LIFE in the Kitchen: Green Papaya firmly planted in Canton community
By Natalie K. Pollock
Suda Nunta emigrated to the United States from North Thailand, where she owns a factory. With just a backpack on her back, she came alone because she was told by her English language teacher that America is “open” to businesses owned by Asians. During her initial visit, she stopped in at the Green Papaya restaurant in Canton to talk with the owners. That was 17 years ago.
Nunta’s business in her homeland manufactures “saa” paper from the bark of mulberry trees. The factory has been producing and exporting the handmade paper, which is soft and translucent, for 30 years. The largest number of her customers are in Europe.
The specialty paper, a product of North Thailand for 700 years, is used in home décor projects and is often made into kites, as well as gift-wrapping paper, lampshades, parasols and greeting cards. At 62, Nunta continues to experiment with colors and techniques. She is in daily contact with the factory and its customers by telephone.
Seven years ago, Nunta bought the Green Papaya restaurant and eventually changed its style of cooking from Laotian-Thai to Northern Thai.
Northern Thai food is distinct from the other four parts of Thailand, all with their own style. Northern Thai is less spicy and more sour, and it makes abundant use of herbs such as Thai basil and the galangal root, similar in taste to ginger.
Dirka Peirsman, who is a native of Belgium, married Nunta’s daughter, Warangkana Nunta, who has a son, 12, and daughter, 14, through an earlier relationship. Peirsman met his wife in his native Belgium.
Suda Nunta wanted to get to know Peirsman. When he traveled to Thailand with her daughter, the mother invited them to stay for three weeks. It was his heart that she wanted to understand, she explained. Then she visited them in Belgium. She approved.
The two women are owners of the restaurant in Canton and Peirsman works alongside them, welcoming guests and helping with issues that require fluent English. His wife’s nickname is Net and she runs the kitchen. Her mother takes charge of preparing the appetizers and some of the house specialties.
The couple followed Nunta six months after her first visit to the U.S. and eventually moved here to be together as a family. They checked out the town and its schools before moving. They grew to feel like they are part of the community, donating food to the teachers party every year and handing out soup in the morning at times.
As for other restaurants, Covid was a difficult time for them. They lost their chef and five staff members. The daughter has since taken over all the cooking, and takeout orders sustained their business during the worst times. Nunta acknowledged her customers have been very kind to her.
Q. Thai cuisine is known for being hot and spicy, with some ingredients that are not all well-known in this country. How are you able to make it more approachable for American palates?
A. All of our dishes are made fresh, and we can vary the spiciness for each. My son-in-law buys all the ingredients for my daughter and me to cook. There is no MSG added. MSG aggravates a problem with my bones.
Q. How long have you worked in the food industry?
A. I learned to cook in Thailand. For me food is like art. I have worked here in this restaurant for seven years. At first, I bought 60 percent of the business, and I feel the love here. I did not think at first to invest in the United States. An immigration attorney gave me information how to do that.
Q. What is your most popular dish at the restaurant?
A. Pad Thai and Pad Thai with chicken
Q. What is your personal favorite dish that the restaurant offers?
A. I like lemon grass with mixed vegetables, stir-fried. And then you can add protein. I like tilapia fish.
Q. What’s your secret ingredient?
A. I have no secret ingredient. We just cook from the heart with love.
Q. What is the one cooking technique everyone should know?
A. Everyone should know stir-frying. We use a wok.
Q. What do you like to cook when having guests to your home?
A. If they are European, I cook massaman curry. If they are Thai, I cook more spicy meals, usually stir-fry fish. VL
The Green Papaya restaurant is located at 160 Albany Turnpike in Canton.