Thai Comfort Food: Lalita Kaewsawang

Lalita Kaewsawang Hanloh Thai Food
Chef Lalita Kaewsawang of Hanloh Thai Food in Santa Cruz presents a menu of her favorite Thai dishes reimagined as vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free delights. Learn more about how street vendors in Thailand inspired her culinary journey and what she has planned for our event on Sunday May 5. Then get your ticket on Eventbrite!

Tell us about Hanloh – your pop-up and private catering business. What inspired you to start this venture?

I started Hanloh Thai Food in 2017 after working at Dinner Lab in New Orleans and completing apprenticeships at Michelin-starred restaurants Grace in Chicago and at Manresa in Los Gatos.

“Hanloh!” is a common greeting when Thai folks pick up the phone, reminding any immigrant of home, wherever they may be. This venture is inspired by and an ode to the street vendors who used to feed me in Thailand – they showed up every day, working hard in the muggy heat of Southeast Asia but they were also graceful. Precise. Flawless. And their food was always hot, fresh and seasoned just right. Over the years away, the multiple meals I’ve had from street vendors is inextricably tied to my memories of home and my childhood in Thailand. It’s my version of comfort, all wrapped up in one greeting.

I worked at Thai restaurants in Berkeley when I was in high school, and even in college, food continued to be a big part of my life. I was in Connecticut with limited late-night food options and in my senior year, I started selling food out of my campus apartment. I prepared just two dishes each night, a meat and a veggie option, and would be open until I ran out. This gave me a taste for what it would be like to run my own food business, even though I was about to embark on a career in education. I moved to New Orleans where I worked with City Year and Edible Schoolyard but I eventually slipped back into the culinary world.

Lalita Kaewsawang Hanloh Thai Food Mieng Kham
Which menu item are you most excited about and why?
I am excited about every dish on this menu because it is a 100% vegetarian menu featuring bold Thai flavors that does not rely on tofu or meat substitutes.

When I started to cook for Hanloh in my town of Santa Cruz, I had to be creative with vegetarian and vegan dishes. I struggled with tofu and meat substitutes which can be delicious, but when used without intention, they don’t make great dishes and actually diminish the complexities and nuances of flavor that make Thai cuisine so unique.

I started to approach Thai dishes from a fine dining perspective. During my two year apprenticeship at Manresa Restaurant, I learned that if something doesn’t add to the dish, you have to take it out. I worked at the vegetables station for few months and had to cook vegan substitutions that are not tofu. I learned to value vegetables, nuts, and grains, and appreciate the different ways of highlighting them.

Lalita Kaewsawang Hanloh Thai Food Saku Yat Sai
© Lalita Kaewsawang

What can guests expect from the menu?

We will have “Khao Tod” crispy rice salad that is traditionally made with fermented pork sausage (a personal favorite!) but in its place we will have seasonal fruits which are equally satisfying.

Saku Yat Sai” (pictured above) is a tapioca dumpling that’s usually stuffed with ground pork, but every time I eat it I could never identify the pork. So I have left it out and my version amplifies the flavor of nuts and salted radishes in the stuffing.

Kanom Krok” are little coconut cakes cooked in a Thai cast iron mold. They are the perfect balance of creamy, sweet, salty, and savory and it’s hard to have just one. Or two. They are tricky to make, and take time to cook over a charcoal fire, but they are worth the wait. It’s a real treat to bring this dish to Tapestry Suppers.

Where did you grow up? And what are some of your fondest memories of Thailand?

I spent my childhood in Nonthaburi and Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand. Nonthaburi is a small city along the Chao Phraya river just north of Bangkok. My memories of the landscape are colored by food: our neighbor would make sesame balls for snacks and we had a Chinese bakery down the street where my grandmother would pick up a day-old bread to feed the fish at her farm. In Chiang Mai, I lived in a small town in the mountains called Sanpatong, widely known for the quality of its jasmine rice. One of my fondest memories is of driving to the waterfalls on a hot day and enjoying papaya salad and grilled chicken from street vendors around the waterfalls.

My earliest and strongest memories of Thailand are of the sound and smells of my grandmother pounding curry paste with mortar and pestle. Some days my grandmother would give me two 10 baht coins and send me off to eat dinner from one of the many street vendors in our neighborhood.

© Lalita Kaewsawang

What were your first impressions of America upon arrival?

America is beautiful! I landed in SFO in May 2001. All I remember was how beautiful and clean it was when we drove from the airport to Berkeley that evening. It was foggy. I thought I was in the clouds. My stepmother’s car was a Lexus with leather seats, I truly felt like I was a princess!

Since then, has life here supported or erased those impressions?

It has been a long and challenging road!

It turned out that my stepmother was not a good person. After four years of enduring her torments, I obtained a restraining order and left her family when I was 17. My younger sister was with me and I became her guardian as soon as I turned 18 and I received my green card through the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Through that process, I’ve met many wonderful people along the way who are now friends and family. They guided me through the college application process, supported me through all those years in college and provided a place I can call home.

What brought you to America? What aspects of life here seemed interesting or strange to you?

My father married an American. I moved here when I was 13 years old with my younger sister, thinking that it would only be for a year before returning to Thailand. I was told it was better to be educated here, that I would learn English, which would be an advantage when I moved back to Thailand. I did not expect to stay on and build my life and career here.

At first, I couldn’t fathom the American love for cheese, but that’s maybe because I was only exposed to Kraft cheese products when I first arrived. They’re not exactly the most convincing examples of tasty cheese!

When we settled in Berkeley, our home was a block from Cheese Board. I wouldn’t step into the shop at first, because there were so many items on the menu that were unfamiliar. I didn’t know where to begin. Over time though, I found my favorites and formed a habit of getting a cheese roll, English muffin, and a hot chocolate about few times a week.

Lalita Kaewsawang Hanloh Thai Food Mieng Kham

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