How Paste is bringing royal Thai cuisine to Mittagong
Bee Satongun has gone from helping out at her mum’s street-food stall in Bangkok to earning a Michelin star at her Bangkok restaurant Paste – a concept she’s recently brought to NSW’s lush Southern Highlands.
Tastes like home: Paste
Tastes like home: Paste
Michelin starred chef Bee Satongun who was awarded the World’s Best Female Chef by The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, shares how her family cooking and food philosophy was brought to her restaurant Paste in Mittagong. Be mesmerised with the flavours of traditional Thai cooking and how Bee has managed to balance the complexity of flavours in her dishes.
Bee Satongun started cooking alongside her mother when she was five – before most other chefs can even butter a slice of toast. As a child, she’d wake up every morning at 5am to help her mother prep for her food stall in the heart of Bangkok, put in a full day at school, then return home to help out again. It was a tough slog for a kid, but all those years as her mum’s sidekick have set her up for success well beyond the streets of Bangkok.
“The main thing she liked me to do is to taste her food and tell her if she needed anything else,” says Satongun. “So that’s how she trained me to be able to taste the food [like I’m] able to today.”
With her husband, Southern Highlands-born Jason Bailey, Bee heads up a modern-Thai restaurant Paste in Bangkok, as well as a spin-off in the Laotian city of Luang Prabang. Paste Bangkok has been awarded a Michelin star five years in a row, and Bee was named Asia’s best female chef in 2018 by the prestigious World’s 50 Bestv Restaurants. In 2020, the pair opened an outpost of Paste in the tranquil Southern Highlands town of Mittagong.
The restaurants take their name from curry paste – what Bee calls “the essence of Thai food”. She spent years researching old dishes traditionally served to the Thai royal family, which were typically more complex than those ordinary citizens would eat.
Satongun combs through old royal cookbooks to create her menus, using traditional recipes to work out the ratios of ingredients such as dry spices, chilli, lemongrass, and garlic, then using those foundations to put her own creative mark onto dishes. She says 80 per cent of each dish is rooted in tradition, with the remaining 20 per cent resting on her own creative flair – whether that be tweaks to the dish’s flavours, how it’s plated, or simply the way in which she cooks the meat.
“Thai food is actually the balance of death and life on the plate,” she says. “The life is the fresh herbs, for example … and then you have the death, which is the fish sauce or the dry shrimp. When you combine them together, you need to make sure that it’s all balanced.”
The Bangkok of Satongun’s childhood was very different to the sprawling concrete metropolis it is now. Though she grew up in the centre of the city, she was surrounded by nature, climbing trees to pick fruit and fishing in nearby waterways. But when she was in her early teens, an expressway was built through the main street, signalling the beginning of the end for “all the trees, all the water”.
These days, living and working in the Southern Highlands offers Bee that nature fix. She drives around the area, drawing creativity from her surrounds.
“In Thailand, we don’t have the seasons. Here in the Southern Highlands, you have spring, you have autumn, you have winter,” she says. “Mostly the thing that I like here is spring. Spring has that colour … and that’s what I try to bring into my food as well. Something that’s not pretentious, something that’s natural and the colours that nature produces.”
Satongun shops for fresh produce in the Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, which has a large local Vietnamese community. She also works with local Zen Micro Farm, which grows vibrant micro herbs and edible flowers. And while the flavours of those Australian and Vietnamese ingredients often don’t directly correlate with those found in Thailand, Satongun uses the diversity offered by local produce to her advantage.
“Each of our Paste restaurants, they have their own character. In Australia … this one is more casual, and we want to use more native ingredients. We still keep the flavour profile as traditional.”
When making her southern crab curry, a dish that traditionally blends a curry paste of dry chilli, lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric with coconut milk, Satongun also brings into the fold green karkalla, a native succulent. A stir-fried mushroom dish is given an Australian spin with the addition of warrigal greens.
“We use the greens in our dishes to intensify the flavour. It is bringing that fresh sea-water flavour into our dishes.”
At the heart of everything Satongun does is preserving cooking traditions and dishes that may otherwise die out in Thailand. Paste’s yum tawai is a 150-year-old salad that made its way from Tibet through Burma and on to Thailand, where it was given Thai flavours and character. It’s based on curry paste and is made with about five types of vegetables that are blanched in coconut milk and combined with shredded chicken.
“This dish is nearly dying out,” she says. “Not many people know about this dish anymore.”
A visit to Paste should change that.