Gaye Chantraporn tells us more than 60 per cent of Sumbaijai’s customers are Thai. There’s a growing community of Thai people around Kogarah (about 14 kilometres south of the CBD) she says, and they come to her restaurant because her husband, Ahit Songmuang, is one of the best Isan chefs in Sydney.
Isan is the north-east region of Thailand, a province famous for its food, particularly papaya salad, barbequed meat, chilli relishes, sticky rice and raw ingredients. In Sydney, most of the Thai food we eat comes from central Thailand; generally what’s popular in Bangkok and its surrounds, and it’s generally sweet, mild and eaten with jasmine rice.
Isan food is rarely sweet (aside from the milk teas, which are extremely so) and far more intense in almost every way, whether in sourness, spiciness, bitterness, pungency or overall flavour. It’s similar to Laotian cuisine (Isan borders Laos and has a large Laotian community).
It can be so intense Chantraporn often discourages those who find chilli challenging from ordering it. She says the som tum pu pla ra (papaya salad with salty pickled crab and Isaan-style fermented fish sauce) is not just spicy, it’s pungent. And the tom saep (a tom yum-like beef soup) is very sour. The goi dip (a raw beef salad tossed with fresh herbs and a spicy dressing) is bitter. “The farang will cry,” Chantraporn says with a laugh. (Thai people call foreigners “farang”.)
Chantraporn and Sumbaijai chef Mamm Krissanee explain it like this: Isan has history of extreme poverty. Many families, Chantraporn’s included, would have little food to spread across their rice, so they seasoned it fiercely to make sure the flavour came through. It’s also about the general Thai philosophy of cooking: everything should be balanced. If you make something extremely sour, for example, you need a lot of chilli, salt and sweetness to balance it out.
Not everything is intense. If you don’t want to commit to a fishy-smelling, extremely spicy papaya salad ask for lin yang (grilled ox tongue served with a roasted rice-based dipping sauce), nua dad diew (Thai-style marinated beef jerky) or Isan-style fermented pork sausages.
There’s also a non-Isan menu featuring all the Sydney Thai restaurant regulars: pad thai, green curry, fried rice. But Krissanee says it’s more often overlooked because the food here is so uncommon.
“Ahit is a very passionate chef. He makes all the ingredients himself. It’s very hard, he teaches me and I know the taste but sometimes I can’t do it,” says Krissanee. “He can make the real Isan taste, it has to be strong. If you want Isan food, you come here.”