From selling her food in a car park to owning over 20 restaurants. Here's how she did it
“Everyone calls me Rosa. All the taxi drivers, everyone on Brick Lane knows me, they say ‘Hello Rosa!’ But my name is not Rosa.”
We are having lunch with the delightful powerhouse that is Saiphin Moore, founder of Rosa’s Thai Cafe, in her original tiny cafe in Spitalfields. There are now around 18 Rosa's Thai Cafes - 19 when the Manchester one opens - and she owns a couple of other restaurant brands too.
I work with the small communities in Thailand, local farmers. The rice also comes from my farmers, I’ve been working with them for years
The distinctive pillar-box-red painted caff is moments from fellow Spitalfields success story All Saints’ flagship clothing store. Nearby Brick Lane with its significant Bangladeshi population was once the curry capital of London and is home to arguably the best salt beef bagels in the city. The whole area is vibrant, community driven and politically charged - see its ever-changing explosion of graffiti for evidence of that. These days along with adjacent Shoreditch, it’s one of the most fashionable areas of London. But it wasn't always.
Saiphin tells us that the property had, for 40 years, been owned by an ‘old lady’ called Rosa. It was 'a beat up, greasy spoon cafe' and had been empty for four years when they moved in. They liked the name and thought why not keep it, in respectful legacy to its former life?
“Her son walked past one day and saw that we’d kept the name. He came in and said, ‘Do you know? Rosa is my mother’s name. I used to live behind your kitchen! This cafe used to be my mother’s. Would it be ok if she could come and see it?’ He brought her to the restaurant and she was so happy. She was 84 then - ten years ago. I said, ‘Your name is a lucky name.’”
In the window there's a picture of the Thai king and queen dining with The King himself Elvis Presley. A clever nod to the Thai convention that all restaurants should have a prominent picture of the monarch on display as well as the unofficial requirement in Shoreditch that everything must have a kooky, vintage hue.
Saiphin tells us she started from nothing, moving to London from Hong Kong in 2006. She cooked from her apartment and hawked her food to the workers in the office across the road before getting her first stall on Brick Lane.
“I saw all these people selling their food in the car park so I went into the office and the lady asked me, ‘What can you cook? Can you bring a sample?’ I made fresh spring rolls with my signature satay sauce, she said ‘Oh my goodness! That is so good. When can you start?’ I got two days a week on the Thursday and Sunday market. I cooked 11 dishes from my little apartment. I turned my living room into a kitchen.”
Next came the cafe, with a menu that Saiphin created herself using traditional Thai ingredients. She used to sleep between shifts in the basement and would hand roll the spring rolls every day between 2 and 3pm. They are still hand rolled.
Saiphin has a close relationship with her suppliers in Thailand. The tamarind used in dishes like pad thai and sticky pork skewers comes from her home town, Phetchabun province, halfway between Bangkok and Chiang May. It’s a mountainous region know to locals as ‘little Switzerland’. The tamarind is exported around the world, the biggest market being India. Saiphin tells us she even uses its nutty seeds, roasting and soaking them to use in curries and stir-fries.
“Most of our curries use paste freshly made in the South of Thailand. It’s sent to us twice a week by a woman who used to be the manager but is now my daughter-in-law! I’ve been eating their curry for the past 11 years and they are amazing. I went down and met them and asked if they wanted to make the paste and send it to England. We had to tweak it a little bit because curry paste from the South is so spicy.”
She even has her own brand of ‘Saiphin’s’ coconut milk.
“I work with the small communities in Thailand, local farmers. The rice also comes from my farmers, I’ve been working with them for years. They are a very small village and I went and helped them to get an export license so we don’t have middle men.”
We love the new vegan specials. Jackfruit stir fry with red curry paste has us greedily coming back for more of its complex but balanced flavours.
Jackfruit may be a buzzword for today’s insta-vegans but it’s proper old school in Thailand. “Where I grew up we ate a lot of young jackfruit and I’d either cook it with red curry or smash it with chilli to make a dip for vegetables. My grandma made coconut sticky rice with ripe jackfruit instead of mango.”
Banana blossom tempura is served in an edible basket made from spring roll pastry. It has a texture similar to globe artichoke. Saiphin encourages us to mix up the crispy banana blossom with its accompanying spicy salad. It’s like a super crispy version of papaya salad and we can’t get enough of it.
Along with the understandably popular and very spicy green curry, we try a more unusual red curry with chicken and pineapple. We’re told it’s a classic Thai grandma thing to add fruit to savoury dishes.
The new Rosa’s in Manchester is opening in the old courthouse which was most recently home to Handmade Burger Co. It’s a listed building and the plan is to retain as much of the original character as possible. Saiphin says her friends in Thailand are very excited about this latest opening.
"They all love football. Half of Thailand support Man U and Liverpool. They say ‘Can you go to Old Trafford and get me a scarf?’"
If you can’t wait for the restaurant to open - we’ve been told end of Feb but no firm date yet - you could grab a copy of the beautiful Rosa’s Thai Cookbook and have a go at making her simple but impressive dishes yourself.
Rosa's Thai Cafe Manchester opens at the end of February.
Rosa's, The Old Courthouse, 184 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3WB