Chef Nu Suandokmai is a common thread in many of Adelaide’s best Thai restaurants – Nu Thai, Golden Boy, Gin Long Canteen, and Lantern by Nu, to name a few. But in recent years a handful of Thai-born former-Sydneysiders have entered the Adelaide arena. The result: a spike in family-fuelled venues serving true-to-tradition Thai food that stands up to the competition.
Bangkok-born Kate and Boyd Pattarapongkasame – owners of UR Caffe, which opened on Melbourne Street in 2011 – first moved to Sydney in 2007 as international students. Both worked part-time in cafes and restaurants, before establishing more permanent careers in hospitality.
It was a similar trajectory for the cousins behind O’Connell Street’s year-old Zaep: Tastes of Thailand. Nathapon ‘Tee’ Thipmujcharchai and Chalit ‘Ekkie’ Peetisirikun left Bangkok for Sydney as students, too. Tee owned a couple of restaurants (one of which he still operates) while Ekkie worked in cafes.
Before opening Kin Kin Thai Eatery on Hutt Street in 2016, couple Wannee Muangpakorn and Noppadol Sophon had been in Sydney since 2005. They too moved from Bangkok, but with a sole focus on hospitality and experience in five-star hotels.
Why Sydney? The Thai population there is one of the largest in any of Australia’s capital cities. “A [Thai] guy could live in Sydney for 10 years and never speak English – working in a Thai restaurant, living with Thai people and watching Thai DVDs,” Wannee says.
Despite Sydney’s size, they all knew each other. In a Potts Point cafe Kin Kin’s owners met Ekkie from Zaep. UR Caffe’s Kate and Boyd knew the owners of Kin Kin and Zaep distantly through friends, but finally got talking – by chance – when they became customers at the North Adelaide cafe.
Unsurprisingly, the sheer numbers of Thai people in Sydney explains the number of Thai restaurants. “There are heaps, and there’s tough competition,” Wannee says.
“You have Chinatown in Adelaide and Sydney,” Kate says. “But there’s also Thai Town in Sydney.” A stretch of Campbell Street in the central suburb of Haymarket is completely Thai-dedicated. It’s the same in the inner-west. “In Newtown there are like 50 Thai restaurants on one street,” Tee says.
Among these venue operators the general consensus behind moving to Adelaide was to gear down from the fast-paced Sydney lifestyle. All had holidayed briefly in Adelaide, but knew very little about our Thai scene, before moving here.
“I tried to find a [Thai-owned] restaurant,” says Kate of her 2009 trip to Adelaide. “I knew of only one authentic Thai restaurant – Star of Siam.” Considering other, non-Thai-owned restaurants around at the time, Kate says, “I think they adjusted the flavours to suit people [in Australia].” Ekkie agrees: “Restaurants that have a Thai menu but aren’t run by Thai people can have more of a Western style.”
Kin Kin set out to put home-style Thai cooking on the map. “If we don’t eat it [at home], we don’t serve it,” says Wannee. “In Thailand we don’t use broccoli or zucchini or capsicum.” So you won’t find them dunked in your curry or tossed in your stir-fry.
You also won’t find dishes adapted for the Western palate. Wannee gestures to the spicy som tum (green papaya salad). “It has to be hot and fishy,” she pronounces. “If it’s not hot enough you can’t kill the fishy smell [from the dried shrimp].”
Regional dishes are always a focus, but they shine brightest at one-off degustations. Previously, one was dedicated to Thailand’s north, and another to the north-east Isan region. “People are interested to learn how we eat in a particular part,” Wannee says.
Zaep’s approach at Taste of Thailand is similarly nostalgic for home. “We try to make it as close to what we’re eating at home as possible,” Tee says. “Authentic?” I ask. “We don’t like to use that word,” Ekkie says.
“There’s nothing set in stone in cooking,” he explains. “I’ve got Chinese background as well as Thai so some dishes might have influences from there. Or I might put something that is trending now – something Japanese, maybe – that might not be how we do it back home.”
Kate and Boyd from UR Caffe used their respective patisserie and coffee skills to open a cafe with touches of their heritage, instead of a restaurant reliant on it.
The usual cafe culprits are heightened with Thai flavours. Chilli paste (usually a base for curry or tom yum soup) binds together crispy corn fritters; a spicy-coconut, choo-chee-like sauce is drizzled in place of hollandaise; and five-spice-marinated pork belly and chicken-satay tartine are step-above cafe offerings.
Unprompted, Kate praises Nu, who she says paved the way for growth in Adelaide’s Thai scene. “I think [he’s] done a great job here”, she says, calling out the pad thai and papaya salad at Lantern by Nu as “exactly like we have in Thailand”.
But exactly how far has Adelaide come in the past five or so years? “I think we’ve grown up a lot,” Kate says. “[Diners] are open to real tastes, they can accept more spice.”
In turn, restaurants have broadened their horizons. “They can offer something new,” Kate says. “Well, not actually new, but something we’ve never really had here.” She references Kin Kin’s gui chai – a homemade deep-fried garlic-chive cake. “When you walk the streets [of Thailand] people are frying these on the side of the road,” Kate says. Zaep’s steamed sago balls stuffed with pork mince are also a Thai street-food staple.
Wannee agrees: “If you see [Zaep’s] food or our food it’s different from the other Thai you’ve seen in the past 10 years … It’s more original Thai.”
“The Thai community is also getting bigger,” she adds, which helps build a chef’s repertoire. “We want Thai people working with us in the kitchen because we want knowledge, we want to know how [their] family cooks.”
Comparing Adelaide’s Thai scene to Sydney’s – at a glance – is folly. We’ll never be that big. But we’ve come a long way.
“Thinking about quantity, Sydney has more … obviously,” Tee says. “But I think we’ve got a higher percentage of quality.”
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