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Chef Nuit Regular's northern Thai cooking brings the warmth

Our cookbook of the week is Kiin by chef Nuit Regular. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Crispy Thai omelette ; spicy and sour soup with shrimp and tom yum paste ; and red curry pork .

Even on a chilly winter night, a table at Sukhothai in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood was well worth the wait. New to the city, chef Nuit Regular opened the spot in 2008 with her husband, Jeff. The small dining room spilled into the basement, and a window at the end of the main floor offered a view into the kitchen. Elbow-to-elbow with people standing by for takeout, tucking into your khao soi, gaeng phed and mango salad, it felt like you were all in on something special.

Bright with tamarind, Regular’s gaeng massaman hooked me. Twelve years later, I’ve had it more times than I can count. And though the Regulars have since closed the dining room — converting the original location into an expanded kitchen — three other Sukhothais are now part of their family of restaurants, which includes Pai Northern Thai Kitchen, Sabai Sabai and Kiin.

“I probably snuck a peek at you from the kitchen,” says Regular, laughing, of Sukhothai’s early days. “When I serve food to people, I like to see (their reactions).”

Growing up in the town of Phrae, northern Thailand, Regular had an early start as an entrepreneur. At age seven, she picked fiddleheads to lay out at the morning market, and made popsicles to sell on the street. In Grade 9, instead of sleeping in until the last possible minute, she started her days early — packing bamboo cylinders with sticky rice and filling small plastic bags with pad Thai to sell at a school-sanctioned table during recess.

“Cooking has always been my passion,” she writes in her debut cookbook, Kiin (Penguin Canada, 2020), “but entrepreneurship is in my blood.”

Prior to moving to Canada 15 years ago, Regular worked as a nurse in the northern Thai town of Pai. She and Jeff — who met after being paired up on an elephant ride — opened their first restaurant there. Regular would finish her shift at the local hospital and head over to the Curry Shack to cook dinner.

A self-taught chef, she found an education at the market. Regular’s mother was a farmer, and as a child, she would wake up before dawn to help her transport produce to sell. Since Regular wasn’t allowed to ride home until the sun rose, she would pass the time observing the vendors: Deciphering the dabbing, flipping and pinching involved in making pa thong ko (Thai crullers) was one of her favourite ways of waiting.

“I think it grows in me,” Regular says of entrepreneurship. “To see how my mother tried to survive with a family — how she tried to make money for my family so I could go to school and have food to eat. It’s like a movie in front of you, and it’s so inspiring … All the hard work that she did just showed me that if my mom can do all that, I can do more things in my life as well — there’s nothing that I cannot do.”

Kiin , which means “eat” in Thai, includes more than 100 northern specialties such as laab kua (northern laab salad) as well as classic dishes eaten throughout the country, like khai jeaw grob (crispy Thai omelette). Regular also shares memories throughout, recounting the pivotal moments in her life that shaped her approach to cooking.

“The Kiin cookbook is a time capsule of my experiences,” she says. “It’s not just the recipes or tradition, but it’s preservation of the culture that I grew up in, in northern Thailand.”

Northern Thai cooking is characterized by the wide array of fresh vegetables grown in the region, explains Regular, and a lighter use of coconut milk. Unlike in central Thailand, where coconut trees thrive, the northern climate isn’t as conducive to their growth, so cooks use it more sparingly. While dried spices are common in the south, herbs are more prevalent in the north, she says: “It really stands out that it has more fresh vegetables and herbs than meat and dried spices like in southern Thailand.”

One of her favourite northern recipes, nham prik ong (tomato relish with vegetables), highlights its uniqueness. “It’s amazing how northern umami comes from tomato, shrimp paste and fermented fish,” says Regular. “That’s all, but it’s so rich. It’s so complex.”

As we enter Canada’s coldest months, Kiin is a vicarious glimpse of Thailand’s warmth and vibrancy. Two years ago, she travelled back to her homeland with Toronto photography team Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott to document the dishes, people and landscape.

“It still warms my heart when I look at the pictures — it just feels like I’m in Thailand,” says Regular. “I want my readers to see that it’s not just the wording of the story. It’s not just recipes that they’re going to have, but the beauty of the scenery — the beauty of the food in front of them under the sunlight in Thailand.”

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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