Phen Ruyan sits in her Nohra Thai Kitchen on a warm Wednesday morning, sipping green tea to the sound of soft jazz.
Three years have passed since she opened in Estevan Village, yet she continues to honour the space’s previous occupant, Padella Kitchen + Wine, by keeping a single red wall painted and decorated just how the Italian restaurant left it.
A Thai poem written by King Rama IV about his wife and her delicious cooking graces the opposite wall. Much of the restaurant is painted gold, a colour Ruyan said has calming value.
In Thailand’s Phatthalung province, she grew up with the scent of turmeric, chili and basil in her backyard. Her family, from its own mill, ground fresh rice that her father deemed sacred.
“I had no time for this kind of knowledge, but my dad kind of humbly looked at me like, ‘One day you will find it useful.’”
Her mother regularly tested her in the garden from a young age, teaching her to combine fresh ingredients and assemble curry pastes from scratch. Ruyan’s grandmothers constantly competed for greater culinary influence over her. And, as an eldest daughter, she already had high expectations to live up to. She’d have to perform well in the kitchen to control the household.
Her mother told her, “Whatever you learn, you have to find your own unique self because, in food, it has to tell who you are.”
Cuisine varies drastically around 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 must only give off subtle tastes.
Phatthalung, which sits in the south, preserves a more traditional way of life and has hardly changed since Ruyan last visited in 2002.
“Yes, we do have KFC – a very tiny one – but people still live and eat from what they can find around their house.”
The term “nohra” refers to a classical southern Thai dance – a custom that involves families travelling between villages to perform their own unique act. Tracing 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 does in all its diversity.
At age seven, Ruyan faced the daunting task of independently cooking for several high-ranking military officers her father knew.
“He said, ‘but it’s OK, we have the best chicken that’s running around right now – you have to pick the good one.’”
First, she had to choose the best banana from their tree and carefully peel and soak the fruit to craft the perfect curry with the right consistency. She also needed to clean, cook and use the entire chicken - blood, legs and feet included.
“We never throw anything away,” Ruyan explained.
“The way you cook the blood is also different from the meat, and you cannot make it too loosey-goosey.”
After the dignitaries tried the curry, Ruyan revealed herself and they deemed her a genius. Her mother, after tasting the food later on, sat Ruyan down and gave her a silent smile of approval.
“I carry that look with me throughout my life – the confidence that my mother gave to me, unspoken,” she said, her eyes watering up.
Ruyan met husband Joel Bryan, who grew up in Cadboro Bay, while they were both working on the Thai island of Phuket, she as a travel agency owner and he as a diving instructor. Though she only intended to come back to Victoria with him for a quick visit, she stuck around after the passing of Bryan’s father to care for his mother. Several months later, Ruyan moved with Bryan to Calgary temporarily and worked with Indigenous youth through a local non-profit.
For a while, she struggled with her cultural mentality that, having married a Canadian, the best thing she could ever do was open a Thai restaurant. But friends hired her to cater for 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 you need to prove yourself (first).”
She took a liking to Estevan Village and started frequenting the area to observe foot traffic patterns and get a sense of the local clientele. Ruyan did her research and had her sights set on 2524 Estevan Ave., but she still needed a push away from her responsibilities at home.
“When my daughter turned 11, she said, ‘OK, you can leave me alone now,’ – because being a mother is so important too – ‘Mom, you’ve always had that dream. Now it’s your time.’”
After buying the property from Padella owner Thomas Goszczynski, Ruyan figured it would take several years to grow a loyal following.
She and Bryan opened Nohra Thai on July 4, 2019, months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and customers began trickling in right away. Unlike many restaurants, Nohra was never fully closed, removing its dining service temporarily, but continuing to provide takeout over a front-door barrier.
Ruyan told Bryan at the start of the pandemic that, even if just one family showed up to ask for food, she would cook for them. With each takeout order, she colourfully decorated the meals with extra carrots and bean sprouts to show people she still cared about them. She also scribbled “enjoy” with a heart symbol on every box, reminding customers that her cooking is a part of her and a gift to them.
Ruyan has never viewed other Thai restaurants in Victoria as her competitors, but as places where fellow self-driven cooks create meals. For her, it comes down to the quality of food she serves.
“I don’t think that for this part of the world you cannot serve pad Thai,” she said of the popular dish. “But you can also make the pad Thai that people like and differentiate.”
Nohra’s turmeric chicken dish, for example, fuses aromatic herbs with minty protein – pork, chicken, beef or tofu – and can be eaten by hand with sticky rice. The restaurant also offers a thick, rich massaman lamb curry, which customers from Spain and Mexico have compared to mole-type foods.
“Food, for me, is participation. I think that people who would see the food should play along with it. When you touch food with your hands or you have to do a little bit of work, I find that you take time to appreciate it more.”
Her staff sometimes explain to customers how to properly eat and enjoy their dishes.
“Thai food is about the saltiness, the bitterness, the sourness that it combines, and then when those aromatic (flavours) meet in your mouth and you bite it, it creates some sort of satisfaction or happiness … and it’s easier for your body to digest.”
To reflect her pride as a Canadian, Ruyan pairs her dishes with B.C. wines and four specialty cocktails crafted by local mixologist Nate Caudle. She also puts a Western Canadian spin on Thai cuisine with dishes like her yellow crab curry special that use fresh and locally farmed products.
Since Ruyan arrived in the late ’90s, she said, Victoria has grown more exciting, its residents have become more open and its food scene has shifted. And, though she initially worried about growing bored of 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 again a thousand times, for example, but I always treat it like my first ever … because you never know who that person is. Maybe it’s their first bite of pad Thai ever.”
Not only can you not let the customer down, she said, you also can’t let yourself down.
Ruyan still intends to write her dream cookbook. She also recognizes she’s gifted outside the kitchen and enjoys chatting with customers when time permits. It often surprises them that such a sociable and culturally savvy person can also operate as a talented chef. But she trusts Bryan, who willingly quit his job to support her, more than enough with her guests in the front of house.
“We used to work together, so we know each other quite well (and) I always feel like he’s got the front (and) he’s got my back. For sure, he will provide a good service to my customers.”
She wants her clientele to know they “didn’t see anything yet” because this is only her culinary beginning and she’s focusing 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 are nurturing your body and soul.”
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