Based on NYC Media’s new food TV series, “Native Dish: United Flavors of NYC,” Culinary Backstreets brings you a behind-the-scenes look at some of the New Yorkers featured in these short videos. The series, which aims to celebrate New York City immigrants from all over the world, focuses on one individual and one dish at a time as a means through which to explore the myriad cuisines represented in the city and the people who make them.
While each episode features a general overview of the participant’s life story, particularly as it relates to food, we are expanding that narrative by providing the full interview, albeit condensed and lightly edited. It’s their story, in their own words. This month we are spotlighting Jeannie Ongkeo and her recipe for Tam Mak Hoong, a Lao green papaya salad drenched with savory anchovy sauce.
Out of Laos
My name is Jeannie – well Jeannie is my nickname. My real name is See Say Kong Ongkeo.
I came from Laos. At that time, in 1975, I heard that people from the northern mountains [in Laos] are communists and want to take over our country. I think that I have to go to another country, because I have to take of my brothers and sisters – they’re young and need to go to school. That’s the reason I left, for family, for future, for education.
We are not poor in our country – we are in the middle. And life is good: everything goes by smooth, slow. We don’t have to rush anything. And the land is beautiful. But we don’t know the future [in Laos]. Communists have their own rules. Then after [the war] in Vietnam, we are very close to the border and don’t feel like it’s safe, so we have to go somewhere. We don’t talk too much to even neighbors [about leaving] – family only.
We are about 12 people, and we go from Laos to Nong Khai [a city in northeast Thailand]. They have camps there, but we rent a house because we have too many people. Before we came to the United States, I was working with the U.S. Embassy. Then, I got a first case to come here. We had to wait about 8 months in Thailand before we got called to the Embassy in Thailand, in Bangkok.
A lot of people from all over Laos were applying there, the U.S. Government Agency opened a tent [to handle applicants]. But I have a letter from the U.S. Embassy to show who I am, and I present my letter to them. I say that I’m applying for 12 people. “Wow, 12 people?” They say. “Yes, my family – what are we going to do? I cannot drop them there.”
When they ask where I prefer to go, I say New York because I see the city in movies and it’s beautiful. My brothers and sisters, they want to go to New York to because it’s so big and has so many buildings.
Why Queens? Because my sponsor told me, “We have five boroughs, where do you want to go? We have the Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan or Queens.” And I feel like, it’s stupid, but they say “Queens” and I think, okay, queen, king… so it should be a nice place, a quiet place.
Cooking in Queens
I’ve been in Queens since 1976. At that time, they didn’t have too many food items here, not even papaya or fish sauce, because Elmhurst, my area, was mostly white people, with a few people from Puerto Rico and Colombia. But it was mostly Greeks living here. They moved out 10-15 years later because so many people from South America were coming. We had to go to Chinatown in Manhattan because there was no Chinatown at all in Queens. We eventually found some fish sauce, but it was from Hong Kong, not Thailand. And we found sticky rice, but it came from Japan – they called it sweet rice. The taste was mostly the same. We had to eat it. We had no choice.
The traditional food from Laos is generally not sweet – mostly spicy, a little bit salty. Thai food and Lao food are of course different – it’s not the same. Thai food is sweeter and uses more coconut milk, whereas we don’t use much coconut milk.
The Isan people [an ethno-regional group native to northeastern Thailand] were from Laos, they were part of the Lao people. They eat mostly the same food and speak Laotian – it’s similar, but not 100 percent like a Lao Lao.
Thai people and Isan people open restaurants here. They mix things together and change the food. They put Laotian and Thai [tastes] together, or combine them with Vietnamese food – it’s good food, too. But they call it all “Thai food.” If I open my own restaurant, I’m going to make a three-part menu; one part is Vietnamese, one is Lao, and one is Thai. Then people know which food comes from where. If you mix it all together, it’s hard to tell.
Take papaya salad, for example. Thais don’t use anchovy sauce [to make it], they use fish sauce only. And they put in peanuts and palm sugar to make it sweeter. Sweet and sour. Laotian people don’t like it too sweet; they prefer it to be very light. And also not too sour, so not that much lime. They put anchovy sauce and fish sauce, and a little bit of sugar. It’s a completely different taste.
Back home, I started to cook with my grandmother and go to the market when I was around 8 years old. It was an outdoor market, not indoor like here. My grandmother taught me how to cook everything. She taught me so many things, like how to cut fish, how to cut beef.
My grandmother taught me how to make papaya salad. She also taught my mom, you know, from generation to generation. She told me, “You have to do it your own way right now because if you don’t do it yourself and for the future, then nobody will help you. If you learn from me, you can use this in the future, maybe with your great grandchildren.”
When I first came to New York City, I worked in a hotel for two years. But then my brother opened a restaurant, and my mom asked me, “Could you help your brother?” He didn’t know anything. So about 27 years ago, I quit my job – because we have to help each other first – and helped him open his restaurant, Mangez Avec Moi.
Since my brother didn’t know how to cook, I created the menu. I was leading the way. Then, after working there for a few years, I quit and went back to the hotel. I’m retired now.
At the Temple
I’ve been going to temple for a long time – almost 21 years already. Even though I’m Lao, I go to a Thai temple, Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn, because it’s the same religion – it’s Buddhist. Normally when people go to temple, they have to bring food with them to feed the monks, because the monks have no salary.
I volunteer at the temple, and I always bring food when I come because I feel happy when I bring food to feed the monks at temple. I used to [bring food to temple] in Laos, too. Back home, people knew my food in the temple – they know right away when I bring something because it’s different, it’s my food.
I make papaya salad for the monks because they love it. They are mostly from Isan, so their tastes are similar to Laotian people: they like spicy, they love anchovy because these people are born eating anchovy sauce. Thai people make papaya salad, too, but it’s different from mine. I do it my own way – I have my own taste.
The name of the papaya salad is Tam Mak Hoong – it means “papaya mixed together” – and the original version is from Laos. You have to use padek, [Lao] fermented fish sauce, or anchovy sauce. Without that one, it’s not real papaya salad.
Green papaya is an unripened fruit. It tastes different from yellow papaya, which is sweeter. Green papaya is not sweet at all. We use it to make salad only. We use a kok, which is like a mortar but huge, and a sak [pestle] to crush the chile and garlic, and then add the papaya and all the other ingredients.
We make this by hand and the flavors come out not too sweet, not too sour – it’s more about the taste of the ingredients. Remember the Laotian [culinary] tradition is not too much one way or the other. We don’t put dry shrimp, we don’t put peanut – only Thai people do that. We like it savory, vinegary and also spicy, yeah. That’s the way we eat.
Traditional Tam Mak Hoong (Lao Papaya Salad) Recipe
Traditional Tam Mak Hoong salad is often served with Kaho Niew, a steamed sticky rice.
Stainless steel chef’s knife
Potato peeler (optional)
Wooden cutting board
Traditional wooden large mortar and pestle
2 cups shredded raw green papaya
1 clove of garlic
3 red and green chiles
½ cup diced scallions
Pinch of salt
1 tablespoon raw sugar
1 teaspoon shrimp paste
½ cup of shredded carrots
½ cup of chopped plum tomatoes
1 cup of chopped green beans
1 tablespoon fermented anchovy sauce (Padaek)*
1 tablespoon tamarind paste sauce
1 lime, cut into 4 slices
*Traditional padaek anchovy sauce is often fermented and cured at home for about a year. You can buy bottled padaek sauce either online or in a specialty supermarket. Many ingredients can be purchased at Jeannie’s closest market, the U.S. Asian Supermarket on Broadway and Elmhurst Avenue in Elmhurst, Queens.
Wash all fruits and vegetables. Peel outer skin of green papaya and carrots with knife. You can also use a potato peeler.
Place peeled papaya on cutting board and strike the knife blade against surface of the fruit to create vertical slivers. Slide the knife horizontally under the slivers to create papaya shreds. Use the same technique to create carrot shreds. Chop your green beans on the side.
Peel and chop garlic cloves in half, place in mortar and combine with whole red and green chiles and ¼ cup of shredded papaya. Grind with pestle until ingredients are made into paste.
Add remainder of shredded papaya, shredded carrots and chopped green beans to mortar, slice tomatoes directly into mortar and drizzle lime juice over contents, add a pinch of salt, raw sugar and scallions, then grind and mix together with the pestle gently until the papaya starts to take on color of contents.
Add shrimp paste, tamarind paste sauce, padaek anchovy sauce, and continue gently mixing and grinding papaya mix with pestle. Add more padaek and sugar to taste, if needed, and serve.
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