By Sheila Ngọc Phạm
Pork rinds and herbs escape from my toasted sourdough sandwich, spilling onto the plate. With such a loose and unruly filling this is a meal to linger over, rather than be swallowed down hastily. It’s not a sandwich you can eat with one hand while typing with the other, which is fitting as, typically, lunch is not eaten in Thailand in distracted isolation. When I lived in Chiang Mai lunch was usually hot and eaten slowly with my Thai workmates at a communal table.
“Sarni by day, Isaan by night” is written in white lettering on the shopfront glass of Boon Café. It’s a singular declaration because who would ever think to look for both in the same place? If you were to imagine the diets of typical Sydneysiders as a Venn diagram, a sandwich (“sarni”) and Isaan don’t ever overlap, if it’s even known that the latter refers to northeastern Thailand. But here in Thai Town, perhaps this intermarriage was inevitable, giving birth to the larpb padt sandwich.
Most people in this city don’t even know that this sandwich is a thing, let alone that its existence represents something fundamental about where they live. After all, Sydney is home to a quarter of all Thai restaurants in Australia and it’s where the first Thai restaurant opened in 1976. Since then, Thai cuisine has quickly become a fixture of the modern Australian diet; the constant movement of people to and from Thailand has only reinforced local taste for the cuisine. As the years pass, additional nuances are introduced beyond the standard dozen dishes.
Meanwhile the humble sandwich has its roots in Australia’s colonial past. Even its most basic configurations – like ham, cheese, and tomato on white bread – relies on ingredients derived from the British introduction of non-native flora and fauna from the late 18th century. Of course, most of us take this agricultural provenance for granted, and a sandwich is just a sandwich. But it’s a versatile form that keeps evolving, influenced by culinary trends, migration patterns, and new ingredients.
The menu describes the larpb padt sandwich as “northern region stir fried spicy minced pork, grilled chicken liver, soft herb & pickled cabbage salad.” Larpb is a salad likely brought to the north of Thailand (and neighbouring countries) by the Chin Haw, migrants from southwestern China, and then spread throughout the country. Now it’s migrated to Australia along with a sizeable Thai population. Given that larpb is a salad, this is technically a salad sandwich, though one more akin to the ubiquitous and popular bánh mì thịt, a Vietnamese speciality also indebted to mixed heritage, than a bland iceberg lettuce-based salad sandwich.
The Thai have long been inventive with their cuisine but you probably won’t find such a sandwich back in the home country, where bread tends to be sweet. In Sydney, however, widely popular sourdough is an obvious choice. Boon Café’s bread comes from famed bakery Brickfields, one of a number of the establishment’s local suppliers. As it turns out, sourdough is the perfect canvas for shredded carrot and pickled purple cabbage alongside minced pork, liver slices and an unorthodox combination of herbs – perilla, coriander, spring onion, and continental parsley.
These vegetables comes from the Boon Luck Farm near Byron Bay which supplies not just this cafe but also the rest of a food empire run by these first-generation farmers and second-generation restaurateurs. Jarern Chai Grocer, adjacent to the café and stocked with farm produce, is part of this empire.
After a few bites the spice hits me with full force, the ground up dried chili of the dressing permeating every mouthful. A swig of my Yakult drink dissolves over my tongue, the classic sweet bubblegum flavour neutralising the familiar heat of Thailand in this unfamiliar setting. This is not a sandwich that’s been toned down for the farang palate: it demands an embrace of a new world way of eating.
1/425 Pitt Street, Haymarket NSW 2000