Restaurant News

Brisbane’s Naga is a culinary homecoming for head chef Suwisa Phoonsang

After years dancing at the fringes of Thai cookery, the Bangkok-born chef returns to her roots.

By Yvonne C Lam
Suwisa Phoonsang, head chef at Brisbane's Naga.
In Thailand, Suwisa Phoonsang would prepare her family's green curry paste the traditional way – pounded by hand in a mortar and pestle, with each ingredient finely and thoroughly ground before adding the next. The entire process could take up to 45 minutes. "If it's not ground properly, my grandma would ask me to do it again," says Phoonsang. "[She'd say:] 'If it's incorrect, don't come back.'"
At the newly opened Naga at Brisbane's Eagle Street Pier, the head chef has absolved herself of hand-pounded labour, favouring electric grinding and blending equipment to make the curry pastes at the scale required for the 250-seat restaurant (it can host 150 diners under COVID-19 restrictions).
But for the Bangkok-born chef, the tastes of home still ring true throughout the Thai restaurant's expansive menu. "Every single dish on the menu reminds me of my childhood, my life in Thailand, the street food, the new year parties," says Phoonsang.
For years, the chef's career has danced at the fringes of Thai cookery. In the mid-2000s she worked at a couple of neighbourhood Thai restaurants before making for Ipswich's Stumps Hotel restaurant. There, she peppered the mod-Australian menu with quails marinated in curry paste and Thai-style chicken skewers. For the past five years, she's been the head chef at French-Vietnamese restaurant Libertine, where she snuck a som dtum onto the menu.
Cooking Thai food again, she says, feels like home. "It's quite an emotional feeling. This is what I've been dreaming of doing," says Phoonsang.
Gaeng keow wan luuk chin plaa (green curry with fish dumplings). Photo: Darcy Starr
Her grandma's green curry paste forms the backbone of the gaeng keow wan luuk chin plaa (green curry with fish dumplings). For starters, there's chor muang, delicate flower-shaped steamed dumplings stained purple with dehydrated butterfly pea flower, and stuffed with a textural filling of winter melon, candied peanuts and sam gur (a paste of white peppercorns, garlic and coriander root).
Elsewhere on the menu: khao soi, Chiang Mai's curry-noodle-soup; som dtum, with the dried shrimp and peanuts served on the side. Pad kra pao gai, a stir-fry of chicken mince and Thai basil, is Phoonsang's lunch of choice. "It has a real kick-punch of chilli and garlic," she says. "Sometimes I'll add fresh green peppercorns and a dash of Thai whisky."
The "E-saan char-grilled pork neck salad" riffs on nam tok, a salad of grilled beef or pork that hails from Thailand's Isan region, where Phoonsang's mother was born. At Naga the pork neck is marinated, char-grilled and sliced, then tossed through a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, shallots, chilli powder, and toasted ground rice. It's a "punchy and tangy" dish, says Phoonsang, that pays heed to the sweet, salty, spicy and sour flavours that are the pillars of Thai cookery.
Chor muang ("flower dim sims"). Photo: Darcy Starr
Naga is so named after the semi-divine serpentine beings of Hinduism and Buddhism – naga iconography often grace Buddhist temples and palaces in Thailand. The restaurant occupies the former Pony Dining space on Eagle Street Pier, with a bold-coloured '70s-inspired design by designer Anna Spiro. Thanks to a planned $2.1 billion redevelopment of the dining precinct, Naga is slated as a "long-term pop-up" restaurant.
The language of the Naga menu is worthy of study. The menu items are in English, with the provenance of the produce highlighted in quotation marks: "Jack's Creek" beef ribs, "Mt Tamborine chicken". The descriptions of the dishes are studded with the odd Thai word – the red curry contains "pak-chee", while the mung bean noodles simply contains "coriander"; there's "bai-makrud" in the pork belly stir-fry but "kaffir lime leaf" in the drunken noodles.
"One of the things we wanted to do was provide a glossary of terms for the menu to educate our clientele and staff of Thai pronunciation, and to lend a bit of authenticity," says Andrew Baturo, who co-owns Naga and Libertine with wife Jaimee Baturo. "However timelines prevailed and we didn't get a chance to finalise that glossary."
Naga co-owners Jaimee Baturo and Andrew Baturo. Photo: Darcy Starr
It's well intentioned, but one can't help but wonder if it'd have been more effective and meaningful in the long run to have used more Thai dish names instead. The ma hor is named as such. The pad Thai too. The khao soi, however, is listed as a chicken and coconut curry noodle soup, "from the north"; while the chor muang are described as "flower dim sims". A bilingual menu was their ideal, says Baturo, but they were ultimately constrained by page space. (There are some 40-plus dishes that run over two very populated pages.)
Phoonsang hopes in time diners will become familiar with Thai dish names. It lends an intimacy to the dish, and adds to the diner's knowledge and familiarity about a cuisine in the same way that linguine and croque monsieur are part of our everyday culinary vocabulary.
"[If you said] 'I went to one of the Thai restaurants in Eagle Street and had the pad siew', your friend will ask: 'what is pad siew?' And you'll start explaining it, and describing it, and they'll be like: 'I have to try that'," says Phoonsang. "I do believe there should be more real, authentic Thai names for dishes."
For the meantime, she's concerned less about what the dishes are called, and more with how they make people feel. "[There's a lot of] heart and soul we've put in there, and hopefully every person will come out of here smiling," she says. "I love what I do, and I'm so glad I'm here."
Naga, Eagle Street Pier, 45 Brisbane St, Brisbane, Qld
(07) 3220 0505
nagathai.com.au
Opening hours
Wed–Thu 11.30am–3pm, 5.30pm–10pm
Fri–Sat 11.30am–11pm
Sunday 11.30am –10pm