"I had my first spicy food when I was two years old," says Bangkok-born chef Suwisa Phoonsang.
Phoonsang is currently the head chef at Naga, a regional Thai restaurant in Brisbane — but her first exposure to full-blast chillies took place in Thailand, where she grew up.
Phoonsang didn't experience the fiery ingredient by accident, either — she actually sought it out.
Her parents had taken her to a local market in the country's south. As they stopped to have some food, she pointed out something she wanted. It was gang tai pa with khanom jeen — "one of the spicy dishes in the south of Thailand", Phoonsang explains. She compares it to a curry-style soup.
"They make it more spicy than the Bangkok curry [where Phoonsang spent her childhood]. The… gang tai pa is the spiciest."
So her parents wondered if she really wanted to try something so intense. "Are you sure?" they asked.
"Yes!" she replied. "At that age, I didn't even know what that food was or what it tasted like — all I knew at that time was I wanted to eat it."
They ordered it for her and, despite the powerful flavours, she actually finished it. In fact, she enjoyed it. Her parents couldn't believe it. She had withstood the mouth-burning sensations without even crying.
"I remember it so clearly because it was the first food I ever liked," she says. It signalled the beginning of her lifelong obsession with chilli, too.
"You can't believe how much chilli I put in my food," Phoonsang says. The chef happily handles such fiery intensity — but other people can't match her tolerance levels. "All the people and my family complain: 'if you're going to eat something like that, you're going to eat it yourself. Don't share with me'."
Chilli is also a key element in her dad's beloved green curry paste.
She remembers, at age 10, watching him come home from work, carrying bags of ingredients for the paste. He changed into a comfortable sarong — it was part of his ritual — and then started to prepare the curry.
His enthusiasm surprised her. Wasn't he tired from working all day at his government job? He smiled at her.
"No, I am happy to cook as I know you will enjoy eating the food I cook for you," he said. Then her father started prepping and pounding his green curry paste as he sang along to hits on the radio. He especially liked the music of Grand Ex, the first band in Thailand to reach one million album sales, back in 1979.
After working his mortar and pestle — crushing fresh lemongrass, turmeric, garlic, chillies, lime zest and roasted shrimp paste into a multi-flavoured mash — he would cook the green curry, leaving the house enveloped in this aromatic cloud of spices.
"It [was] like a giant hug of love," says Phoonsang. "During my childhood, food in our household was basic with no extras. However, my dad always made our meals so interesting."
Her dad went to so much effort, she wondered why he didn't just buy store-bought paste instead? Why put on a sarong and diligently make everything from scratch?
He winked at her. Her dad explained how important it was to create something so vibrantly fresh, to know about the individual elements that produced the flavours. Plus, a one-of-a-kind magic to making it yourself: "We can add our own special touch into these curry pastes that other people don't have," he told her.
So now she always creates curry paste from freshly ground and blitzed ingredients, even though it takes nearly an hour to do so. The just-pounded version is so flavoursome and overwhelming that it is "worth it", the chef says. And it conjures such a sweet memory of her father.
"I always remember the picture of him, cooking and singing. I also do it over here [in Brisbane], when I'm preparing my food, I will have the music going and I will sing while preparing with no one in here," she says.
"I still have his sarong with me, to give me some comfort. I asked if I can have that, when I left the country 20 years ago."
"When I'm preparing my food, I will have the music going and I will sing."
Phoonsang's culinary career began when she departed Bangkok in 2000, leaving her own government job to become an overseas student in Australia. "Not knowing one word of English, the only thing I could do was smile!" she says.
Her first kitchen hand job was at Sbi Sbi Thai restaurant in Brisbane. Her first head chef was a perfectionist. "He made me eat every single curry puff that I made which didn't meet his expectations for two days!" she says.
Nowadays, her role as head chef at Naga reminds her of Bangkok upbringing. "This menu is based on my childhood, what I like to eat, what I remember when I was young."
At Naga, she serves her father's green curry paste with handmade fish dumplings — a dish that's dedicated to him. This menu item also pays tribute to Phoonsang's grandmother, who shaped the fish balls and cooked them at home.
"This is the first time I learnt to do them, at Naga Thai. It's up and down," she says. Nailing the texture and consistency has taken serious effort and many, many hours. "The fish dumpling is really delicate."
Although she's served thousands of Australians diners over the years, she has yet to cook for her dad, who is in Thailand and unable to travel, due to his dialysis treatment.
But he continues to be an enthusiastic supporter of her cooking and catches up with her daily. He jokes about her need to pay him for using his intellectual property.
"Don't worry, it's coming!" she jokes back.
And Phoonsang carries on his cooking legacy, in her Naga kitchen in Brisbane — curry karaoke and all.
It's something she recommends. "You should try [it]. It makes your curry taste better."
Green curry paste
Makes 2 cups
- 4 green cayenne pepper chillies, deseeded and chopped
- 20 Thai green chillies
- 2 lemongrass stems, trimmed and finely chopped (around 2½-3 tbsp)
- 5 Thai red shallots, peeled and finely sliced
- 16 cloves garlic, peeled
- ½ bunch coriander roots
- 2 tbsp chopped coriander root and stem, roughly chopped (for colour)
- 2 tbsp galangal, finely sliced
- 1 large knob fresh turmeric
- 2 tsp makrut lime zest, finely sliced (use the green part of the lime skin only, the white part will make the curry paste bitter)
- 1 ½ tbsp dried shrimp paste, roasted (you can use belacan or gapi)
- 20 white peppercorns
- 1 ½ tbsp roasted coriander seeds
- 2 tsp roasted cumin seeds
- 2-3 tbsp water, as needed
1. Add the chillies, lemongrass, shallots, garlic, coriander root, galangal, turmeric, lime zest and shrimp paste to a food processor and blitz into a smooth paste.
2. Scrape down the sides as you blend the paste, to ensure all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed and set aside.
3. Grind the peppercorns, roasted coriander and cumin seeds until they become like a powder. Add to the paste with a large pinch of salt and mix through.
4. It's best to use the curry paste immediately. The paste will keep in the fridge for up to two weeks, or up to three months in the freezer.