From my home to yours: The story of Saan restaurant
Ponsonby's Saan restaurant embraces diversity and celebrates it as one of the things that exemplifies Auckland. We meet Chef Lek who shares three of his family's dishes
One of the things I like so much about Auckland is its ethnic diversity. Not only are there always interesting people to watch but this diversity seems to have made an impact on food in the city. Until a few years ago there were indeed restaurants serving exotic cuisines but these were often of the sort that just served a standardised formula version of whatever cuisine they represented.
This meant most Chinese restaurants served the same “pan-Chinese” menu (ditto for Indian, Thai and Italian restaurants). It was as if the chefs were serving food that was their idea of what a predominantly pakeha clientele wanted or thought the food should be. Later we got a rash of Asian-esque restaurants serving a menu of depressingly uniform dishes often all with vaguely sweet/sour flavours.But there seems to be a change taking place, with ethnic restaurants serving the sort of food that is truer to its roots with specialised regional food from their home countries.
Perhaps the increase in immigrants has raised the stakes and ethnic restaurateurs realise they are more discerning. This is good for everyone and includes the cheap and cheerful regional Chinese or Indian restaurants in Dominion Rd or in Sandringham or more flash restaurants in Ponsonby.
Saan restaurant on Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd is a great example of co-operative ethnic diversity. Hospitality legend Krishna Botica and her partners of Cafe Hanoi and Xuxu fame, realised they had a northern Thai cuisine exponent in their midst who had been working for them at Cafe Hanoi for four years, cooking Vietnamese food. Wichian Trirattanavatin — or Lek, as he is called — had the idea to open a Thai restaurant, and put it to Krishna and partners.
Chef Lek, at work at Saan. Photo by Tam West
Their first response was no, there were too many (and often not very good) Thai restaurants in Auckland, but Lek presented several of his dishes, including some from his northern Thai home, to illustrate how different his food was and their interest was piqued.
A trip to northern Thailand to explore the cuisine and meet Lek’s family was next and as Krishna says “food is the cornerstone of any culture” so a real understanding of Thai culture was made easier.
The more they found out about Lek’s food and culture the more their interest in creating an original restaurant serving regional Thai food grew.
The result is Saan. Lek trained at the Royal Cooking School in Bangkok which in his year had a thousand applicants for places; they took 28, nine passed and one of them was Lek.
Lek is the fourth generation of a family of male and female Thai chefs. Saan serves his family’s recipes of household Thai food. Krishna and partners had to meet the family and get permission to use the recipes.The result is robust and clear flavours, the hallmark of great food.
At Saan you can really appreciate the genius of Thai cooking that uses quite aggressively flavoured ingredients like chillies or ginger and turns it into one of the world’s most elegant, refined cuisines. The French may say "keep it simple” but for the Thais, harmony of flavours is pre-eminent and Lek excels at the balancing of the cuisines sweet, salty, sour and hot flavours.
This might all sound very folkloric and a little cheesy but it was the beginning of the cultural journey that resulted in a restaurant that has a high regard for the Thai way of doing things and is one of the things that ensures Saan is a unique Kiwi dining experience.
As the team at Saan is a mixture of nationalities, inevitably the experience there is one of Kiwi-Thai fusion in all its diversity, but Krishna and partners have translated this well for a Kiwi setting and the food is definitely Lek’s. The kitchen is organised like one in a Thai household, albeit with commercial equipment — Lek has worked in enough Western kitchens to understand how to make a restaurant work in New Zealand.
The cultural touches that make a Thai food experience are observed (the sticky rice is served covered, not open, as is traditional and though Lek is the chef, there is a traditional Thai collaborative calmness in the approach to organisation). They have gone to the trouble of getting it right and it works.
Here Lek shares three of his family favourites that are simple enough for any Kiwi kitchen.
"Somtum is a traditional dish widely made in the North Eastern region of Thailand (Isaan). People from Isaan are mostly farmers, and they usually gather together after farming as a large communal group to have lunch or dinner. Because they work hard in very hot weather, they want dishes that are easy to make and refreshing, and somtum is a vital dish with every meal.
"It’s very tasty and goes well with sticky rice, which gives these farmers substantial energy for hard labour. They have also found that green papaya contains very high levels of vitamin C, which helps with their immune system. I was always the one to go forage for papaya and other ingredients in the backyard for my grandma’s somtum."
"Khao soi means hand-cut rice noodle in Thai, because original flat egg noodles contain rice flour. It is a true traditional northern region (Lanna) dish, which was influenced by the Chin Haws (Chinese Muslim people who migrated to Thailand via Burma).
"The dish is a blend of Chinese, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian. It is very rare to find khao soi in any other part of Thailand, but it’s commonly found in the North, especially in Chiang Mai. My mother is originally from the Phichit Province, Northern Region, and she passed on the family’s khao soi recipe to me. It is a very unique one.
"Phichit Province produces the best quality rice and, therefore, they have the best khao soi flat egg noodles. Traditionally, khao soi can be made with beef or chicken, but some people do use pork or sai ua sausage for this dish."
"Larb is a traditional dish from Isaan and duck larb is well-known, especially in Udon Thani. Every household has a different recipe for larb and I believe my family’s recipe is one of the best. People of Udon Thani usually cook larb to share in their village for special occasions.
"Duck is considered premium meat to use and it is normally raised in their backyards. Udon Thani has many duck farms and these farmers compete to show their duck’s quality by cooking larb with their duck. My job was to catch (and kill) the duck from our back yard for this special dish and my great-grandma passed down the family’s recipe to me orally. I have recreated this dish as closely as I can."