Tom yum, pad Thai, pad see ew and green curry – this is how most Sydneysiders know Thai food. But ask someone from Thailand and they might rattle off a very different list of classics, one that’s shaped by where in Thailand they’re from.
Thai cuisine has four distinct styles: one in the North; one in the South; Isan food of the northeast; and the cuisine of Bangkok and its surrounding area.
For a long time in Sydney we could only get the latter, until of course David Thompson of Long Chim (among a long list of genre-defining ventures, Amy Chanta of Chat Thai and Spice I Am’s Sujet Saenkham) proved there was an audience for regional Thai food.
Now most of Sydney’s best Thai restaurants serve a mish-mash of the country’s four cuisines, and a few even specialise in one region. Here’s where to can get the best.
CENTRAL THAI FOOD
This could easily be split into two categories: Bangkok cuisine and the rest of the central plains region. The capital is a sprawling mega city with a diverse population, each of which have brought their own ingredients and cooking methods. You can find just about anything there but Thais from outside Bangkok will tell you everything there is watered down and generally sweeter.
The wider central plains cuisine is based around river agriculture – they’re famous for the quality of their rice, seafood and the use of coconuts – and follows a similar palette-friendly principle. This is what Sydney Thai food is largely based on – dishes such as tom yum, green curry, red curry, pad Thai and many noodles dishes (due to the historical Chinese influence in the area).
In cities on the edge of the region, like Nakhon Pathom or Phetchaburi, there’s more punch to the cuisine, but recipes from those cities are extremely rare in Sydney. If you’re looking to try some central food outside of the usual orders, ask for hor mok (a mousse textured fish curry that’s steamed in a banana leaf) or a fried oyster omelette, an enormously popular street food in the area.
299 Sussex Street, Sydney
SOUTHERN THAI FOOD
The southern Thai peninsula has a worthy claim to be the spiciest region on the planet. A curry named kaeng tai pla (a yellow curry with fermented bamboo shoots, fish innards and turmeric) is so volcanic it’s eaten almost exclusively by southerners because other Thais won’t touch it out of fear. Other dishes are equally pungent, salty and sometimes extremely bitter, so to balance that most meals are served with platters of fresh herbs, raw vegetables and fermented rice noodles. People then dip, mix with or layer them into the many bold soups and curries.
Curries are particularly important to the region – they’re part of almost every meal and there’s a bewildering diversity in how they’re made. They can have jackfruit, cassia leaves, pineapple, green papaya, sea snails and more. Because they are abundant in the area most will also have coconut and seafood.
Sadly, many curries are exclusive to the south but some, like massaman or gaeng som pla (an orange sour fish curry), are widely eaten.
ISAN THAI FOOD
In Sydney most good Thai restaurants will do a few Isan dishes, which is probably the second most popular food region of the country. That’s mostly because of the severe poverty of the area and it’s resulting diaspora, but also how widely accessible these staples are. The core is sticky rice, som tum (papaya salad, which is often served with pickled crabs and a heavily fermented fish sauce) and marinated grilled meats like gai yang (charcoal roasted chicken with a garlicky marinade) and kor moo yang (spicy grilled pork nech). Outside of these, the Lao-influenced cuisine can be intimidatingly pungent, sour and spicy. Fermented chilli relishes are common, and a popular raw beef larb is served with bile, an intensely bitter and grassy addition. Incredibly, all those dishes can be found in Sydney.
Saab Wer Thai Esan Restaurant
105 King Street, Newtown
[Nua Lao Thai]
768 George Street, Haymarket
NORTHERN THAI FOOD
This is easily the country’s least represented cuisine both here and there (there’s only one Sydney restaurant offering more than a handful of Northern specialities). That doesn’t reflect on its quality, there’s simply not many Northerners outside of Thailand.
The cuisine takes on a lot of influence from Lao, Burma and local ethnic groups, and due to the mountainous terrain and climate, seafood and coconut are almost absent. Instead most meals rely on a large range of herbs and vegetables, while the curries are thinner and based on bone broths. One of the distinct features is how they’re served. Instead of a typical banquet-style set up, everything comes in small portions on a woven bamboo platter called a khantoke. There’s always sticky rice, fresh herbs and raw vegetables in the middle, and around them an assortment of curries, fried meats, chilli relishes, noodles and fried pork skins.
The rice and greens are partly there as a tool to eat the other dishes (traditionally, everything is eaten by hand or with mushed up balls of rice) and as a foil to the cuisine’s fatty, rich flavours. Dishes to order are gaeng hang lay (a sweet and sour pork curry with tamarind and peanuts); khao soi (a laksa-like noodle soup popular on the streets of Chang Mai) and sai ua (a lemongrass-heavy pork sausage often served with raw ginger and chilli).
20 Campbell St, Haymarket
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.
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