We’re sitting at a table with Kham Saysanavongphet, the owner of Song Fang Khong, a Lao restaurant tucked down a quiet side street behind Fairfield train station. Just as Saysanavongphet starts suggesting what we should eat – maybe grilled oxtongue, Lao sausages, raw-beef larb (spicy minced-meat salad) or a bamboo salad – two elderly Lao women approach our table and tell us how much they love the food here. It’s their favourite in Sydney they say – real, proper Lao food. We ask them how long they’ve been eating here but neither of them can remember. They just say, “Since it opened”.
Twenty-five years ago, Saysanavongphet was working at a small market in Vientiane, Laos. She sold iced tea, coffee, papaya salad, larb and plates of fermented rice noodles topped with fish curry. It was a small stall and she lived a humble life. But in 1999 she was invited by her sister to Sydney for a holiday, and she still hasn’t returned.
Not long after she arrived she met Buon. It was a chance meeting in a mechanic shop, but that Lao man would end up becoming her husband. Despite barely speaking a word of English and having no knowledge of the local food scene, she eventually asked Buon if he would help her open a restaurant. She wasn’t afraid, she tells us. She was confident in her cooking. If she failed, it wouldn’t be her fault, she says.
In 2006 they opened Song Fang Khong, a tiny restaurant serving Lao specialities. Lao food is similar to Thai food, but cut the curries and the sweetness, and amp up the funkiness, bitterness and use of raw greens. The spice, that’s about the same. If you’ve ever had Isan food, the cuisine of Thailand’s north-east, it’s basically that (more ethnic Lao people live in Thailand’s Isan region than in all of Laos).
The Song Fang Khong tables show off the most famous Lao dishes. In the middle you’ll see a plate of fresh herbs and seasonal greens (usually cabbage, lettuce and cucumber) and a basket of sticky rice. The rice and herbs are vital in balancing the spice (especially in the salad of crisp rice and fermented pork), the bitter (raw-beef larb), the pungent (fermented bamboo salad) or just the intense-in-every-way (spicy papaya salad with salted shell-on crab and fermented fish sauce). Laotians eat everything with herbs and rice, so do like they do: grab a hunk of rice from the basket or a lettuce cup, add salad, a bamboo shoot or some raw beef and eat that in one compact mouthful.
Not everything is wildly aromatic and fermented, though. A huge part of Lao cuisine, particularly on the streets, is barbeque. Here that means tender oxtongue, succulent whole quail with crisp skin, and house-made pork sausages that are fatty and jammed with galangal and lemongrass.
The only Lao snack you can’t get on the regular menu is khanom chin, the curry and noodle dish Kham sold at her Vientiane market. She says the Lao-style curry pastes aren’t available in Sydney and it’s simply too hard to make it regularly. The only way to get it is if the restaurant has an odd quiet period and Kham decides to make some in her spare time, or if you call ahead and place a special request.
Song Fang Khong
7 Anzac Avenue, Fairfield
(02) 9728 4552
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.