“Thai people in the North eat a lot of herbs,” Arada Moonroj tells us, over tea, in the dining room of Lamoon. Arada (Ah-rah-dah) opened the restaurant in 2018 with her husband, Jugkrwut Borin, and their longtime friend Piboon “Otto” Thongtanyong in Elmhurst, Queens – a neighborhood already flush with Thai restaurants and cafés.
Many of these businesses feature the cuisine of Bangkok, which is heavily influenced by Chinese immigration and often tends toward sweetness. A smaller number serve the rustic and spicy food of Isan, the northeastern region that borders Laos and Cambodia. But very few, anywhere in New York, devote themselves to the food of Northern Thailand, Arada’s first home.
Arada was born in the town of Lampang in the early 1980s. As a child, she learned to cook with her mother and her maternal grandmother, using clay pots positioned over small portable charcoal stoves. In those days her extended family would cook together every weekend. Kanom jeen nam ngeaw (nee-Yow), an elaborate pork-rib-and-noodle stew, was a favorite at those get-togethers.
For a time, Arada lived with her grandmother, who had a very large backyard (by New York standards) and grew her own pumpkins, tomatoes, Thai eggplants, chiles, lemongrass, ginger, kaffir limes and more. (There’s no such convenient backyard in Elmhurst – literally, “a grove of elms,” a name proposed by an early housing developer. Some of the old elms might still be standing, but good luck finding a grove.)
“When I was young,” Arada also recalls for us, “my mom would sell [food] in the street,” such as sai ua (Sigh Oo-ah), an herbal pork sausage. Generally this food wouldn’t be eaten on the spot; instead it would be taken home, where it would accompany the customer’s own freshly steamed rice. This brings to mind a lesson of Arada’s grandmother: “You have to learn how to cook rice first.”
At 15, Arada moved to Chiang Mai – the largest city in northern Thailand, where her brother attended college – to go to high school. Her school was in the city center, near a large food market; she also discovered many unfamiliar dishes on restaurant menus.
“I started cooking there with friends,” she tells us. Working for the first time without clay pots and charcoal, she discovered, as had many young cooks before her, that her rice just wasn’t the same. Clay-pot rice tends to be softer, Arada explains; her mom supplied a workaround to mimic that consistency while using big-city cookware. (Sprinkling water over the rice, then covering it for the last minute or two, does the trick.)
Soon she was cooking on her own, then volunteering to cook for her family and for private events. College life, in Bangkok, reinforced her skills.
Arada came to the United States in 2008 and, except for one year on Long Island, has lived in New York City ever since. She worked primarily as a nanny, but she never abandoned her love of cooking. By and by, friends and family encouraged her to open a restaurant of her own; Lamoon is her first.
Respecting her mom’s recipes is more challenging in Elmhurst than in Thailand.
Respecting her mom’s recipes, however, is more challenging in Elmhurst than in Thailand. Most of the ingredients for Lamoon are procured at several Asian markets within walking distance, a task that Arada insists on doing herself to see what vegetables are available, and fresh, and to compare prices. “I can spend one or two hours” there, she tells us (her tone of voice suggests that this is not a complaint). She also calls on the weekly farmers’ market just up the hill; given New York’s climate, however, this market is open only during warmer weather.
Arada was able to track down a treasured Northern Thai ingredient, long peppers – which, though darker, drier and firmer, resemble the delicate catkins that droop from New York birch and aspen trees each spring – at an Indian market in neighboring Jackson Heights. But “the smell is different,” she says with regret.
Ultimately Arada chose to import her own long peppers as well as makhwaen (mach-When), a relative of the Sichuan peppercorn, the better to replicate the flavors she remembers from Lampang, where her mother still lives, in the same house where Arada grew up. Arada’s parents divorced when she was young, and her father moved to Mae Hong Son, near the Burmese border. From there Arada imports the curry base for kang hung ley, a rich preparation starring pork belly.
In Thailand, kang hung ley is widely considered a celebratory dish; in Queens, it’s part of the daily menu. For that matter, so are the kanom jeen that were a staple of Arada’s weekend family gatherings and the sai ua that her mom once sold as a street vendor.
And so is khao soi, egg noodles in a coconut-curry soup. Arada’s husband, Jugkrwut, comes from an island in southern Thailand, where coconut milk is common, but in the northern parts of the country, only khao soi employs it. The food of the North tends to be spicy and salty rather than sweet.
It’s also herbal, Arada emphasizes. Consider larb, a family of salads whose principle ingredient is often some sort of finely minced meat. Larb is a common dish in the Isan region of northeastern Thailand; in the last decade this style of larb has become a familiar sight on many New York restaurant menus. Isan larb, however, generally incorporates only a few seasonings; Arada relies on her mom’s recipe, which uses 11. “In every bite you can feel lots of herbs,” she tells us.
Although her local farmers’ market is only a seasonal affair, Arada visits the year-round Union Square Market, in Manhattan, every week. Her young daughter has a dance class nearby; afterward, they go to the market and “I teach her,” as her mother, and her mother’s mother, taught Arada. The herbs and other produce that grow in and around New York are very different, as a whole, from the market bounty of Lampang. We imagine, however, that the mother-daughter lessons are much the same.