Same, same but different: verdict on Sydney Thai

IF THERE'S one authentically unauthentic word in cooking it is, well, "authentic". Few chefs have striven for authenticity more than Australia's David Thompson but even he has to concede that truly authentic Thai cuisine outside Thailand is an essentially hopeless cause.

Nothing can substitute, after all, for the quality of the produce that is found, prepared and cooked in the country where the cuisine originated. It's something that Thompson, back in the days when his Sydney restaurant, Darley Street Thai, was the hottest Thai restaurant outside Thailand, may not have admitted.

And while most of his dishes are as spicy as ever, the chef has mellowed. He's even allowing for some mild curries to find their way on to the menu of his world top 50-rated Bangkok restaurant, Nahm. Back in Sydney yesterday, Thompson was testing a pungent Thai pork and tomato curry.

The dish will be served at two Sydney International Food Festival dinners this week at Surry Hills's Bentley Restaurant & Bar. But you still can't find tomatoes of the sour Bangkok variety Thompson favours here so he's had to substitute ordinary cherry tomatoes, made a tad more sour with the addition of tamarind water.

"There's some great [Thai-style] produce here," he says. "There is some wonderful jackfruit, pink and luscious, decent holy basil, the lemongrass tastes differently to Thailand and the chillies taste somewhat differently. But I didn't realise that until I started cooking in Bangkok on a full-time basis.

"When I was cooking at Darley Street Thai I thought we were a culinary Eden where so much was available. But it is, just like wine, all about the terroir. If you're cooking ethnic food and trying to create some authenticity no matter how good the ingredients they're going to taste differently."

However, as technically unauthentic as it may be, diners this week can be assured, based on Thompson's reputation, that his dishes will represent the best Thai food cooked in Sydney, or anywhere outside Thailand. In fact, Thompson's Sydney guests can count themselves lucky.

At his Nahm restaurant in London - the first Thai restaurant to win, and lose, a Michelin star - draconian European Union import restrictions now prevent Thompson from importing any ingredients from Thailand.

Really, it's enough to make a stellar chef as sour as a Bangkok tomato.

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