Thitikarn Chaima prepares healthy Thai dishes at her take-away restaurant.
Chaima in Wipkingen has a reputation for being the healthiest Thai take-away spot in Zurich: owner Thitikarn Chaima always prepares her dishes from fresh using ingredients sourced almost exclusively from Switzerland and with no additives.
It’s midday and the sun is shining. Guests stream into Chaima, wait patiently at the counter or take a look at the menu. Many customers order their lunch to take away, and the regulars even have their own reusable dishes with them. Meanwhile, Thitikarn Chaima is working like mad. She takes the orders, dashes back into the kitchen, cooks the dishes, puts them on plates, serves them and cashes up. The Thai native is an army of one, running her business alone and preparing every menu from fresh, even during busy periods. ‘Cooking fresh dishes is part of my concept,’ she states.
Thitikarn has channelled her passion into running Chaima for four years now. The ingredients in her wok are always fresh, are sourced from Switzerland as much as possible and – as the chef herself assures me – are 100% free from additives and artificial flavour enhancers. ‘I want my guests to enjoy healthy meals, which is why I prepare all of my curry pastes and sauces myself. It means I know exactly what’s in them.’ All three daily specials are available in a vegan version, and at least one is gluten free.
The ingredients in her wok are always fresh, are sourced from Switzerland as much as possible.
Thitikarn learned how to cook from her parents. She was raised as an only child in a middle-class family on the outskirts of Bangkok. Her mother worked as a freelance seamstress and her father was a butcher. She recalls her childhood fondly. ‘Back then, Bangkok was still so clean that you could catch fish from the rivers and eat them, and pick fruit directly from the trees,’ she says. Her words are tinged with melancholy; much has changed since then. The nature trails and virgin forest have now been cleared to make way for high-rises and congested streets. Her parents had a garden and planted vegetables and herbs. Both her mother and her father were keen cooks. ‘I spent much of my time with them in the kitchen. I helped out and watched to see which ingredients they used.’
‘Back then, Bangkok was still so clean that you could catch fish from the rivers and eat them, and pick fruit directly from the trees.’
She continues to draw on these experiences today. At home in the Seebach quarter of Zurich, Thitikarn grows exotic plants – such as galangal, kaffir lime, turmeric and piper sarmentosum – in her conservatory. ‘Sometimes I’m amazed how well the plants thrive here,’ she says with a laugh. Thitikarn uses the fruits, leaves and roots to make her curry pastes.
At home in the Seebach quarter of Zurich, Thitikarn grows exotic plants.
She moved from Thailand to Basel 14 years ago, so that her son could attend a good school and see his father (who is from Switzerland) more often. However, the spirited Thitikarn quickly became bored playing the role of a home-maker. Without further ado, she purchased a wok trailer – a mobile vehicle with a built-in kitchen – and started cooking on the outskirts of Basel for a customer base that grew steadily as time passed. Before long, a new love spirited her away to Zurich. ‘Of course, I wasn’t keen on ending up as a housewife again; I wanted to pursue my passion for cooking,’ she explains. ‘I spent two years searching far and wide for a permanent spot for my wok trailer, and talked to the city council and various property owners. It was all to no avail.’
But Thitikarn isn’t one to give up easily. With dogged persistence, she sought out other solutions, and found one in the form of a small eatery on a side street in Wipkingen. ‘I knew the location would make things difficult initially, but I hadn’t realised quite how much of a challenge it would be,’ she says in a contemplative tone. In the first year of business, she fought for every guest – and shed many tears. But she kept going. And her tenacity paid off. Word of mouth spread and gradually bore fruit. Now her sales match the effort she puts in.
Even so, Thitikarn is not yet 100% satisfied. She still hasn’t given up on the dream of cooking in her wok trailer again some day. ‘In the wok trailer, the cooking area is literally front and centre, so I can listen to my guests’ preferences and see their expectant faces when I hand them their food. That’s is my dream, which is why I’ll keep looking for a permanent site.’
She still hasn’t given up on the dream of cooking in her wok trailer again some day.