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Cafe Pandau Organic Restaurant in Chiangmai: You Are What You Eat!

My grandmother used to pour tea leaves onto her plants and on the flowers in a garden that was on a par with Eden. Did she know something I did not? Suffice it to say that we kids enjoyed the best, crisp, nourishing vegetables that my grandmother, with little effort, produced on that small patch of green.

Today, more people are turning to organically grown foods and many other organic products, and I wonder why? What is the magic of growing/rearing fruits, vegetables, beef, chicken et al in an organic environment? We know so little about organic products, and tend to look at those who produce or serve such items as being new-age vegetarians, or simply odd!

Cafe Pandau and one of the 3 guest rooms at the Cafe.I felt duty-bound, therefore, to do some homework before visiting Noriko Yabata's "Cafe Pandau" in soi 13, off Nimanhemin Road. An airy and most relaxing little bistro in the heart of one of those farang pockets that abound in this city. Are we sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

Organic fruit and vegetables taste better as they grow more slowly and have lower water content. Organic food contains more vitamin C and essential minerals, along with cancer-fighting antioxidants. More then 450 pesticides are routinely used in non organic farming. Antibiotic additives, regularly added to animal food to speed up the beasts' growth, are never used by organic farmers. A study in the United Kingdom shows that organic farming is good for wildlife and the environment; causes lower pollution from sprays, produces less carbon dioxide, and less dangerous waste. Here endeth the lesson.

Noriko is not exactly your average health food nut; more a lady who knows, as did my grandmother, that naturally produced food makes for healthier people. I walk through what we used to call "French Windows" and sit at an artistically decorated table - you will not believe what I have to reveal later about the furniture!

Noriko Yabata is an uncomplicated woman from the Japanese town of Maebashi, "The City of Poets" in the prefecture of Gunma on the Tone River, and known aptly enough as one of the greenest cities in Japan. Forget the deferential greeting by a Kinono-clad maiden. Noriko is a woman of the 21st century who both admires and respects the art and culture of her ancestors, but wants to drag we Chiang Maians into a healthier way of life. She is an excellent cook, Yoga teacher, live wire and bon viveur; a lady who delights in regaling her clientele with the skinny on healthy eating. (No pun intended).

Cafe Pandau is not a vegetarian restaurant; neither is it a haven for those who would lunch on a single lettuce leaf and a steak. Noriko's tastefully decorated cafe, tucked away in a quiet nook, is a place for wholesome nosh where one can relax and munch without pressure. A Xanadu where one's thoughts can drift down to a sunless sea in a town where "Can I show you the special for today?" has become a popular battle cry.

Noriko is a self-made woman - aren't they all - and a delight to be with and to learn from. She rattles away most knowledgeably about the benefits of organic food, and speaks wistfully of the people who first gave her the idea to open such a healthy eatery; the Hmong.
As we Chiang Maians know only too well, the Hmong are a hill tribe with their roots in China. A great people who came here long before mobile telephones and international chains of coffee shops, bringing with them a culture as unique as it is attractive, even to the Philistines of today's large cities. Indeed, Pandau means "Flower cloth" in Hmong. Noriko was once a video documentary producer; a sharp, hard-nosed media demon. All that changed in the Dutch city of Amsterdam, where she spent 15 years making movies before befriending some rich, organic farmers who sold her the idea of healthy eating.

She came to Thailand to make a documentary on the Hmong people who were then living in the hills above Chiang Rai. What she witnessed there changed her life and her outlook on not only food, but a culture that encompassed time-honoured traditions that were being eroded in a modern world: weaving, dyeing, stitching, sewing and yes, planting and growing.

You have to know Noriko to realise that she is no latter-day beatnik. This lady has opened a restaurant with a difference; a place where art, ancestry and culinary skills merge to give the feeling of dining in a gallery.

Cafe Pandau offers breakfast and lunch at the moment, with dinner by reservation for a minimum of four people. There is an all-day breakfast: American or French, with all the usual trimmings (but organics meats and veggies). It's hard to imagine organic breakfasts comprising bacon, sausages, eggs, bread, yogurt etc. But Cafe Pandau serves them all. Eat your fattening favourites, and remember - a gourmet who thinks of calories is like a hooker who looks at her watch.

Lunches are simply scrumptious: All manner of salads, vegetable soups, broccoli with blue cheese and sour cream sauce, and so much more. Noriko will concoct almost anything to order in her delightful kitchen that backs onto a garden with tables under parasols for those who desire to eat al fresco, as opposed to eating indoors in the quiet, high-roofed dining room.

Oh, I should throw this one at you. Remember that reference to the furnishings? Be careful, should you ask for "a table for four". Noriko is a supporter of local artists, and some of her furniture is not only locally made, but for sale. Eat your lunch, then buy the table and chairs and she will be delighted to help you find transport!

She is also a supporter of small, local businesses: buying as she does many organic grains, and even dishwasher liquid from Baan Suan Pak; run by a husband and wife team of organic pharmacists who produce a large range of organic products in their premises.

Every Tuesday and Friday you can shop at the Organic mini-market. While the original food prepared in the cafe includes organic peanut butter, tomato sauce, gluten-free cookies, and humus. More healthy products are forthcoming. Cafe Pandau also has three guest rooms at Baht 700 per night. Address : Soi 13, 24/4 Nimanhemin Road. Tel: 085-715-3787.


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