In some of the poorest neighborhoods across America, finding fresh and healthy food is a daily struggle. As the bold and flavorful Lao food scene continues to rise among its popular Southeast Asian counterparts, a New York City couple strives to define Lao food culture in its rightful place, with a heaping serving of food justice. Through Lao food, Manila and Kris of ‘I Eat Lao Food’ (IELF) is building the emerging movement of testing American palates and transforming eating traditions. “Since its inception, we’ve found that Lao Food inspires a sense of community among people from a variety of backgrounds. We want to utilize Lao food as a vehicle to address economic, health, and social issues in our native Brooklyn communities, specifically East New York”. Starting with dinners in their own backyard, they realized, “the mission is two-fold: to introduce this versatile cuisine and culture to a new audience, but to also empower a group of people who have historically been underserved by the efforts to improve the quality of life in our city”.
Born in a refugee camp in the Philippines, Lao American entrepreneur, Manila and his family settled in Syracuse, New York; where he went to Syracuse University before moving to Brooklyn, where his partner Kris was born and raised. “Growing up, I lived in a pretty rough section, but I also went to some of the best public schools NYC had to offer. I was able to see first-hand the inequities that faced many people around me and how much it impacted our quality of life. Since I was a youth, I was determined to find a way to make change”.
Manila and Kris talks to us about food access in East New York, growing up with Lao food, and how they’re paving the way– one taste bud at a time.
Why is the Lao food movement important to you?
Manila: I just want to share my culture. I am Asian, but I’m not Chinese. I want to show another perspective of Asian Americans, particularly Southeast Asians.
The ‘I Eat Lao Food’ mission is to “offer access to prepared meals in marginalized communities deemed ‘food deserts’. What does this mean in Brooklyn and the East New York area?
Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may only be served by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer very little healthy and affordable food options. It’s also important to highlight the abundance of overpriced produce, which is also a factor in defining a food desert. The lack of access to affordable and nutritious food ultimately contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. IELF’s mission is to combat this issue by providing healthy prepared Lao meals in affected communities, first in East New York, Brooklyn. The East New York neighborhood is a part of the sixth most food-insecure Congressional District in the country– an alarming problem. Lao food’s emphasis on fresh and inexpensive ingredients make it the perfect cuisine to help combat food hardship. By offering prepared meals in these marginalized communities, IELF aims to neutralize the impact of living in areas with a limited number of grocery stores and affordable food options.
Describe a daily cooking scene in your mom’s kitchen. What is your favorite memory of growing up around Lao food?
There was always someone in the kitchen squatting, slicing the papaya, cucumbers, carrots. You can thum anything. Basket of rice steaming in the bamboo huat. The smell of fish sauce. A memory I have of growing up Lao, I once was going through my freezer looking for chicken nuggets or something, and came across a frozen dead squirrel. ka hok laab.
Lao food is getting a lot of buzz lately in mainstream media. What makes Lao food so delicious to the ‘American’ palette?
What is an American palette? Our country is so diverse and Americans come from so many different backgrounds. We all didn’t grow up eating hamburgers and hot dogs. I think Lao food has many different elements that can be easily recognized in other cultures. Lao food has everything. We have spice, sweetness, sour, savory, and we can do that all in one bite.
If you were to describe Lao food in one sentence to someone new to the cuisine, what would you say?
The Lao expression noua, or well-rounded.
In your documentary, you emphasize the Lao way of eating together communal style, on the floor, including passing around a bottle of Hennessy. How is this tradition carried in the Lao New York community?
Lao families really love to get together and share food and drink with each other. It’s very welcoming. Everyone’s here to just have a good time. Food brings out common ground. The atmosphere and environment we create is very open and welcoming. I think the sentiment is the same among many families.
What’s next for ‘I Eat Lao Food’?
We’re doing pop-up dinners in NYC. We’re working on a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to keep the initiative going, a Lao New Year party in April, and more videos.
On Lao food and addressing economic inequities in East New York.
The issue of access to quality food is compounded by the fact that over a third of East New York residents (34-38%) live below the poverty line. IELF is also trying to combat the issue of inadequate income in communities affected by poverty, by forming a workers cooperative. The median income in East New York is 40% less than the city average, while housing costs remain in line with the city’s overall average. This creates housing insecurity in an area where people are already struggling to put food on the table. To address the area’s high unemployment rate, which hovers around three times that of the city’s average, we plan to form a worker’s cooperative that will give employees an opportunity to earn a more livable wage, as well as encourage people to spend their money in neighborhoods that need the economic boost.
-Chanida Phaengdara Potter, email@example.com