A Life of Pie

Aussie Pies Abroad

Susan Usher is principal and managing director of Lady Pie and makes a range of products including the iconic Aussie Pie at her factory on the holiday island of Phuket in southern Thailand. She understands the absolute imperative for Australia to maintain its guard against biological invasion, but all the same: “I would only have been bringing 12 pies – it would have been so good to see how they compare to the others.”

Aussie Pies in the heart of southeast Asia? Pork pies, sausage rolls and pasties in the home of fiery tom yam gung and green chicken curry? Certainly. Susan and husband Harry are on a roll, if you’ll pardon the pun, taking on more local staff to cope with burgeoning demand and taking these quintessentially Western delicacies to the Thai people themselves.

We caught up with Susan as she visited the Thai capital Bangkok to record a TV show with a celebrated local expert in Indian cuisine, Mrs Balbir. The two ladies were going to perfect a recipe for making curry pies in a classic crossover, or what some might call ‘fusion cuisine.’ Back at the factory, the 12 workers were expanding the range of pies to include one filled with larb (a particularly volcanic blend of ground raw pork or beef, chillies, lime juice and spices) and another with green chicken curry. These are proving a big hit, would you believe, with the kids from the school across the road from the bakery. The staff get ready at stalls outside the gates as the bell sounds the end of lessons, and the youngsters rush out to do a fair imitation of a swarm of locusts. Apparently they rate the pie very highly.

Pies have never been part of Thai cuisine but they have long been in demand among expats living and working in the region as well as the legions of tourists who stay there or spend a short stopover on their way to or from Europe. Australians abound in Thailand; the Chamber of Commerce thrives and the AFL Grand Final event in Bangkok has been certified as the largest such gathering outside Australia itself, with several thousand attendees.

Susan’s team is supplying some one thousand pies for this occasion. It’s not their only sporting order – there’s the small matter of 8,500 ‘scrum pies’ exported for the Mes Amis Group in Hong Kong for the annual Rugby Sevens there, where they are marketed as Sevens Pies. Orders such as these supplement the regular production of some 10,000 pies each month, sold at speciality supermarkets nationwide, through distributors in Pattaya (nowadays full of Russian holidaymakers, for whom Susan is currently experimenting with pies and fillings to best suit their expansive tastes), Bangkok (for consumption in many of the city’s pubs and bars) and Udon Thani. There’s a shop in the northern city of Chiang Mai and Lady Pie already ships to a number of mine operations in neighbouring Laos; Susan is now looking for someone to handle distribution in Singapore and Malaysia.

Growing up in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, Susan used to come home from school and help her father, a cook, to prepare meals for the workers on construction sites around the resorts, giving her a life-long love of cooking and also an appreciation of the distinction between running a home kitchen and cooking for lots of people. She took up sailing in northern NSW and from there, 20-odd years ago, she set sail on a voyage around the islands and eventually, with the intention of using it as a stopover on the way right up to the Mediterranean, to Phuket. A personal tragedy intervened in that plan and she returned to Australia, only to repeat the voyage a couple of years later – now with husband Harry on board. This time, she says, Phuket was the destination – she loves the place. She started making pies in response to demand not only from Harry (and herself, of course – Le Patron Mange Ici!) but also from all the lads from the yacht club at Chalong Bay on the island’s southwest coast.

She had brought with her a Breville pie-maker and set to work to learn the right mix of ingredients. “It took a long time – you can’t get this sort of thing out of a recipe book. Pies have to have two types of pastry, one for the bottom so it will not fall apart and puff pastry on top. But I was obsessed with getting it right.” There is a special art, she adds, to being able to make puff pastry without air-conditioning. At that time she was making and selling around 200 pies per month. Then came the tsunami of December 26, 2004.

“We were living on the beach at that time, in Kamala, and everything we had was washed away in the wave.” This was the area worst hit by the disaster. They managed to borrow enough money to buy their first fridge-freezer before Australian food processing equipment company Simple Simon, having heard of their plight, donated pie-makers. These spent an unconscionably long time in customs before Susan – and the staff that she had by now hired – could start to use them, after which a shophouse was rented at Cherng Talay to act as a dedicated factory, with full FDA approval and certified to all the food safety standards. Today there is a café on the site too, dispensing breakfast, hot pies and a range of desserts to bring a nostalgic tear to an Aussie’s eye – Lamingtons, vanilla slices, apple pies and crumbles. Demand is steady even through the low season, she says, with a stream of Australians (and Kiwis) coming up to play rugby.

The sale of pies to schoolchlidren is part of a plan to popularise the food form with the Thai people, and Susan leaves this operation to her local staff who, she says, are priceless – loyal and enthusiastic. They have made their own business out of it, paying back the cost of the materials and keeping the profits to distribute among themselves as extra income. The workers are more than happy and the kids are hoovering up the pies as proof that they taste – if not like Thai food – aroi maak (very good).

Susan regards Phuket as her home nowadays, a base from which she is able to return to visit family and friends “a couple of time a year.” She hesitates when asked what she misses from Australia apart from friends. “I can’t think of anything really, except possibly the ease of communication. I don’t speak Thai, but that’s also a blessing because it means I don’t have to hear about all the tittle-tattle that is spoken locally.” But there is none of the dislike that some expat Aussies seem to feel about their country; she has no time for whingers. “I love Australia. I still, and will always, regard myself as a patriotic Australian and I’m proud of it. But I also love Thailand – the weather, the place and my staff.”

Harry is a qualified surveyor but has now given in and works full-time for Lady Pie, tidying up the business and sharpening the marketing. The people of Phuket are apparently very health-conscious nowadays and in addition to offering salt-free products using only lean meat and with no transfats, the team are preparing to launch a new gluten-free range of pies. Perhaps someone could arrange for the winner of the Great Aussie Pie Competition to send some products up to Thailand for the local expats to judge – Lady Pie might be a winner.

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November 21, 2018, 3:43 AM AEDT