My first bite at Spice I Am is into a serving of Bour Tod. Crispy betel leaves topped with a Phuket style fritter of green prawns with sweet chili sauce and ground cashew nut. The mix of flavours and the texture is sensational. You might say you had me at “hello”.
Sujet Saenkham is serving up a selection of his favourites, quite possibly the best Thai food Sydney has on offer, and I await each course with eager anticipation. If the first dish is anything to go by, I’m in for a treat.
Sujet first moved to Australia some 30 years ago, and after working as a Qantas flight attendant for 15 years, decided to follow his passion for food and put his family’s recipes to good use.
Originally from the Ratchaburi province, in Central Thailand, Sujet has also worked as a chef in Phuket, so his menus are a mix of recipes primarily from these two regions.
“Each part of Thailand has its own character and the food in each region reflects a particular way of life.”
Ratchaburi is where you’ll find the famous floating markets, about 90 minutes drive south-west of Bangkok. During Sujet’s childhood, it was a quiet town. It was a former administrative centre – the old southern gate house to the capitol – and so many residents were government employees.
His mother was a great entertainer, so dinner parties were a regular occurrence, in fact, most of Sujet’s knowledge as a chef came from helping his mother in the kitchen.
The principles with which Sujet now manages his growing business are very much based on the traditions he was taught growing up;
“My business is about making people happy, not making a profit.”
His Thai upbringing taught him a respect for all living things, an appreciation for the produce grown on their farms, and a balance in nature and in life.
“Cooking is a social activity and we all show an appreciation, respect and gratitude for the produce harvested and served at our table.”
As well as running five restaurants, Sujet now manages a farm in Kangaroo Valley where he has over 400 Tahitian and kaffir Lime trees, chili, lemongrass, basil and coriander crops.
His first restaurant, Spice I Am on Darlinghurst Rd opened in 2004 and this remains ‘home-base’ for Sujet, although he now owns five restaurants and spends his time floating between them.
While I’m sure it’s ridiculously busy in the kitchen (the restaurant also serves takeaway and home delivery), the restaurant itself an oasis of calm on this busy Darlinghurst road. This is the place to come for a romantic dinner or a long chatty catch up with the girls (you can hear yourself speak).
It is here that I get to sample the taste sensation that is Bour Tod. The next dish served up is Ho Mok Pla, a Phuket style steamed fish curry wrapped in banana leaf. It’s so light it practically dissolves in your mouth.
We’re then served a crispy coconut salad topped with spicy prawns, chicken larb and Naem Khao Thod, a salad of Thai pork sausage, coriander, eschalot, mint, chili and ground peanuts. Chicken larb is already a firm favourite of mine, but I have to say quite honestly this is the best I’ve ever tasted.
And finally I’m convinced that I must try Sujet’s signature dessert, cheekily named BTS (Better Than Sex). Toasted brioche is served with pandan gelato, topped with caramel sauce and toasted sesame seeds. Wow.
The atmosphere at Surry Hills Eating House is quite different. It’s a more casual dining establishment located on the upper level of Triple Ace Bar – formerly the long-term home of Harry’s Singapore Chili Crab.
Drinks are purchased at the bar so we pick out a Pinot Gris before getting down to the serious business of eating.
We start with a prawn cake salad, deep fried prawn patties served with a mixed green salad and a light chili fish sauce dressing and the Kuay plee tod; minced pork, spring onion and peanuts wrapped in rice paper, steamed and served in light broth.
Our next dish is one of Sujet’s specialities. Mien Ka Na is a sweet and sour flossy pork salad with finger limes (from Spice I Am Farm), ginger, eschallot and fresh chili. It’s served with green Chinese broccoli leaves, which are used to scoop up the spiced pork floss and eat it, Sang Chow Bow-style.
Because I’m already so enamored of Sujet’s Thai pork sausages, we also choose the Nam Khao tod. Crispy rice salad with sausage, chili powder, ground peanut, coriander, eschalot, spring onion, mint leaves.
Having the opportunity to chat with the lovely Sujet has made this meal even more memorable. I now have an even greater appreciation for the passion that inspired these dishes. Although really – you just need to taste them to understand that.
Sujet shares some of his secrets in his wonderful cookbook, published by Penguin Books. Here’s a little tutorial on how to make Pad Thai…
The Darlinghurst establishment is located at 296-300 Victoria St. and is open for dinner seven days a week, and lunch Thursday to Sunday, for fine dining. Takeaway and delivery are also available here.
Spice I Am Surry Hills is located at 90 Wentworth Ave, open for lunch and dinner, BYO but no reservations.
Surry Hills Eating House in Surry Hills is upstairs at 198-200 Elizabeth St, Surry Hills and only open for dinner.
House Thai, at 202 Elizabeth St, Surry Hills, is open for lunch and dinner and specializes in food from the area of Isaan in North Eastern Thailand. N
Spice I Am also opened recently in Balmain, at 237 Darling St, open for dinner seven days, and open for lunch Thursday to Sunday.
More information: spiceiam.com