This is the first time these Thai family recipes, handed down from mother to daughter, have been written down. Zonya Saranya Dawson, owner of Saranya Cooks Thai, a meal-kit service, is using a combination of childhood memories and phone calls with her mother to write the recipes correctly. “I’ve never had a recipe handed down to me that was written,” Dawson says. “They're all her recipes, but she still is not writing them down.”
For Dawson’s meal-kit service, the written directions are essential for translating a different way of cooking to customers here on the Front Range. Dawson started the meal-kit business this spring as a way to introduce families to cooking traditional Thai cuisine. The kits, which include portions for a family of four, are meant to create familiarity with Thai ingredients and conversation about culture.
“I think I have about thirty dishes, and then I add new things every month,” says Dawson, who does all the sourcing and delivery herself. The ingredients for each meal arrive in a box at a customer’s home along with a recipe card and Dawson’s phone number in case the home cooks have questions. She offers a variety of curry, noodle and rice dishes, soups, desserts and drinks. Specialties include tom kha (coconut soup), massaman curry, kao tod (deep fried rice), Thai tea and drunken noodles.
Dawson hopes her meals will also expand customers’ perception of Thai food. She says that Thai restaurants in America often represent dishes from Bangkok, but the country has regional delicacies just like any other place. She’s particularly fond of ingredients that come from northeastern Thailand and are influenced by Laotian cuisine, such as plala (fermented fish) and curries made without coconut milk.
Dawson's palate comes from growing up in Bangkok and eating a combination of Thai, Laotian and Indonesian food with her family. When she was a child, her extended family would gather at least once a week for dinner. All 23 grandchildren, aunts and uncles would pack into her grandmother’s tiny townhouse to share a meal. “Growing up, I didn’t know how important or how beautiful that was,” Dawson says.
Exploring those recipes as an adult has allowed her to learn more about her family’s cultural heritage. Food has become a stepping stone for conversations about her grandmother’s own Laotian roots and learning about the Indonesian island where her grandfather’s family lived for hundreds of years.
She’s found that her own culinary journey has been one of personal reflection as well. When Dawson was fourteen, her family moved to Fort Collins because of her parents’ desire to give their children a better education. “Straight from Bangkok to Fort Collins — not much of a difference,” she jokes.
When Dawson, who is bi-racial, moved to Colorado, fitting in as a teenager included embracing her white, American side; she recalls asking her mom to pack her American lunches like spaghetti and Lunchables.
“It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I really started to embrace who I am,” she continues. That was after her parents and her sister moved back to Thailand and she started craving not only the food, but a connection back to those childhood moments of eating together as a family. “This is my culture, and I want to share,” she continues.
That togetherness is part of why Dawson prepares her meal kits for four. She wants people to be able to cook and eat the food together. “It’s an activity they can do with their family, [or] it’s like a date night,” she explains. In Thai restaurants, people often order their own individual plate of food, but in Thai homes, dinner is more communal. This shared experience is something Dawson wishes to pass on along with the recipes.
For Dawson, sharing extends to donating culturally relevant food items back to those in the immigrant community who are experiencing food insecurity. For every box sold, she donates ingredients back to families in need. “I don’t think people wanting to eat the food of their culture should be a thing of luxury,” she says. Further, sending the items through case managers or referrals allows immigrants to avoid waiting in line at food banks.
So far, Dawson has received plenty of excited feedback from customers who say they never would have dared to cook Thai food without direction, and that’s why she makes herself available by phone. The written directions are really only the beginning.
Saranya Cooks Thai meals can be ordered at saranyacooksthai for deliveries on Fridays and Sundays.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.