From the street, the Original Thai Restaurant can't be missed, lit up by a neon purple sign on Island Bay's main strip.
Celebrating its 20th birthday this year, the suburban restaurant hasn't changed much in two decades. Inside, it's humble but distinctly Thai, cosy and brightly lit, with traditional decorations and pictures of past Thai monarchs on the walls.
Owner Pairat Chantarajorn and his wife, Nok, opened the establishment with their family in 1993, three years after they moved to Wellington. "The first thing I need to say is a thank-you to the people of Island Bay," he says.
With a hospitality background in Thailand, Pairat began working at a friend's Thai restaurant, but it wasn't long before he felt the urge to open his own. The Original Thai includes recipes from both regions they hail from. Pairat is from Samut Prakarn, just outside of Bangkok in central Thailand, and Nok is from Chiang Mai in the north, where the cuisine is notably different. The $7.50 "money purse" - deep fried chicken wrapped in spring roll sheet and tied with spring roll leaves - is inspired by those served in Thailand's royal court, while seafood and tom yum soup dishes originate from central Thailand. Northern Thai cuisine is typically based on different kinds of chilli paste, or "nam phrik".
Nok and her sister, Savinee James, were initially the restaurant cooks, but now alternate between helping in the kitchen and at front of house. Their sons, Timmy and Natee, as well as Savinee's daughter, Pearl, all help out.
The children were all born after the family moved to New Zealand and grew up with the restaurant as a major part of their lives. While studying at Scots College, Pairat's eldest son, Timmy, would bring friends and their families to the restaurant, some of whom are still regular customers. Legend has it that when Mike Moore was based at the Beehive, he trekked across town to dine here.
Chef Anut Boontueng is not relative, but is an old family friend of Nok and Savinee from Chiang Mai and has worked at Original Thai for 10 years.
These days, Thai food is easy to find and there are even fine-dining adaptations catering to Western tastes. However, traditional Thai food that actually tastes like the original - and is cooked by Thais - is much more difficult to come by.
Certain combinations of vegetables, herbs, spices and sauces characterise the distinctive flavours of Thai cooking. For those who have spent time in Asia and returned to Wellington, it can be frustrating to discover that while there are many Thai restaurants, very few accurately recreate these distinguishing flavours.
Pairat says the key is using genuine imported Thai ingredients. Fresh ingredients such as vegetables are sourced locally. All the chilli, spices, sauces, jasmine rice and dry goods are authentic. The spicy beef salad, for example, tastes just like those in Thailand.
The reason the food in some Thai restaurants does not quite taste like real Thai cuisine is that they use local substitutes for important ingredients, and the flavour isn't the same, Pairat says. In addition, many restaurants aren't even run by Thai chefs.
Sadly, says, some dishes simply can't be the same. Phad kra-pao, a national Thai dish, requires a certain type of Thai basil. When grown in New Zealand's cold temperatures, the basil doesn't develop a strong enough flavour.
Importing is not an option, because the basil must be fresh and it would not survive the flight from Thailand.
Some regular customers have been coming to the Original Thai since the early days. When Life visited, Pairat pointed out one man who had been dining at the restaurant for 16 years.
Customers become like friends and family over the years, Pairat says. A group of elderly people used to be regular diners at the restaurant, but over the years their numbers have dwindled as they have become ill or passed on. "It's very sad, very sad," he says.
About two years ago, Pairat expanded by opening a second Original Thai Restaurant in Tory St, but eventually sold it because he was overworked. "Too many hours, non-stop, no brakes." Despite this experience, he hopes to open another restaurant, possibly as a franchise, ideally places Khandallah, although he says that buildings are hard to find.
In typical style, the restaurant will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a Thai feast later this year.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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