A column about Thai restaurants

The statistic that a million Australians now live overseas is often quoted these days. And every Christmas, it seems like half of them return to Sydney to regale us of their exciting lives in New York, London and other exotic climes. But for all the amazing experiences they bore us with, like how they flew to Ibiza last weekend and hung out with Moby, or how nightclubs in London have so much better drugs than ours, there are some things they can’t get overseas.

In December and January, our beaches are jam-packed full of pale expat Australian skin alongside the regular pasty Poms, desperately trying to get a tan so they can make their workmates jealous when they get back to London. And even the most desperate-to-impress expat acknowledge that Sydney coffee is better. But the one thing I’ve been finding my overseas-dwelling friends miss about Sydney above all is Thai food.

As a result, I’ve been eating Thai several times a week since mid-December, and each time I’m reminded how lucky Sydneysiders are to be blessed with such an abundance of excellent Thai restaurants. Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook sparked a controversy a few years ago when he declared that chicken tikka masala was now a British national dish. (Which comes as a huge relief to anyone who’s tried other forms of British cuisine.) Australia’s more relaxed about these things, but if somebody claimed pad thai as our national dish, no-one would be likely to disagree with them. Well, outside of Cronulla.

It wasn’t this way when I grew up. I only had my first proper Thai meal at around the age of 16. Suburban Chinese with luminous sweet-and-sour pork was about as exotic as things got in my childhood. But once I’d eaten enough Thai to know my green curry from my masuman, I went crazy – especially at uni, when the combination of flavour and cheapness made it the perennial eating-out option.

The other reason was because Sydney Uni is so close to King St, the undisputed Thai food capital of Sydney. I don’t know what the maximum possible number of Thai restaurants in one street is, but Newtown must surely have passed it. I counted fourteen on King St using the White Pages website, and there were at three I could think of that weren’t even in the list. Although if you’d asked me to guess, I would have said there were around 600.

But one thing concerns me deeply about Sydney’s Thai scene. I fear there may be a decline in the the quality that we all love almost as much as the food. Our Thai restaurateurs are becoming tired from pun names. Or, as they would have said in better, wittier times, Thai-red of pun names.

Glancing down the list of King St’s Thai establishments, there is a distinct shortage of plays on words. Thai Pothong, Thai Jaroen and Thai La-Ong aren’t trying, while Thai Land deserves a fail grade for not even trying. The only establishments waving the flag these days are good old Thai Tanic, Thai Riffic and the very clever Thai Times Nine, which makes no sense whatsoever until you realise it’s at 45 King St – five times nine. Bravo.

I think it’s time the National Trust stepped in. All Thai pun names like Bow Thai, Thai Me Up and Thainatown should be slapped with heritage orders immediately. But I’d go even further. I would insist that all Thai restaurants in Sydney must henceforth be given a pun name.

Some restaurateurs may argue that all the good ‘Thai’ puns have gone. Surely not? But even if they have, one of Sydney’s most acclaimed new Thai restaurants, Spice I Am, in Wentworth Avenue in the city, has shown the way – “Siam”, of course, is the former name of Thailand.

We must all do our bit to preserve Sydney’s unique Thai pun heritage. So next time you go to a restaurant without one, suggest one. (Personally, I’m going to tell Thai Pothong it should change its name to Thai Napple.) We can make it happen – but only if we are willing to Thai.

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