Published in The Irrawaddy on 15 September 2014
“As the youngest of six children, the kitchen was my playground,” said the owner of Rangoon’s Nacha Thai Restaurant, Panida Ponlabute, who goes by the nickname “Air” (which incidentally means “littlest one” in Thai).
For 30 years, Air’s mother ran an ever expanding restaurant in Chiang Mai: “She’s the best cook in the province,” Air said proudly.
Air asserts that Nacha’s dishes are as authentic as any to be found in the northern provinces of Thailand because her mother trained the restaurant’s three Thai chefs (who also hail from Chiang Mai and are culinary school graduates) as well as passing on her recipes to them. Nacha has also trained up two Burmese chefs.
Many of the spices used to create the curry pastes are sourced from local markets in Chiang Mai, despite the fact that most are available in Rangoon.
“The spices I’ve bought in Yangon taste different from home. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s the soil or the climate,” Air said.
Nacha opened almost exactly three years ago and initially served up European fare in addition to Thai and Burmese classics.
However eight months later, Air decided that Nacha should change course and it began specialising in Thai food (as well as retaining some Burmese dishes) because the cost of ingredients for Western food was high and often difficult to source. Furthermore, Air said that the number of high quality European restaurants in Rangoon made competition intense – whereas Nacha remains only one of two restaurants offering northern Thai cuisine (with Sabai Sabai being the other) in the former capital. This may in part be the reason why Nacha’s northern Thai set menu is more popular than the central Thai set menu (both are priced at K29,000 and easily feed two people). For those who prefer to sample all three cuisines, it’s possible to order individual dishes from Nacha’s extensive menu, which also contains a wide variety of options for vegetarians.
For historical and geographical reasons, Burma has had a distinctive influence on northern Thai cuisine. The most notable example is the hang-le curry, which itself resembles an Indian-style curry.
Air explained that prior to British colonisation, Burma’s last royal families often fled to Chiang Mai from Mandalay Palace during political crises. Unsurprisingly, King Mindon and King Thibaw were accompanied by a sizeable entourage of servants and cooks. The creations made by the latter eventually became longstanding favourites in Chiang Mai, albeit with local variations made on the originals, such as using less oil and sweetening curries with palm sugar.
Air asserts that northern Thai cuisine is healthier than central or southern Thai food because coconut milk is never used and fresh vegetables are a more plentiful component in every meal. Moreover, as many as 12 spices are included in a single curry to create a naturally full flavour. Northern Thai cuisine is spicier than that of the central provinces (where the likes of well known dishes such as pad thai originate) and milder than the south.
Whilst Air says that cooking is “in her blood,” she is also a trained beauty therapist and has 20 years’ experience in the industry. Thus she opened Nacha Spa within three months of the restaurant’s opening in 2011. The spa is just a few steps away from Nacha’s outdoor eating area and both are immaculately maintained.
“My idea was to create a perfect weekend experience,” she said.
“Sleep in late, come to Nacha for enjoy a delicious lunch and then get pampered at our spa,” she explained with a grin.
Treatments are very reasonably priced: a 60-minute foot spa costs K15,000 while a 90-minute hand and foot spa is K20,000. For those who opt to experience both Nacha’s food and Thai-styled spa treatments, it’s likely you’ll come out feeling so relaxed that Rangoon’s manic traffic during your journey home will simply blur into the background.
Nacha Thai Restaurant is located on 86/A Shin Saw Pu Street, Sanchuang Township, Rangoon and is open for lunch from 11am to 2pm, and dinner starts from 6pm until 11pm.
For bookings, including private parties in the upstairs VIP rooms, call 09450013761.