A Vegan Thai Restaurant That Started as a Bangkok Street Cart – Eater NY

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Vegan cafés, bakeries, and restaurants are a vital part of New York dining. Yet these establishments don’t always get the coverage they merit. This series of stories this week by Mayukh Sen highlights immigrant-owned, plant-based eateries across the city and the people behind them.

Sommay Jaijong doesn’t miss the frog curry she grew up eating as a girl. The perfumes of dill, lemongrass, and galangal would punch up a dish that she ate happily and often when she was growing up in a village in the Sisaket province in Thailand’s northeast.

Hers was a family of farmers. Vegetables and rice grew in abundance on the land, and meals that incorporated the snakes, rats, and grasshoppers roaming around her shaped her early palate.

“That’s why we eat what food we have,” Jaijong remembers one day. “We cannot choose.”

She looks back on these dishes fondly, but it’s been decades since she’s had them. Jaijong, who goes by the name May Kaidee (May is her nickname, a variation of her given name, while she says that “Kaidee” means, roughly, “good business” in Thai), is the owner and proprietor of a constellation of vegan Thai restaurants spread across Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and New York (plus two cooking schools in Thailand).

New York’s sole outpost of May Kaidee now on the Lower East Side (215 E. Broadway at Clinton Street) — her first restaurant in the United States, which she’s been operating since 2016, after her Thailand locations — is tucked away in a basement with a karaoke machine in the back. Here, she serves coral-hued clumps of pumpkin hummus woven with coconut milk, garlic, cilantro, lime juice, and turmeric; and specials like “tuna” salads made from soy protein alongside lettuce, Thai herbs, sticky rice, and cucumbers. (Beyond the restaurant named for herself, she also operates Chakra, a Thai vegan spot with Indian-inspired inflections, in the East Village.)

The exterior of a Thai restaurant.

Outside May Kaidee.

Inside an eclectic dining room.

Inside May Kaidee.

Jaijong wears a plum-purple flower in her hair and caparisons herself in village wear from the Isan region she once called home. She offers regular cooking classes, fruit carving classes, and dance classes at May Kaidee. She sees her restaurant as a vehicle for spreading the beauty of her homeland. “Cooking, dancing,” she says. “I bring the culture.”

Jaijong fell into restaurant work accidentally. As a child, she’d wake up in the morning to hear cows and buffalo crooning around her. She didn’t go to high school. Her mother would rise early to cook for the family, and Jaijong would pitch in.

She resigned herself to thinking farm work, which she loved, was all life would have to offer her until 1988, when an aunt of hers said she needed Jaijong’s help. Her aunt had a food cart in Bangkok; the place didn’t have a name, but it served vegan and vegetarian food. Jaijong jumped at the chance to go to the big city.

She was fifteen when she made her way to Bangkok, bringing essentials like her mosquito net and bedding. Once there, she put herself through her paces by doing prep work, like cutting vegetables. Though she didn’t know a lick of English upon setting foot in the city, interacting with customers forced her to learn. Jaijong was cooking vegan food then — boiled eggplants with basil, summer rolls, green curries with tofu and mushrooms — but she wasn’t vegan herself. She still loved the taste of chicken.

A trio of dishes from May Kaidee

A trio of dishes from May Kaidee.

Papaya Salad from May Kaidee.

A papaya salad from May Kaidee.

But Bangkok was a hectic change of pace for her compared to more regimented village life; the city never seemed to slumber. She was eating until midnight some nights, and this rhythm began to hamper her health.

By 1993, her aunt retired, leaving Jaijong to manage the business on her own. This new responsibility coincided with an increasing awareness of her body’s limits. When she ate fried rice with chicken, she would notice herself subconsciously moving the chicken to the side of her plate, as if her soul were trying to tell her something.

She started to realize that her constitution couldn’t really withstand milk, either. Eggs upset her stomach, too, so she chucked those. She eliminated oyster sauce and fish sauce; soy sauce, sugar, and lime would suffice as flavoring agents. After ten years, she was fully vegan for reasons relating to her health.

Those years were boom times for her business: She upsized the original iteration from a humble cart to a more proper storefront, and then opened a second location in the city of Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s north.

A woman teaches a fruit carving class.

Sommay Jaijong teaching fruit carving classes.

One of those tourists was Eric Brent, founder of the website HappyCow, an online citadel for vegans. As Jaijong remembers it, he noticed that her restaurant didn’t have a name, but he wanted to list it on the website. So she decided it would be christened after herself: May Kaidee.

Television appearances on Thai, French, and Canadian airwaves soon became routine for Jaijong. Her patrons begged her to write an English-language cookbook, and she obliged. (It was first published over two decades ago and has been reprinted twice; copies line shelves of the restaurant.) More locations spread throughout Bangkok, and one even in the neighboring country of Cambodia, would follow. This attention nudged her out of Thailand in the aughts as she began to tour the world cooking.

Soon enough, she was eyeing a global expansion. One of her Bangkok visitors, Jonathan Daniel — now one of her three employees at this Manhattan location — encouraged her to open in New York. With his help, she made the leap, moving to the city in 2016 and initially starting the restaurant near Murray Hill. She relocated to her current, larger place in 2018.

Even through the worst of it, Jaijong has prided herself on her restaurant’s resilience. It was a time when each of her locations in Southeast Asia closed for two years, though the New York satellite remained open for delivery.

Two of her restaurants in Thailand, one in Bangkok and the other in Chiang Mai, woke up again after the pandemic subsided. Jaijong has since resumed her work in spreading her vision of Thai vegan cooking full-throttle.

Jaijong doesn’t worry about making gobs of money; she just wants to earn enough to pay for herself and for her employees to survive. Peace, she says, is more important than material luxury. After all, that quest for health — however one may define that loaded word— is what drew her to veganism in the first place.

“When you have enough healthy,” she says, “You have enough.”

A woman is framed by her cookbooks.

Sommay Jaijong in her restaurant.

Mayukh Sen is the author of Taste Makers: Seven Immigrant Women Who Revolutionized Food in America. He has won a James Beard Award for his food writing, and his work has been anthologized in three editions of The Best American Food Writing.

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