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Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

Decolonizing Far and Near Newsletter no. 10: The American Rebranding of Umami: How the commercialization of MSG erased it of its coveted gustatory sensation          

01.06.2020
Resource

FAR–NEAR

06.05.2022
Photo Series

Yuhan Cheng 程钰涵

01.11.2019
Photo Series

Anumeha

12.08.2019
Film Interview

Robin Pak

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The Art of Fruit and Thai Veganism with May Kaidee

Lulu Yao Gioiello, May Kaidee

29.08.2022
Food Interview
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Several months ago, I stepped inside May Kaidee, a vegan Thai restaurant humbly situated across Seward Park in the Lower East Side. The aroma and warmth quickly made me feel at home, the two toilets in conversation with each other in the bathroom made me laugh. A karaoke machine and some disco lights not-so-discreetly framed the entrance, indications of pre-covid celebrations. Among several framed pictures of the royal family, nostalgic depictions of Thailand and a wall of May’s cookbook, a poster advertising a fruit carving class caught my eye, and I signed up immediately.

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The carving class was a much needed pause from the daily hustle that is New York. An OG hustler herself, May not only owns the restaurant and cooks all the dishes, she also does private Thai massage, caters large events, and carves and teaches the art of fruit.

With every radish we turned into flowers, cucumber we turned into leaves, May offered us tidbits of her life, tips for steady hands, and delicious summer rolls, dumplings and refreshments to accompany the class. At the end, she blended together the produce we had transformed into art, into a summery sweet drink.

Below, FAR–NEAR interviews May on her career, her passions, and how we can contribute and support local businesses.

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Lulu Yao Gioiello Can you describe your hometown and your childhood?

May Kaidee The area I’m originally from is rural and life mostly centers around agriculture. My family owned and operated a farm and I remember long arduous days working in the fields. We would grow rice primarily, but also small amounts of onions and indigenous greens. Many of the people in the area where I was born have roots in Laos, and therefore Laotian influence is evident in the local culture, including the food. You’ll notice on the May Kaidee menu there are Isaan dishes which refers to the North-East Thailand region with Laotian influence where I’m originally from.

I started with just a food cart in Bangkok in 1988 and was soon introduced to vegetarianism by my aunt and uncle who owned a vegetarian restaurant. I made what foreigners call “street food.” In Thailand it’s where some of the best food is made despite how the name might sound. I made items popular with tourists like Pad Thai, as well as numerous items favored by locals, particularly Isaan dishes.

Lulu How did you get into veganism? How did you decide to start a restaurant?

May After my aunt and uncle retired I took over their restaurant and that became the first May Kaidee location. The menu was actually 99% vegan at the time, so later it was easy to drop the couple of non-vegan items from the menu. I gravitated to a vegetarian and vegan diet originally for health reasons, but later found it to be great for business as well.

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Lulu What brought you to leave Thailand?

May I was invited to the UK, Japan and Russia as a guest chef for different venues. In the UK I was involved with a pop-up restaurant, in Russia a Krishna temple and in Japan an organic farm. I spent a few months in each country. The trip to Russia was interesting. I experienced snow for the first time there. The country is quite different from places I had been to previously, and I don’t think most people know there are locations like Krishna temples in Russia. It was truly a unique experience. The trip to Japan had the closest feel to the environment in Thailand I’m used to. It was a great complement to my existing knowledge of Asian cuisine and culture. The UK was interesting in that I was able to see my Bangkok customers on their home turf. Most of my Bangkok customers historically were from the UK but I had always interacted with them as tourists passing through Bangkok while on holiday. It was a nice role reversal to be the tourist myself at the times I wasn’t helping run the pop-up.

Lulu What made you decide to come to New York?

May The U.S. was always on my list of overseas destinations after having spent time in the U.K., Japan and Russia developing Thai vegan projects there. NYC specifically is where I have the largest support network in the U.S.

Lulu What is the Thai community like here?

May The Thai community in NYC is supportive and I enjoy attending cultural events throughout the year. The Thai consulate has on many occasions chosen May Kaidee to provide the vegan Thai option for their events which has been an honor.

Lulu Are there any other May Kaidee’s out in the world?

May Before the pandemic we had 4 locations in Thailand and one briefly in Cambodia. They were all similar as our team (including my sister, sister-in-law and other relatives) spent decades learning to cook the food the same way at our main Bangkok location. The food at the NYC is very close to the way the dishes taste in Thailand because we’re able to source nearly identical ingredients here. For example high quality lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal are now grown in the U.S., with the same flavor as those grown in SE Asia. In terms of locations, everything changed however once the pandemic started. We had to close all of the Thailand locations and in a sense I was brought back to the days of the first May Kaidee with just one location and a team of two people. However just in the past month my sister reopened a small May Kaidee in Bangkok and my sister-in-law reopened a small May Kaidee in Chiang Mai.

Lulu What is something you would like people to know about Thai cuisine?

May We have a holistic approach that places importance on the aesthetics of food: color combinations of ingredients, stylized cutting, and an emphasis on freshness and flavor.

Lulu What’s the best way for people to support local businesses like yours?

May The best way to support a local independent business like mine is to find your favorite places and then consistently order from them. Things fluctuate so much in this business that having steady customers, even if they are ordering minimally one item per week, helps tremendously. I have many customers who order a single dish once a week consistently and those customers in a sense form a safety net that allows me to make it to the next month. Of course the customers who come twice a year for a large dinner party are equally important, but it’s those small consistent weekly orders that ensure the lights remain on.

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May Kaidee offers fruit carving and cooking classes from Monday-Friday, at 9am and 2pm.

Each class lasts ~3 hours and can be booked up by up to 10 people per session. There is a 20% discount for bookings of 4-10 people. Each class costs $100.

Book your class today and support May and her much needed LES establishment!

Interview

Lulu Yao Gioiello

Featuring

May Kaidee

215 E. Broadway

New York NY 10002

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