How to make May Kaidee's Pumpkin Hummus
The Queen of vegetarian Thai food, with fans in New York, started life as a street food vendor in Bangkok
A dancing girl in an traditional Thai headgear and a gold brocade costume comes tripping down the restaurant’s stairs. Moving among empty tables, she finally brushes past me where I’m sitting, reaches out and says, “Come on, dance with me.” But before I could work up an excuse, she has traipsed off again.
Weird, I thought. _A wired dancer at noon in an empty restaurant. _
It was my first time eating at the legendary May Kaidee vegetarian restaurant on Bangkok’s Tanao Road. But the reason it was empty was that May Kaidee had been busy teaching Thai cooking to a bunch of tourists upstairs, which she does every weekend.
I’d been really hoping I’d bump into the woman who’d made her brand of vegetarian Thai cuisine an international phenomenon. Instead, I got a temple dancer.
It was only several months later, learning veggie Thai cooking at May Kaidee’s famous Cooking Class myself, that I came to learn that the temple dancer had been none other than May Kaidee. Apparently, a good old-fashioned Thai dance was how she liked to end her famous classes.
And everyone had to join the dance.
May Kaidee’s given name is Sommay Jaijong, and she was born poor, on a rice farm in Thailand's northeastern province of Si Sa Ket. Like other Thais, her cuisine included everything: rats, dogs, crickets, silkworms. Her favorite was snake curry.
School didn’t suit her so she left for the big city, and was soon selling street food out of a push cart in a lane off Tanao Road, where her aunt and uncle ran a vegetarian restaurant.
Now young Sommay wasn’t exactly lissom, and had a tendency to put on weight rather quickly. After enough people had asked her when the baby was due, she decided she had to lose weight. For some reason, she thought going vegetarian would do it.
Now if that sounds to you like a good public relations backstory, it probably is. May Kaidee brings a level of street savvy and schmooze power to her work that has lifted her straight out from the streets and made her a celebrity that people want to be photographed with. She’s peppy, poised, sassy, knows her art, can deal with bullshit without once dropping the sweet smile, and knows exactly where she is going.
When I sat with her, after the cooking class, she was going to New York — to open the first international franchise for May Kaidee’s vegetarian restaurant and range of branded May Kaidee sauces, curry pastes, pickles, cookbooks, and other culinary products. That girl from Si Sa Ket is never going to push a street cart again.
Becoming a global vegetarian brand wasn’t easy at the beginning. She’d became fatigued easily, running low on energy. “I had to learn to eat the right balance,” she said. “Like lots of tofu and beans to make up for the proteins I wasn’t getting from meat any more.”
She began building up a formidable vegetarian menu. Today, her 60 plus menu items include Thai standards like pad thai and tom yam, but also exotics like deep-fried seaweed with chilly mango sauce, and Chinese cinnamon tofu soup. Plenty of faux meat as well, in the form of vegetarian ‘sausage’ and vegetarian ‘fish’ (made with seitan, a meat substitute created from wheat gluten).
Twenty two years have passed, and May Kaidee is now the reigning goddess of all things vegetarian in Thailand. Everyone from travel guides to vegetarian websites has written about her, and attending her cooking class is usually among the top five Things To Do In Bangkok If You Can Do Only Five Things in Bangkok.
Check out her websiteand you’ll get a glimpse of Planet MayKaidee. It features her restaurants, cooking schools and products, all dished out in English, French, Thai and for some odd reason, Portuguese. There’s a MayKaidee app, video cooking tutorials, her Thai and Vegetarian cookbook (now into its second edition), and interactive cooking videos.
Her cooking schools in Bangkok and Chiang Mai offer a spectrum of courses that include Fruit Carving 101, How to Make Tofu, and Advanced Chilly Paste, and intriguing cooking classes for Singles and Lovers (which ends with a romantic expedition to the midnight flower market), and even one course that includes a quick primer on Thai massage.
The plain vanilla Thai Cooking course remains the most popular, so that’s the one my daughter Chantal and I decided to attend. There were about six of us, waiting in the morning’s muggy warm around a table stacked high with the vegetables for the day’s work. The May Kaidee swept in, crackling with her trade mark vivacity, and the energy went high voltage.
Her kitchen upstairs, with individual gas cookers and stations for upto 10 ‘trainees’ at a time, is professionally rigged so everyone gets to practice what she preaches. Over a space of three hours, we were walked through a Tom Yam Soup, a Tom Kha soup (with coconut milk), Fried Vegetables with Ginger and Cashew Nuts, a Pad Thai, the basics of a Peanut Sauce, a Massaman Curry, a Green Curry, and a Spring Roll.
I haven’t mentioned one dish yet, not because hummus is not a Thai dish, but because this one dish stood out for me from the list for its taste and sheer inventiveness.
Would you believe — red pumpkin hummus?
May Kaidee started us off with this simple and unexpected dish. The ingredients were right there before us, and preparing it took no longer than 15 minutes. Then we were allowed to sit and eat our first creation, with a little bit of rice.
Oh, my brothers and sisters — the Pumpkin Hummus is a gift from a very high heaven to which May Kaidee has the key. By itself, it made the entire morning worth the time and effort.
As we left, with a recipe book that had recipes for all the dishes we’d prepared, I realized I had one last question for her.
“Why did you change your name to May Kaidee?” I asked her at the door.
“Well, May was what my friends have always called me,” she said. “And Kaidee means sales.”
- Roast the same seeds light pink. Keep a little aside for garnishing and grind the rest a little in a pestle and mortar
- Roast or lightly fry the cashew nuts light pink and crumble them.
- Cut the pumpkin into chunks and boil or steam it. Mash it fine.
- Mix all the ingredients together. Garnish with remaining sesame seeds.
- Serve with cut vegetables as a dip or with rice.