by Shannon Bush
Having just signed up for thirty free days of Netflix, I’m already addicted to the series Street Food: Asia. I recommend starting with the Bangkok and Yogyakarta episodes, the latter being especially close to my heart having lived there a year in the 2000s (and nasi gudeg being one of my favorite meals). Both episodes feature remarkably strong women who are experts at their craft. Jai Fai, who in her 70s is the younger of the two, was awarded a Michelin star for her Bangkok restaurant. In Yogya, Mbah Satinem’s jajan pasar (literally “market snacks,” it’s a catch-all term for assorted sweet treats, many made from glutinous rice flour) is Proustian for the culinary guide who leads viewers through each city. Waxing nostalgic after tasting one of Mbah Satinem’s traditional concoctions drizzled with caramelized palm sugar, he exclaims “It’s like tasting the full sweetness of history in your mouth.”
Another similarity between the episodes is the role of politics in shaping the women’s lives. In Bangkok, crackdowns targeting street vendors prompted Jai Fai to save enough for a permanent shopfront. For Mbah Satinem, attracting political attention brought overnight fame which she’s continued to enjoy for decades. When then-President Suharto became a loyal customer, her jajan pasar became de rigueur for Indonesia’s elite.
Both women suffered early tragedies, but through grit and determination each became the indomitable matriarchs of extended families. Mbah Satinem still supports ten family members from her sales in the market every morning.
The Othello neighborhood in Seattle has its own local heroes. Cindy Le is the indomitable entrepreneur behind Le’s Deli and Bakery at the intersection of Othello and MLK. Despite the slowdown in business due to the current crisis, she gets up before dawn every morning to make croissants, sweet and savory pies, cakes, and other baked goods. The summer berry cake is a must, with light and creamy filling balanced with the sweetness of fresh berries. I recommend dessert first, but their catfish po’boy is a deeply satisfying lunch and curry chicken a rich, hearty dinner. Le’s Deli and Bakery is open 9 am – 8 pm Monday through Saturday and 9 am – 6 pm on Sundays for take-out and delivery. The full menu is online; Grubhub, DoorDash, and Uber all deliver.
Another well-established Othello favorite is Hoàng Lan which has been in Hai Le’s family for over 20 years. After his mother retired from the kitchen, Hai now handles most of the operation—everything from cooking to working front of house. Lately he’s pulled extra duty cooking meals for medical staff at local hospitals including Harborview, Valley Medical Center, Virginia Mason, and ICHS. You can find various GoFundMe sites to help offset the costs to restaurants like Hoàng Lan that are providing meals to front line workers. When Hai is not boxing up take-out orders, he’s steering other small business owners and employees to agencies and organizations providing relief in the form of grants and loans.
Hoàng Lan is famous for its Bún Bò Húê (vermicelli bowl with pork hock, pork blood cake, and beef tendon in spicy broth). For the less intrepid, the Bún Chạo Tôm (vermicelli with minced prawns on sugar cane), grilled lemongrass chicken over broken rice, and fresh spring rolls are flavorful and delicious. They are open for lunch and dinner, but close at 7:00 pm so order early.