This is the lovely Wat Suan Dok (the name means “flower garden temple”) of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Lovelier still–to this godless sybarite, at least–is the unassuming outdoor restaurant tucked behind the ornate chedi and beneath a spreading banyan tree. I have eaten at Pun Pun four times and there isn’t a kitchen on earth I love better.
As it’s attached to a Buddhist temple, Pun Pun serves only vegetarian food. But this isn’t the ersatz-meat vegetarianism of Chinese Buddhism, which, delicious as it can be, gets a little brown, a little tofu-heavy after a while. (In fairness, their culinary rules are a little stricter: garlic, shallots, and chilis are no-nos because they’re considered too stimulating, and onions, carrots, and potatoes are out because to consume the root of a plant rather than just its fruits or leaves is to kill the whole organism.) Instead, there’s a real vegetable exuberance here, an appreciation for the full spectrum of colors and textures the plant world has to offer. Just look at this flower salad with its springy butter lettuce, tart pomelo flesh, plump sweetcorn kernels, and–just visible–tempura bougainvilleas! There are sweet onions in there, too, a scattering of coral-colored ixora flowers on top, and a bowl of avocado-sesame dressing to pour over.
You can see the fried petals more clearly in the picture below, which I took on my first visit two years ago. When you compare the photos, you can also see that Pun Pun’s recipes aren’t fixed, but vary according to what’s available in the market and on their own organic farm. This version included shredded carrots, kidney beans, and little barley-looking things I think are Job’s tears:
So, this isn’t “health food.” It’s Thailand, after all, where a good portion of any menu is always going to be deep-fried. But the ingredients are so fresh and prepared with such loving care that every dish feels sublimely health-giving anyway.
Mushroom fritters are light and greaseless:
Eggplant in a pumpkin and coconut curry is creamy without overpowering:
That said, my favorite things on the menu are probably the least caloric ones, but not because I’m counting. Above all, I love Pun Pun’s noodle soups, whose broths by some sorcery have almost the richness of French veal stock. It’s so difficult to distill a vegetable essence that doesn’t over-rely on tomato paste and roasted carrots and onions, becoming achingly sweet as a result, yet Pun Pun’s is so savory, so balanced and good. They go through a lot of mushrooms in this restaurant, and I’ll bet most of the stalks end up in the bold, dark soup. What kind, though, and in what proportions? I always tell myself that I’m going to pay more attention the next time I order their noodles, that I’m going to learn their secrets, but then I get completely lost in the moment and find I’m looking down at a bowl that’s already empty.
My favorite of the soups is the rice noodle dish yen ta fo, a meatless take on a Thai dish that is itself a mutation–a rather distant one, by now–of a Chinese dish called yeung tau foo. The broth has a distinctive red color, which in hawker stalls across Thailand is achieved with red fermented tofu and/or ketchup, but at Pun Pun is done with beets. How lovely it is, with its green stalks of morning glory, nests of purple seaweed, fried dumpling skins in yellow pennants, and corrugated blocks of two-tone beancurd:
It was even better this time than I remembered from my last visit–which I also photographed, naturally:
In the two years that passed between my second and third visits, I often dreamed of Pun Pun’s pure, clean, fantastically flavorful cooking. Isn’t it wonderful when your memories don’t deceive you and the reality really delivers? Not only has there been no loss of quality, but, as you’ll agree if you look at the older set of pictures, the plating has become more gorgeous than ever.
The only thing I’ve ever not liked at this restaurant–and I’m really only mentioning it in order to tangentially introduce a related dish you might not be familiar with–is their version of naem moo, a fermented sausage of pork, pig skin, and glutinous rice native to northern Thailand. Pun Pun’s analogue is made entirely with fermented mushrooms, to the effect of sauerkraut by way of dirty feet. I will say in the kitchen’s defense that, having since read up on this sausage, I’m not convinced that I’d like it in its original form, either–especially not raw, as it’s typically consumed.
Anomalies will happen, but I am still devoted to Pun Pun, and thrilled to hear that they’re growing. They’ve opened a second branch in Chiang Mai since my last visit, this one focusing a bit more on Western cuisine (I didn’t try it, since Western food is decidedly not what I travel to Asia to eat, but I’m sure it’s excellent), and they’ve also started offering workshops as well as longer, live-in internships in sustainable farming techniques. (There might have been some of this before, but they’re promoting it more actively now.) Truly, I can’t think of a better advertisement for the sustainable lifestyle than this remarkable restaurant, where wholesomeness coexists with a surprising sensuality. That sensuality probably shouldn’t be surprising, but for a few decades there a bunch of hippies were ruining it for everyone with their vegan cheesecakes and wheatgrass smoothies, weren’t they? Pun Pun is the antidote to all that.
If you want to find out a bit more about the restaurant, my good friend Marisa who always hosts me when I’m in Chiang Mai and dutifully chauffeurs me to eat here has made a short film about it: