Northern Thai Style

By Jassica Mudditt 15 September 2014

YANGON — “As the youngest of six children, the kitchen was my playground,” said the owner of Yangon’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 and Air asserts that Nacha’s dishes are as authentic as any to be found in the northern provinces of Thailand.

That’s because her mother, an excellent cook, 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 Myanmar chefs.

Many of the spices used to create the curry pastes are sourced from markets in Chiang Mai, despite the fact that most are available locally.

“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 Myanmar classics.

However eight months later, Air decided that Nacha should change course. It began specializing in Thai food (as well as retaining some Myanmar dishes) because the cost of ingredients for Western food was high and some items were difficult to source.

Furthermore, Air said that the number of high-quality European restaurants in Yangon made competition intense, whereas Nacha remains only one of two restaurants offering northern Thai cuisine (Sabai Sabai is 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 29,000 kyat, about US$29, 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.

Given that northern Thailand or the Lanna kingdom was ruled by Myanmar for some 200 years, this country has had a distinctive influence on northern Thai cuisine. The most notable example is the hang-le curry, which resembles an Indian-style curry. Thai variations on the original Myanmar dishes use less oil and add palm sugar as a sweetener in hang-le.

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. As many as 12 spices are included in a single curry to create a naturally full flavor.

Northern Thai cuisine is also spicier than that of the central provinces (where well-known dishes such as pad thai originate) and milder than that of the south.

While 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 debut 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 the perfect weekend experience,” she said. “Sleep in late, come to Nacha to enjoy a delicious lunch and then get pampered at our spa.”

Treatments are reasonably priced: a 60-minute foot spa costs 15,000 kyat while a 90-minute hand and foot spa is 20,000 kyat. For those who opt to experience both Nacha’s food and Thai-style spa treatments, you may come out feeling so relaxed that Yangon’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, Sanchaung Townshi, Yangon, and is open for lunch from 11 am to 2 pm. Dinner is from 6 pm until 11 pm.

This article first appeared in the September 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.