That time I cooked for 200 people & then cried in front of all of them.
One of the very last events that I was a part of before I left MN, was for one of my favorite people (Emily Torgrimson) and organizations (Eat for Equity and the American Refugee Committee). For the past 4 years, I've been immensely privileged to work with Emily and Eat for Equity, a socially-conscious catering group that provided locally resourced food for so many of the events I produced. They create sustainable community feasts and are the best kind of do-gooders you should be friends with immediately!
Emily was producing a second "Welcome Table" dinner to benefit the American Refugee Committee and she reached out to see if I'd be interested in being one of the featured cooks. The Welcome Table dinner is a four-course feast designed by four cooks (all from different countries) and prepared by a team of volunteers. The courses celebrate and reflect each cook’s personal heritage and immigration story. Each guest was invited to share their own experiences and to find connection over a shared meal.
In a time of political outrage, I felt this opportunity couldn't have come at a more needed time. What better way to connect with your diverse community than by breaking bread with each other? As a refugee-born first generation immigrant, the journey my family has been on and the struggles we've faced (and continue to face) is a story that I know is important to share. Especially in a time where hateful rhetoric is being widely spread about refugees, immigrants, or undocumented workers.
I, of course, happily accepted and found that I'd be cooking alongside cooks from Somalia, Iraq, and Egypt. As an adventurous eater and lover of global cuisine, I could not wait to meet the other cooks and get cookin' (and tastin')! I selected the appetizer course and knew immediately what I'd be cooking: laab served with khao niew (sticky rice), two dishes that locals consider the national dishes of Laos. Some of you have seen this dish on a Thai menu. Why is that? The truth is, most Thai people are from Northern Thailand, which means they're Thai Isan. Throughout the 20th century, the Thai government took steps to cement Isan's status as a part of Thailand and to de-emphasize the Lao, Khmer and Kuy origins of its population, a process known as Thaification. Laab is from the Isan region, which was (and still is) occupied by Lao people, and therefore is a Lao dish.
We anticipated a crowd of 100 people, but when the dinner sold out within a few days of its launch, we doubled our audience and I slightly panicked when I found out I'd be cooking for 200. I wasn't panicked about the laab dish because I knew I'd have an army of volunteers to help me prep the many ingredients that go into that recipe. I was panicked about how I was going to serve & steam sticky rice for 200 people. If you're not familiar with how sticky rice is made, here's a great video by Mpls-local and YouTube star Christina Tia (House of X Tia):
Sticky rice should be soaked for a minimum of 24 hours in order to cook quickly and be as "fluffy" as it should be. It needs to be steamed in a very specific pot using a very specific sticky rice basket and then stored in a handmade bamboo woven holder. I'm not joking! If you store sticky rice in anything other than that cute little bamboo holder, it WILL get too sticky and that is a no-no for seasoned sticky rice cooks and consumers.
At the time, I only owned two of each needed item. I'm also terrible at doing math in my head, so trying to figure out how much uncooked rice was needed in order to yield 1 cup of cooked rice per person was also making my head hurt. Once the rice was cooked, how in the world was I going to pre-cook that amount of rice, store it so it wouldn't get too sticky, and then serve it to 200 people later? Mind you, we were on a budget, sticky rice cookers/baskets/holders are truly hard to come by in the Twin Cities, and there was no way in hell I was going to serve them in individual plastic baggies (so wasteful, ugly presentation, and gets too sticky). Long story short: we came up with the best solution we could muster after several trips to the Asian grocery stores and if I'm ever going to be steaming that much rice ever again, may Buddha have mercy on my soul.
I should also mention I said yes to this during a really busy time for me. I was finishing up several big events while also packing up our huge lower duplex apartment, getting ready for a big garage sale, and also packing/planning for a 2 month trip to SE Asia before moving to Portland. I don't regret saying yes, but if you wondered if I felt crazy at the time...the answer is of course YES!
Zoom forward to the day of the event, where all the cooks and volunteers crammed into a shared commercial kitchen space and cooked our hearts out over the course of 4 hours. There truly wasn't a moment to spare! We arrived to PAIKKA, the beautiful venue that graciously partnered the space in-kind, and began to plate our dishes. Up first was Nasra, our Somali cook, who shared her recipe of Cilantro Chapati and Chicken Chapati. Then it was my turn...GULP!
Public speaking is something I used to be really terrified to do. Which if you know me, you'd be surprised to hear that based on my personality and all the things I've been involved with these past 10 years of my professional life. I grew up trying really hard to blend in because I stood out so much based on the color of my skin and black hair. We were one of the few minorities in an all-white small town for a very long time and with that came some very scary things. So, no matter how loud I was at home, I was the opposite of that at school or in public for good reason. You don't realize how long you've stayed quiet until you're called upon as an adult to speak up. So, with a lot of support and mustering up all the confidence I could find (in order to mask my fears of being in a spotlight), I eventually found my voice.
The story I shared that night was about "The Secret War" in Laos, a story so many Americans (and people in general) don't know anything about. It's the reason why my family and so many other SE Asian natives were displaced during the Vietnam War. It's the reason why Laos is still dealing with millions of unexploded ordinances today that are killing or maiming children and adults. I talked about where my love of cooking began, how amazing of a cook my mother is, and how amazing of a cook her mother was. That's when my voice cracked and the tears began to fall. I paused, took a deep breath, and continued. I finished by telling everyone that every time I cook these recipes, I give thanks and will always think about the grandmother I never had the pleasure of knowing and all the aunties I'll never get to meet. Their recipes are now my recipes. *COMMENCE WATERFALL OF TEARS*
The courses continued with Mo, our cook from Egypt, who shared his favorite street foods growing up: Beef Kofta and Tahini Sauce, Koshari, Vinegar Tomato Sauce, and Pickled Vegetables. That was followed by the final dessert course by Shakur, our cook from Iraq, who shared his grandmother's Kahi recipe (I don't typically like dessert and I would've had third, fourth, and fifth servings of this dish). The crowd was engaged, lively, supportive, and incredibly kind. We raised over $4000 for the ARC that evening!
It's an event that I'll never forget and feel incredibly grateful to have been a part of. If you ever want to connect with someone quickly or make new friends, I highly recommend inviting them over to your house for a home cooked meal. ;) Also, Lao food is going to be the next big trend. You heard it here first! #laofoodmovement