A Cross-Cultural Friendship Begets a Neighborhood Restaurant

Puan is a Thai restaurant born of a friendship between a Thai woman and a Japanese woman. “Puan” means “friend” in Thai, and as the name suggests, the restaurant was created and managed by two women, Junko Kamekawa and Reno Hiroto - who struck up a friendship in Nishi-Ogikubo more than two decades ago. They founded Puan in 2003, and even now, they cook and serve all the food themselves. The restaurant’s focus is on Northern Thai cuisine, yet it also offers a number of Asian dishes from Indian, Nepalese, Taiwanese, and Myanmar traditions.

 

The restaurant Puan has multiple connections to the neighborhood. The building housing it has supported restaurants for over 60 years. “We redesigned the restaurant from the original interior,” Hiroto explained. “This place used to be a Chinese restaurant. We remodeled the chairs and ceiling in a Thai style.” According to her, the Japanese family of four who owned and operated the Chinese restaurant for 40 years used to live on the second floor. Now, the rooms on the second floor where the family lived are reserved for larger groups. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, group reservations have been stopped. The space is still used for displaying and selling Puan original t-shirts designed by a customer, alongside other merchandise. While perusing the goods, we could not help but wonder about the lives of the family who used to live there. Currently, the daughter from that family is the landlord of Puan, but she has moved away long ago.

 

Hiroto, who is a Thai woman, came to Japan 34 years ago when she was 26 years old. Until then, she had run a Thai restaurant in her hometown Chiang Mai, where she met her current husband, a Japanese photographer. They married and moved to Japan.

 

In Japan, she first started working part-time at a restaurant called “Yuyu Mangetsudo” in Nishiogi. This was a Japanese restaurant and bar on the second floor of the building called “Hobbit Village,” in the space where the restaurant “Balthazar” is currently located. Hiroto gained experience in Yuyu Mangetsudo for eight years from the age of 27. That is where she met Kamekawa, who was also a part-time worker there.

 

Kamekawa is originally from Hyogo Prefecture and moved to Tokyo after living in many places in the Kanto region. We asked her why she decided to work at Yuyu Mangetsudo, where she met Hiroto. “I used to work at an Indian restaurant in Kichijoji before Yuyu Mangetsudo,” she said. “But I had this feeling that I wanted to go or do something related to life overseas, and then started taking yoga lessons. On the third floor of “Hobbit Village,” there is a free space that offers various classes, and I took a one-coin [500 yen] yoga lessons there. That is when I found out about the restaurant on the second floor. Then, when I was about to quit the Indian restaurant, a girl who worked with me told me that that restaurant, Yuyu Mangetsudo, was looking for someone to work part-time. I didn’t have any special feelings or anything towards the restaurant, it was just because she told me that.”

 

We asked the two women why they decided to step away from Yuyu Mangetsudo and open an independent restaurant just by themselves. “When I met Reno at Mangetsudo, I didn’t know much about Thailand,” Kamekawa explained. “I didn’t like cilantro that much, and I was like, where is Thailand? But Reno used to return to her home every year for three months, and she said that the workers at Mangetsudo were welcome to visit her house in Thailand. So, I went there with my friends. Then I got into the country so much. I even started to eat cilantro! Ever since, as I continued working with Reno for a long time, I joined traveling with her to Thailand every year. Then, we both came up with this vague idea of opening a restaurant together, but then Reno got pregnant, Mangetsudo closed, so we kept missing our chance. But then she came back. Then, we just started Puan. We wanted to do it and went for it.”

 

This story shows how if Reno had not organized trips to bring her Japanese friends to Thailand, Puan might not exist now.

 

Kamekawa now shares in all the cooking duties, but she started learning Thai cooking from Hiroto when they opened the restaurant. Regarding that process, she said “What she (Hiroto) cooks is home cuisine. What that means is that the recipe involves a lot of her original seasoning which cannot be measured by tablespoon but rather by her own sense. Moreover, she keeps adjusting the taste according to the season. For example, if it’s summer, the flavoring is a little sourer and in winter it’s a little less sour and such. Now I’m used to it, but at first, I had to check everything by tasting it… controlling the timing of when to add what ingredient is very difficult. But after all, I now feel that it is really nice to adjust the taste depending on the season, especially since she does not change what ingredients to put in but just modifies the amounts of seasonings to adjust the resulting taste.”

 

Kamekawa told us how she learns not only cooking but also the Thai language from Hiroto. “Originally, I couldn’t speak Thai that much,” she explained. “I only knew words like ‘sawadi ka` (hello in Thai)’ and ‘kob kun ka’ (thank you in Thai)’ and didn’t even have the motivation to learn it. But after going to Thai and talking to people, I changed my mind. You know, like, I needed to learn the language to negotiate prices at local markets, so I started to learn from and speak Thai with her. Now, we often use Thai to communicate, and I learned a lot about pronunciation from her. I try to speak Thai as much as possible when I visit Thailand. When I do that, you know, it’s nice how the local people there feel that I am trying to understand their country more. So yeah, she teaches me basic Thai language that can be used in everyday settings.”

 

Kamekawa told us that switching between languages improves their level of communication and avoids misunderstandings in the kitchen. “When it’s really hard to understand, I just say it in Thai. She corrects my pronunciation a lot though.”

 

We asked how they divide tasks after nearly two decades of working together. “We don’t separate the cooking and the service duties,” Hiroto explained. “We do both. We just do everything we can according to the situation, like, whenever we’re free, we do the dishes, and so on. We do hire part-timers, but not now during the pandemic because we’re not that busy. When we were busy, we used to have them during dinner hours. Now, we just have them work on weekends.”

 

Kamekawa also explained the roles of part-time workers. “Part-timers don’t cook at all, it’s just Reno and I. Part-timers work the floor since none of them can make the meals. The part-timers that we hire here are mostly former regulars or my friends.”

 

Puan main serves dishes associated with the Chiang Mai region, where Hiroto’s is from. We asked her how the meals from there are different from those in Southern Thailand. “Food from Chang Mai and Bangkok is different,” she explained. “Chiang Mai food doesn’t contain much coconut… also, since Chiang Mai is close to Myanmar and India, some dishes are inspired by local foods from there. For those dishes, the spices remain the same, but a little bit of lemongrass gets added in Chang Mai.”

 

When we asked about typical dishes in Northern Thailand, they introduced a chicken dish called khao soi that is offered only on weekends. This dish is eaten as a noodle recipe in both Myanmar and Chiang Mai. They also introduced a popular Chiang Mai dish called kaeng hang-leKaeng hang-le is a Burmese-influenced pork curry dish and is eaten with sticky or Thai rice. Another popular menu item is nam phrik on. According to Hiroto, this is a Chiang Mai dish made with stewed tomatoes, which would be quite unusual in Bangkok.

 

Hiroto says that many of the Thai foods offered at Puan are adjusted for Japanese people’s taste. “Japanese people can’t eat food that is one hundred percent Thai,” she said. “I tried to make and serve food that is one hundred percent Thai at the previous restaurant (Yuyu Mangetsudo), but the customers couldn’t finish it, so, I now adjust the recipe to a taste that Japanese people can accept. Well, the seasoning is the same, but I adjust the spice level so that it is not too much for Japanese people to eat. In Thailand, everyone can eat a tablespoon of peppers, but Japanese people can’t, so I reduce it by half. Some people also don’t like cilantro and ask us to not put it in.”

 

Puan serves not only cuisine from the Chiang Mai area, but also from other Asian regions. Kamekawa used to work at an Indian curry shop in Kichijoji before starting to work at Yuyu Mangetsudo, where she met Hiroto. Based on that experience, Puan offers also offers an Indian-style curry. Another example would be lu rou fan, a Taiwanese dish. However, Kamewkawa thinks that the lu rou fan eaten in Taiwan has too much meat for Japanese tastes so she includes dried shiitake mushrooms and vegetables in the recipe at Puan.

 

Usually, Hiroto returns back home to Thailand once a year. Kamekawa often joins that trip, and they purchase ingredients and study Thai tastes at local restaurants together. Since there are ingredients and seasonings that are not available in Japan or can only be purchased at a price about 20 times higher, this annual event is crucial to their business. However, Kamekawa is worried about when they will be able to go to Thailand next time. They have not been able to visit Thailand since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We annually visited and purchased ingredients for the restaurant," Kamekawa said, "So that was very important, but now, because of the coronavirus, we are gradually running out of some things. There are ingredients and tea that you are allowed to bring into Japan, and we can’t buy them because we can’t go to Thailand. Usually, we buy all the tableware there, too.”

 

When we conducted this interview, there were two customers in the restaurant, who used to work at Yuyu Mangetsudo with Hiroto and Kamekawa. Most of the customers at Puan are regulars, and over the years many have become friends with Hiroto and Kamekawa and with one another. Before the pandemic, they sometimes invited customers on their trips to Thailand or to go together for a drink at the hole-in-the-wall bar Baboy after having dinner at Puan. On the other hand, they told us that there are not many Thai customers, because not many Thais live nearby.

 

In the restaurant, many regulars keep bottles of Thai whiskey or Japanese shōchu at the restaurant, and these are lined up along the wall as in a regular Japanese izakaya. According to Kamekawa, customers often drink when eating Thai food. “I think that beer is most preferred,” she explained. “Customers drink a lot of Thai beers, and Japanese beers as well. Shochu may be only for a limited number of customers these days. Some also drink wine. We sometimes serve Japanese sake too, and some are fond of that.” There is a strong image in Japan that Thai food pairs with beer, but she told us that Thai food and wine go very well together.

 

Like all restaurants, Puan’s business has been affected by COVID-19. Recently, as a new outreach to customers, Puan opened its own Twitter and Instagram accounts. A person who used to work at Puan a while ago is managing these social media accounts by receiving information about the restaurant from Kamekawa and posting it for them. There are no regular tweets, as the purpose is to let customers know the business hours by posting details regarding temporary closures and shortened business hours. Now that the coronavirus has caused frequent and sudden changes in business hours, some regulars find the social media posts helpful.

 

There are many restaurants on the street where Puan is located, but Kamekawa says that the merchant association is now defunct and there is no regular opportunity to cooperate with one another. However, Kamekawa told us that there are some business owners with whom they interact individually. “I know the people in the same row of shops, like, the neighbors. I have gone drinking next door, and they also came to Puan. They help us out a lot.”

They have more ties with the restaurants who have been there some time, she said, and fewer interactions with the newer tenants. This slowly built social capital also extends to customers. “We’ve been working together for 30 years, so we’re like a family,” Kamekawa said. The success of their restaurant depends on this affective tie, which also extends to the supportive “family” of regulars they have collected around them. (James Farrer and Marisa Motomura, July 26, 2021)

 

(Interview by James Farrer and Marisa Motomura, April 8, 2021; transcription and translation by Marisa Motomura; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)

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