New York City is one of the most diverse in the world. As such, there are a wide variety of cuisines that can be found throughout the five boroughs. However, many either can’t be found or are sparsely available. One of these cuisines is Lao, which is unfortunately underrepresented in the city compared to its Southeast Asian neighbors. Fortunately, a couple hailing from Brooklyn have been working diligently to bring awareness of the cuisine and culture.
How They Met
Manila Southammavong and Kristen Walkes started I Eat Lao Food in 2015. Born in a refugee camp in the Philippine capital he was named after, Manila grew up in Syracuse, NY. Kristen grew up downstate in Brooklyn and attended the same high school as me. Coincidentally, I was in Syracuse visiting a close mutual friend during the same weekend that they first met in Spring 2008. Little did I know that it was the beginning of a dynamic duo!
The Beginning of I Eat Lao Food
Back in February 2015, Manila and Kristen invited several of us to their home for a Lao dinner. We were encouraged by their vision and good vibes from that initial get together. Their first dishes were quite familiar to us, with Thai restaurant mainstays such as papaya salad, laap and spring rolls. Accompanying these dishes was a thip khao, a large bamboo basket full of sticky rice, a staple of Lao meals. This initial experience eating Lao food piqued our curiosities and we researched more about the cuisine.
Lao Food and Thai Food Connection
Nam Khao with Pork
Northeastern Thailand, namely Isan, is known for these dishes. However, they actually originated from Laos! An interesting primer on the backstory can be found on the website of Chef Seng Luangrath. Luangrath owns the excellent Thip Khao restaurant in Washington, DC that we visited and enjoyed during our trip.
Delicious Nam Khao with Pork
From Backyard to Pop-Up Dinners and Events
Mok Pa with sticky rice
After that initial February dinner, Manila continued to hone his craft using his mother’s traditional recipes. Kristen promoted the brand further and they hosted more events at their home. At these events, they introduced more dishes. Mok pa, catfish with dill, kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass steamed in banana leaf became an instant favorite. The use of dill, which is not often found in Southeast Asian cooking, was particularly refreshing.
As they built relationships in Lao communities across the Northeast, their name and reputation gained traction. Larger events and pop-up dinners in spaces throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan to accommodate the demand was the next step. The beauty of these events was that they not only focused on Lao food, but also injected NYC and hip hop culture.
This was also part of a vision to introduce Lao cuisine to “food deserts,” marginalized neighborhoods that lack access to fresh and diverse food options. Namely, areas such as East New York, Brooklyn would benefit from having Lao cuisine’s focus on fresh ingredients.
Taking I Eat Lao Food to the Next Level
The events continued and became more frequent. During this time, Manila met Chef Seng and was invited to shadow her in the kitchen of Thip Khao in DC. In addition, Manila assisted her at From Laos with Love, a banquet at the James Beard Foundation. Here, he worked alongside several established and up and coming Lao chefs.
Last year, Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown show filmed an episode in Laos. Alongside the episode were a series of articles on Lao food on the accompanying Explore Parts Unknown website. One of these articles, A Mission to Preserve Funky Flavors, was penned by Chef Seng. Manila was mentioned as one of the ambassadors of introducing Lao food to more of the USA.
The Food Stall
I Eat Lao Food Stall at LIC Flea
Often, the next big step in an emerging food business is launching a more permanent location. Manila and Kristen did just that by deciding to set up shop at the LIC Flea in Queens in 2017. After doing one weekend in June, they began the first of 8 consecutive weekends on July 15th.
We showed up on the opening day and enjoyed their signature nam khao, red curry coconut rice mixed with lemongrass, keffir lime leaves, scallions and fish sauce balled and fried whole. After the rice is fried, it is smashed so that there are several sections of crunch. It is emblematic of Lao cuisine with a focus on fresh herbs, sour, spice and textures. Nam khao is a great introductory dish that can be had with or without pork.
This year, Manila and Kristen have decided to vend at the Queens Night Market, modeled after the large night markets in Asia. Fittingly, there is a wide range of cuisines from Indonesian to Peruvian, representative of the diversity of Queens and NYC as a whole. Since its inception in 2015, the market has steadily expanded and become a launching pad for several vendors. For instance, a large number were nominated for or won Vendy Awards in 2017. Last year, the market received plenty of favorable coverage, including a glowing review from Ligaya Mishan at the New York Times. In fact, Ligaya listed the Queens Night Market as number one on her top ten list for 2017.
Inspiration and Continued Progress
After three plus years, it is impressive to realize the growth of this couple’s vision. From hosting meals at home to having a food stall at a well-known market to now setting up shop at NYC’s first night market. We are excited to continue to closely follow their progress. Impressively, this work was all done while they were working full-time and raising two children. Also, we hope that this story is also an inspirational one for those who aspire to launch their own business.
UPDATE: I Eat Lao Food has been nominated for a Vendy Award! Fittingly, the previous mention of vendors at the Queens Night Market receiving Vendy Award nominations continued here. Manila and Kristen have been chosen as finalists for the Best Market Vendor category. We wish them the best of luck and win or lose, this is an impressive accomplishment!
Nam Khao balls
Check out Manila and Kristen at the Queens International Night Market on Saturday nights from 6PM-12AM beginning April 21, 2018. Follow them on Instagram @ieatlaofood and check out their website.
Have you tried Lao food before? If you have, what are some of the dishes that you tried? Let us know below!
Traveling duo who met via Instagram during New York’s Hurricane Sandy.
Professionals by day, citizens of the world by choice and nomads at heart. Currently living in the best city of the world, Queens New York. Read more...