Phen Ruyan sits in her Nohra Thai Kitchen on a hot Wednesday morning, sipping green tea to the sound of soft jazz.
Three years have passed since it opened in the village of Estevan, but it continues to honor the former occupant of the space, Padella Kitchen + Wine, by keeping a single red wall painted and decorated exactly like the Italian restaurant l ‘let.
A Thai poem written by King Rama IV about his wife and her delicious cuisine adorns the opposite wall. Much of the restaurant is painted gold, a color that Ruyan says has soothing value.
In the Thai province of Phatthalung, she grew up with the smell of turmeric, chilli and basil in her garden. His family, from their own mill, ground fresh rice that his father considered sacred.
“I didn’t have time for that kind of knowledge, but my dad looked at me humbly like, ‘One day you’ll find it useful.'”
Her mother regularly tested her in the garden from an early age, teaching her how to combine fresh ingredients and assemble curry pastes from scratch. Ruyan’s grandmothers constantly vied for greater culinary influence over her. And, as the eldest daughter, she already had high expectations to live up to. She should perform well in the kitchen to control the household.
His mother told him: “Whatever you learn, you have to find your own unique self because, in food, it has to say who you are.”
Cuisine varies greatly in Thailand. In the south, it comes down to key ingredients like chili and herbs and a fresh, rich, and sour taste. In Bangkok, the food needs a more sophisticated and upscale style and the ingredients should give off only subtle tastes.
Phatthalung, which lies to the south, preserves a more traditional way of life and has changed little since Ruyan’s last visit in 2002.
“Yes, we have KFC – a very small one – but people still live and eat what they can find around their house.”
The term “nohra” refers to a classical southern Thai dance – a custom that involves families traveling between villages to perform their own unique act. Going back centuries and based on the life of the Buddha and other Thai heroes, nohra presents itself as bold, elegant, lively and beautiful yet subtle and understated – much like Thai cuisine in all its diversity.
At age seven, Ruyan faced the daunting task of independently cooking for several high-ranking military officers his father knew.
“He said, ‘but it’s okay, we have the best chicken running right now – you have to pick the right one.'”
First, she had to pick the best banana from their tree and carefully peel and soak the fruit to create the perfect curry with just the right consistency. She also had to clean, cook and use the whole chicken – blood, legs and feet included.
“We never throw anything away,” Ruyan explained.
“The way you cook blood is also different from meat, and you can’t make it too loose.”
After the dignitaries tried the curry, Ruyan revealed herself and they considered her a genius. His mother, after tasting the food later, sat Ruyan down and gave him a silent smile of approval.
“I carry that look with me throughout my life — the trust my mother gave me, unspoken,” she said, her eyes watering.
Ruyan met her husband Joel Bryan, who grew up in Cadboro Bay, when they both worked on the Thai island of Phuket, her as a travel agency owner and he as a sailing instructor. dive. Although she only intended to return to Victoria with him for a quick visit, she stayed after Bryan’s father passed away to care for her mother. Several months later, Ruyan moved temporarily with Bryan to Calgary and worked with Aboriginal youth through a local non-profit organization.
For a time, she struggled with her cultural mentality that after marrying a Canadian, the best thing she could do was open a Thai restaurant. But friends hired her to plan their weddings, and she enjoyed cooking for them at dinner parties. After returning to Victoria, she resisted the temptation to write her own cookbook.
“I said, ‘no, how dare I do that?’ I mean, everyone has a recipe, but first you have to prove yourself.”
She took a liking to the village of Estevan and started visiting the area to observe the foot traffic and get an idea of the local clientele. Ruyan did her research and set her sights on 2524 Estevan Avenue, but she still needed a boost to get away from her responsibilities at home.
“When my daughter was 11, she said, ‘OK, you can leave me alone now’ – because being a mother is also very important – ‘Mom, you’ve always had this dream. Now it’s your round.'”
After buying the property from Padella owner Thomas Goszczynski, Ruyan figured it would take several years to build customer loyalty.
She and Bryan opened Nohra Thai on July 4, 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and customers started arriving right away. Unlike many restaurants, Nohra was never fully closed, temporarily removing its dine-in service but continuing to offer takeout over a front door barrier.
Ruyan told Bryan at the start of the pandemic that even if only one family showed up asking for food, they would cook for them. With each takeout order, she decorated the meals colorfully with extra carrots and bean sprouts to show people she still cared. She also scribbled “enjoy” with a heart symbol on each box, reminding customers that her cooking is part of her and a gift to them.
Ruyan never viewed other Thai restaurants in Victoria as competitors, but as places where other self-catering cooks create meals. For her, it comes down to the quality of the food she serves.
“I don’t think for this part of the world you can’t serve pad Thai,” she said of the popular dish. “But you can also make pad Thai that people love and differentiate.”
Nohra’s turmeric chicken dish, for example, fuses aromatic herbs with mint protein – pork, chicken, beef or tofu – and can be eaten by hand with sticky rice. The restaurant also offers a thick and rich massaman lamb curry, which Spanish and Mexican diners have compared to mole-like foods.
“Food, for me, is participation. I think people who would see the food should play with it. When you touch food with your hands or have to do a little work, I find that you take the time to appreciate it more.
Its staff sometimes explain to customers how to eat well and enjoy their dishes.
“Thai food is about saltiness, bitterness, sourness that it combines, and then when those aromatic (flavors) meet in your mouth and you bite into it, it creates a kind of satisfaction or happiness…and it is easier for your body to digest.”
To reflect her pride as a Canadian, Ruyan pairs her dishes with BC wines and four specialty cocktails crafted by local mixologist Nate Caudle. She also brings a Western Canadian twist to Thai cuisine with dishes like her special yellow crab curry that uses fresh, locally grown produce.
Since Ruyan’s arrival in the late 90s, she says, Victoria has become more exciting, its people have become more open and its food scene has changed. And, although she initially feared becoming bored cooking the same meals every day, the cultural obligation to respect her customers has kept Ruyan dedicated to her craft.
“I go back to pad thai a thousand times, for example, but I always treat it like my first… because you never know who that person is. This may be their first bite of pad thai.
Not only can you not let the customer down, she said, but you also can’t let yourself down.
Ruyan still intends to write her dream cookbook. She also recognizes that she is talented outside of the kitchen and enjoys chatting with customers when the weather permits. It often surprises them that such a social and culturally savvy person can also function as a talented leader. But she trusts Bryan, who voluntarily quit his job to support her, more than enough with his guests in front of the house.
“We used to work together so we know each other pretty well (and) I always feel like he’s ahead (and) he’s behind me. For sure he will provide good service to my clients.
She wants her clientele to know that she “hasn’t seen anything yet”, as this is just her culinary debut and she is focused on introducing herself to the community for now.
“Food is the key to (living) a healthy life and helps you think clearly, so next time before you consume something, think about it (and) how you feed your body and soul.”
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