Every year, I celebrate three new years. My first new year is the Western new year on January 1st, and my second one is the Chinese new year on February 5th. Finally, around April 14th, I celebrate my third new year on the outskirts of Atlanta, at Wat Buddha Bucha. The Thai New Year, also called Songkran, is a renewal celebration of my Thai heritage in my family life.
From the young age of 8, my mom, our Thai friends, and I would go temple (Wat, in Thai) to "make merit" by donating food for the monks who live there. We would also talk to friends from other Thai restaurants throughout Atlanta (gossip and eating food are a favorite pastime).
"Water cleansing" is an important part of Songkran. Water is a metaphor for cleansing the sins from your last year, and allowing a new, clean year to arrive. This beautiful idea usually means that kids fill ups their super soakers and water balloons with the coldest water that can find on site and run around, trying to shock people with the water. For the most part, adults are off limits, but it's all in good fun and celebration of the new year.
If you want to eat amazing Thai that's way different from the formulaic menus you would find in many Atlanta Thai restaurants, visit a Thai or a Lao Wat during their Songkran. Rows and rows of tents are lined up with professional and home cooks selling dishes they love and miss from Thailand.
These meals and celebrations are a cultural community celebration of my childhood. As the years pass, the next generation of kids like me bring their friends along to show them our world, creating a little more diversity and interest in our culture and food.
I've always wanted to see more of my underrepresented Thai culture in Atlanta. It's always been one of my personal missions while working in the Atlanta food scene. My idea was to bring the essence of what I felt at the Wats to a Songkran celebration in Atlanta.
For the Thai/Lao new year celebration this year, Talat Market collaborated with Chef Thip Athakhanh of the Lao restaurant Snackboxe Bistro to serve some delicious street food at Empire State South (ESS). This collaboration was really exciting in a lot of ways.
I began my Atlanta cooking career in 2011 at ESS, working under Chef Ryan Smith, who was and is still doing exciting New American southern food. So this year, when Talat Market organized a Songkran celebration at ESS, it felt like a special kind of homecoming. Working at ESS changed the way I viewed food in the American south. Now, I got to see my family's culture at that same restaurant - having the opportunity to continue changing the way that Atlanta and the American south view Thai food. Things were coming full circle.
94 people joined us at Songkran, with curious minds and hungry stomachs! Guests started at a check-in booth, receiving a custom Songkran menu and an elaborate, colored thread bracelet on their wrists (the bracelet is based off a Thai tradition, representing protection from bad spirits throughout the year). Guests then grabbed some sugarcane shots and drinks made by Kelly Thorne (ESS bar manager) and were entertained with a traditional Lao dance to ring in the new year. After the dance, food was served.
The food was spread out on different tables throughout the ESS courtyard, to simulate the tents at a Wat. Traveling from table to table until they got all their dishes, guests could eat and enjoy the meal at their own pace. My favorite dish of the night that I served was the Gai Yang, grilled chicken, with Nam Prick Num, spicy chili dip, and pork cracklins on the side.
Even though rain arrived near the end of the event (Mother Nature's super soaker water cleansing!), this year's event was awesome. We plan on doing a Songkran event annually at our brick and mortar restaurant in Summerhill.
But for me, one of the most special parts was inviting all those who are involved either behind the scenes or out in front with Talat Market. In the beginning, Rod and I started this journey on our own, working hard and holding onto the motivation of spreading delicious food and Thai culture in Atlanta. As we've grown, Talat Market's reputation has gotten bigger, and so has our staff - which, I call family. For the new year celebration, it made me so happy to see this family enjoying themselves at a Thai inspired event. That's one of the main reasons I got into this business in the first place.