This week, New York City diners can ring in Lao New Year (April 13-15) at the Laotian-inspired Khe-Yo restaurant in TriBeCa for the duration of the holiday, which starts today and runs through April 15. For the second in a row, Chef Soulayphet Schwader (Phet for short) has created an extensive Southeast Asian tasting menu to mark the holiday, featuring such specialties as Ka-Poon Nam Pa (red snapper coconut curry with vermicelli) and Gaeng No Mai Sai Yanang (bamboo stew with baby prawns).
But what we love as much as the feast itself is the annual guest appearance of Phet's mother, Soubanh, who joins her son from her home in Wichita, Kansas, to bless customers as they come and go from the restaurant.
“If you’ve ever been around a Laotian or Buddhist community, people are always giving each other blessings—whether it’s a birthday celebration, or a wedding, or getting out from the hospital,” Phet explains. “It’s the way you cleanse your spirit and take out the bad, then bring in the good.”
For the Lao New Year blessing, called Su-Kwan, Soubanh makes an offering of good luck, good health, and good life as she brushes white and orange string against the palm of guests' hands—a symbol for purging evil—before tying the string around diners' wrists. As she goes from table to table at Khe-Yo, Phet follows her with a blossoming marigold plant decorated with hanging ornaments, a traditional prop used during the blessing ceremony at a Buddhist temple.
The ritual, which Phet recalls from his childhood in Wichita, is another way to bring Laotian tradition to life for New Yorkers who aren't familiar with the culture. “Just eating the Laotian tasting menu is great," he says, "but being blessed makes it feel like you’re part of the celebration, and offers more of a connection to the culture."