• It's time to tuck into Thai food! (Jiwon Kim)Source: Jiwon Kim
"People have changed their perception of Thai food for the better. There is so much nuance to Thai food, it's not just food that's as hot as it can be."
Renata Gortan

1 May 2019 - 9:55 AM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2021 - 10:27 AM

--- Learn cooking techniques from across Asia with Diana Chan on the brand-new second season of Asia Unplated with Diana Chan, Thursdays at 8pm on SBS Food, or stream it on SBS On Demand. ---


When Sujet Saenkham opened Spice I Am in Surry Hills, Sydney, 15 years ago, he made a controversial decision that he wouldn’t water down his dishes for the Australian palate.

"At the beginning, it was mainly Thai people and expats that used to live in Thailand," the 55-year old says.

"It took a year for more western customers to come. People knew the flavours I was doing, but no one cook the way I cook. They say it was too hot, too salty and a perception that it had to be cheap.  

Sujet Saenkham's chicken and lemongrass salad.

"Our price point was high for Thai cuisine. I didn't understand why it had to be cheap; we buy the same ingredients as an Italian restaurant, garlic and chilli, from the same supplier."

Spice I Am was all about the dishes Saenkham grew up with, a love letter to the home cooks of central Thailand.

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He challenged local palates again with House Thai, which specialised in northern Thai cuisine as a nod to his mother's heritage. For many western diners, it was their first experience of the thrilling, painfully fiery flavours of Isaan cuisine's coconut-free curries that tested even the most seasoned chilli-lovers.

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The Surry Hills Eating House followed, concentrating on the food of Phuket which blended the cuisines of Hakka Chinese, Malay and Thai. 

Six years ago, Saenkham closed all but the original Spice I Am. Now he spends most of his time on his farm in the Kangaroo Valley growing the ingredients that a hit on the Spice I Am menu.

"It used to be hard to find real Thai flavour, but now it's easy. I think they (other Australians) understand better now." 

"I'm very proud I can introduce so many kinds of Thai cuisine to Australia, and proud Australia can accept where I am coming from. It used to be hard to find real Thai flavour, but now it's easy. I think they (other Australians) understand better now," he says.

These days, Palisa Anderson, also grows heirloom Thai ingredients, which are used across the Chat Thai restaurant group. But she didn't understand the impact her mother had on shaping Thai cuisine in Australia until she was shopping for underwear in Milan.

"This woman came up to me and told me she still remembers going to get Thai food every afternoon for lunch. People remember and associate Thai food in Australia with mum," she says.

Mum is the late Amy Chanta who opened the first Chat Thai restaurant 30 years ago.

Chanta's genius was knowing that the ubiquitous green, red curry and massaman curries were a gateway to introduce new flavours to a broader audience.

"Thai food across the spectrum has influences from so many parts of the world; Chinese, Pan-Asian, the Indian influence in northern food, the way people use spices and the use of coconut milk," Anderson says.

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"People have changed their perception of Thai food for the better. There is so much nuance to Thai food, it's not just food that's as hot as it can be. Chilli has only been used in Thailand for 200 years when it was introduced from South America, before that they relied on aromatics to give fragrance and character."

Anderson's favourite dish on the menu right now is stir-fried bitter melon with scrambled egg, white pepper, and fresh and pickled garlic.

"You won't see this on menus, ever. It's a home-cooked dish. At the start, no one ordered it. Then the old aunties came in and word spread," she says.  

"I love that we can have a hand in reintroducing those flavours to a general palate."

Michelin-star Australian chef and Thai food expert David Thompson started out cooking refined Thai flavours at Darley Street Thai in 1992, and these days celebrates the street food of Bangkok at his Long Chim venues in Singapore, Perth and Sydney.

David Thompson's Long Chim is inspired by the fun of Bangkok, the aroma, noise and heat that tourists fall in love with and want a taste of when they return hom

"When I first started cooking, some time ago, there was not really a great distinction between meatballs, pasta, northern or southern Italian food. Didn’t it all come from a can? " he says.   

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"And that same sophistication and diversification is happening in Southeast Asian food and Thai food in particular. When the ingredients can be grown here, there's a stronger immigrant community and more Australians who travel; it leads to greater sophistication."

"Darley Street and its successor [Michelin-star] Nahm followed a refined route; upmarket, rarefied and extremely authentic," he says. "It was a reflection of the highly disciplined past. Authenticity and tradition were paramount, and with the zeal of the convert, I was f**king orthodox."

He may have been cooking elaborate, traditional dishes but in Bangkok, he always gravitated towards street food. He was inspired by the fun of Bangkok - the aroma, noise and heat that tourists fall in love with and want a taste of when they return home.

"I have a rapscallion sense of humour, I pretend to be refined, but I do like noodles. It was impossible to serve those kinds of dishes at Nahm. The idea of having a relaxed, easy going restaurant was heaven," Thompson tells SBS.

The first Australian Long Chim opened in 2017 and it's not that the local market wasn't ready for it, but that Thompson wasn't there yet.  

"For a very long time, dishes were written as ingredients; we didn’t have them by name. Stir-fried noodles with soy sauce should have sold; it's a really popular dish in Thailand. As soon as we called it pad see ew, Westerners knew it, and it sold - almost as much as pad Thai."


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