other important balancing acts are fresh herbs and vegetables. Most Isan meals will be plated up with raw cucumber, Thai apple eggplants, herbs or beans. The idea is to roll a ball of sticky rice, add a bit of grilled meat or spicy papaya, then chase it with a crunchy slice of cucumber.