Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

Time Out meets Banyen Ruangsantheia

Meet the 62-year-old Thai chef who has given Suan Thip, a humble Nonthaburi eatery, a Michelin star

Phavitch Theeraphong
Written by
Phavitch Theeraphong

Dewy-eyed, soft-spoken and with a seemingly perennial expression of bemusement on her face, Banyen Ruangsantheia has the appearance and personality that most people would not associate with a Michelin-awarded chef. Her presence as the award recipient for Suan Thip, an old-school restaurant in Nonthaburi, at the Michelin Guide Thailand Star Revelation ceremony at Park Hyatt Bangkok in November 2018 caught the attendees—comprised of the most iconic figures in the local and global gastronomic scene—by surprise.

I didn't know who or what Michelin was 

“I didn't know who or what Michelin was,” the 62-year-old chef confesses. “I only realized how big Michelin was when one of our servers told me. I was shaking throughout and was probably the only one in the room who could not understand English. When Suan Thip was announced as a Michelin-starred restaurant, I almost fainted. It’s hard to believe that a normal Thai eatery serving simple Thai food could be compared to high-end, five-starred restaurants.”

The Nakhon Ratchasima-born Banyen, who’s been in charge of the kitchen at Suan Thip for almost three decades, initially came to Bangkok in the early ’70s and ended up becoming a maid for the Kittikachorn family, which owns Suan Thip. Due to the political conflict in 1973, Banyen’s employers were forced to relocate the entire household, help included, to a piece of riverside land in the then far-flung area Nonthaburi.

The family was initially involved in the creation of intricate fabric flowers, which they sold at Don Muang airport. It was only later that the business expanded into a restaurant. Over the years, Suan Thip became a restaurant that specialized in traditional Thai dishes, where guests would dine in pavilion-style dining rooms decked out with beautiful flower garlands and surrounded by lush vegetation.

[She] didn’t teach me how to cook the way we do today. It was learning by tasting

It was Sa-ing Jitbuntao, the first head chef of Suan Thip, who introduced Banyen to traditional Thai cooking. “Auntie Sa-ing didn’t teach me how to cook the way we do today. It was learning by tasting,” Banyen reveals. “She often called me to taste her curries to see if they were ready [for serving]…. Auntie Sa-ing’s curries were the best and I have never tasted a better version of them.”

As Banyan reveals, the secret to Sa-ing’s—and Suan Thip’s—addictive curries lies in its paste. “We mainly use salted dried Spanish mackerel and Thai mackerel as the base for kaeng born [red curry with the leaves of the elephant ear plant] and kaeng kee lek [yellow curry with Siamese cassia]. And we are not stringent on herbs for fragrance. Customers always praised our curries for their distinct intensity and they became the talk of the town.”

Customers always praised our curries for their distinct intensity and they became the talk of the town

These curries are often paired with side dishes that offset the intense flavors of the main dish. “The sweet and sour kaeng born is offset by the accompanying salted egg, while the creamy kaeng kee lek is perfectly paired with crispy small fish.”

Another Auntie Sa-ing’s signature creation was a rich version of khanom jeen nam prik (fermented rice noodles served with sweet peanut gravy). This dish pleased popular food columnist Thanatsri Svasti so much that he recommended it on Shell Chuan Chim, the local version of the Michelin Guide back then that was sponsored by the petrol company. It has long been one of Suan Thip’s best-selling dishes. 

Other crowd favorites include miang served with toasted coconut, lotus seeds and lotus petal wraps sourced from the lotus flowers grown in the restaurant’s in-house ponds; and nam prik nakhon ban, a spicy relish cooked with hairy eggplant, madan and crispy snakehead fish following the recipe of noted politician Kukrit Pramoj.

 The effort could be too much for the young generation

It’s evident that Suan Thip’s masterpieces are the result of time-consuming techniques, years of experience and a burning desire to understand all the flavors and complexities of traditional Thai cooking. “The effort could be too much for the young generation,” Banyen laments, observing how her younger kitchen staffers don’t put as much dedication as they should to traditional cooking. “I admit after I die, I do not know what would happen to Suan Thip.”

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