Ruth Campbell speaks to chef Aranya Condon about her humble Thai roots and winning over the region with her cooking.

TALENTED chef Aranya Condon has become used to cooking her colourful, fragrant Thai feasts on huge Aga ranges in the well-equipped kitchens of the affluent North Yorkshire families who employ her to cater for large dinner parties.

But it is a world away from where she grew up – in a teak house built on stilts in the middle of a tropical fruit plantation in the southern region of Thailand. Aranya shared the onebedroom home with her three brothers and five sisters and, as a child, recalls having to collect water from a nearby well.

It was here that she learned to cook on a small, single burner, gasbottlefuelled stove, helping her grandmother and mother to produce banquets for large numbers of people at religious festivals and weddings, for as many as 1,000 people at a time.

Aranya, a committed Buddhist, clasps her hands together, as if in prayer, and bows her head to greet me. She is gracious and serene and speaks softly as she explains how her family had a smallholding, recalling how she would regularly travel to market with her mother to sell a pig freshly slaughtered by her father.

“We were all cooks. It was a family tradition. We produced meals for the monks and at big festivals, where everyone would bring food to the temple to be cooked. We would eat from huge cauldrons, with wooden paddles. We threw spices in by the handful,” she says.

When Aranya, 44, arrived in North Yorkshire a year and a half ago, after marrying Bernard, a retired art teacher whom she met through mutual friends when he came to Thailand for a friend’s wedding, it was something of a culture shock.

For a start, it was winter and she couldn’t understand why all the plants were dead, with no signs of growth. Because of the lack of seasonal differences, colourful, lush plants grow all year round in Thailand.

The mother-of-two, who has one grown-up daughter at university and a 16-year-old who lives with her sister in Thailand, was shocked by the number of possessions, electrical goods and gadgets we fill our homes with. And English food took some getting used to.

Aranya quickly impressed friends and neighbours with the delicious, imaginative food she served up. One asked her to cater for a large dinner party and some of the guests went on to book her for themselves. Word soon spread.

People loved her Tom Yum soup, Kiew Tod Kai Nook Gata (quail egg parcels), Poa Pia Tod (vegetarian spring rolls), Choo Chi Kung (red curry with prawns) and jasmine rice.

Aranya, who wears an antique silk sarong when she serves her food, also provides joss sticks, regional music and other personal artefacts if people want a taste of Thai culture as well.

She went on to cater for more than 100 people at the Mayor of Richmond’s charity fashion show. After a number of requests, she also runs Thai cookery classes from her 17th Century barn conversion home in Brompton, near Northallerton.

And she has also opened a Thai shop, Nuadboran, in Northallerton, selling the Asian jewellery and handstitched textiles that the couple collect during their travels in south-east Asia and among the hill tribes of northern Thailand, and gives traditional Thai massages.

As a daughter, in addition to being one of the family’s main cooks, Aranya was brought up to give massages to the older members of the family. She went on to qualify with certificates from the world famous Wat Po medical school in Bangkok and the Thai Ministry of Health.

After leaving her family home in the small village of Krabi, Aranya ran a cafe in Bangkok for a number of years. While she has learned to adapt her recipes for English tastes, her food still has the sort of authentic Thai flavours that are hard to find in Britain.

She buys many of her ingredients, including large Thai prawns and limes, galanga root ginger, coriander root and other unusual fruits and vegetables, from a specialist dealer in Darlington, who imports them direct from Thailand.

Aranya uses more strong chillies and spices in her own food. “She eats things that would blast anyone else’s head off,” says Bernard. “Things like fermented shrimp paste that would make anyone else throw up, she loves it. She gets withdrawal symptoms if she hasn’t had a chilli meal.”

Sadly Bernard now has health problems and is unable to enjoy his wife’s stunning cookery. But she has learned, she says, to cook lamb chops, mashed potato and omelette, although the way she wrinkles her nose when she talks about this basic, English fare suggests she does not find it particularly appetising.

“At least I can appreciate the smells of her Thai food,” says Bernard.

The couple appear devoted to each other. Bernard, 69, recalls meeting Aranya on his first trip to Thailand in 2002. “She was a very cheerful person, she was kind to me, she made me laugh,” he says.

Initially, she helped advise him on the Asian textiles, carvings and jewellery he was interested in collecting.

They married three years after meeting at her family’s home in Krabi, close to where the tsunami had struck, claiming the lives of two of Aranya’s cousins, who were fishermen, just a few months before.

They had a huge marriage ceremony in a Buddhist temple, where nine monks officiated, one of them Aranya’s brother.

Aranya clearly misses her family and daughters. Chup Chip, 20, is at university, and P’plar, 16, is at secondary school. She speaks to them daily via a webcam and the couple regularly return to Thailand for three months at a time. “But my husband is here and that is why I am here,” she says.

Although she still misses the warm weather, Aranya was thrilled to watch all those plants that she thought were dead coming back to life during her first English spring.

Now she loves gardening here, marvelling at the contrasting seasons and all the new growth. “I love my English garden,” she says. The mashed potato and omelette, however, are another matter...

■ Thai evenings: around £15 a head, minimum ten people, three starters, three main, two rice contact 01609-770872/766848 or 07795-361464; email: condonbernard@hotmail.

com. A Buddhist cookery class £35 per person, four to five hours.