Crediting her Laotian grandparentsʼ passion for cooking their local cuisine, Maryah Ananda learned about her culinary culture almost through osmosis. She observed, she stayed present, she asked questions — and eventually she picked up their innate abilities. Today, the creator behind @maryahananda will light up your Instagram as she documents, in her own words, “nourishment, wellness, and healing through the lens of food.”
How does your heritage or culture influence your home cooking?
Growing up Lao-American, Iʼm constantly on a journey to rediscover my culture. I started to get serious about Laotian cuisine when I began working in food about two years ago. There are so many flavors to taste and ingredients to discover. When I spend time with my grandparents, I love watching them cook. Itʼs like being in an immersive classroom. The smells, their gestures and nuances, how much seasoning they use, how they just know how much to add through repetition… Iʼm always asking questions or, at times, none at all. Just hyper-present and watching. We talk on the phone every week and I always ask them what they ate.
How have you built your own community through food?
As Iʼve been chatting with friends and having beautiful food experiences, Iʼm realizing that I use my imagination to unearth and create rather than worry about what I donʼt know. I think itʼs an important quality to remind myself, as a Lao-American, to embrace what I donʼt know and use that to be open and curious. When my dear friend Pearl (who is Thai and throws amazing dinner parties) and I decided to do a Thai-Lao food art event called “Unearthing with the Hands,” it paralleled this theme while allowing our inspiration to run wild. We encouraged guests to eat with their hands, as it united all of us with our innate abilities while giving gratitude to the delicate vessel that carries tradition. Bellies were full of lettuce leaf bites, sweet sticky rice balls made in three ways, and a build-your-own papaya salad station. We drew menu inspiration from nostalgic smells and tastes we hold dear while reinventing dishes like Vegan-ish Laab Bao Buns. It has the classic herby, fresh flavors of Laab but in a fun, fluffy context (as usually itʼs eaten with lettuce wraps). It was a bit tricky at first because the filling has a crumbly texture but once we got it down it was so delicious, especially with chili crisp on top! Itʼs always a pleasure to highlight under-tasted Laotian flavors and also be on that journey myself. Iʼm so happy to feed you along the way and share what brings me joy.
Maryah’s Vegan-ish Laab Bao Buns
For the filling:400g extra-firm tofu, drained, patted dry and crumbled
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 shallots, minced
3 tbsp. fish sauce
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 Thai chilies, minced
1/2 cup mint, minced
1/2 cup basil, minced
Juice of one lime
Put sugar, yeast and water into a medium bowl. Whisk until sugar dissolves. Let it sit in a warm area for 5 – 7 minutes. In the meantime, sift flour and salt in a separate medium bowl and set aside.
Add flour, salt, and oil to the yeast bowl. Combine until you get a homogenous dough. It should feel aerated and a bit sticky. It should look like the flour and water are a unified dough, but it doesnʼt hold its shape; it kind of looks like an airy blob.
Heavily dust your work surface and knead for about 10 minutes. It should transition into a slightly taut, pliable smooth dough. It holds its shape much better and should be much easier to work with now. Transfer to a clean, oiled bowl. Put a clean dish towel over the top and rest for 35 – 45 minutes in a warm place.
Combine all ingredients for filling in a large bowl then squeeze out liquid with a cheesecloth. Set aside. Itʼs very important that all of the liquid is drained.
Punch dough down and transfer to a heavily floured work surface. Roll dough out to 1/4 inch thick. It should be around 15 inch x 13 inch. It doesnʼt really matter what shape — as long as it looks like an ovalish rectangle, youʼre good. Using a ring mold or a glass, cut dough into 3 – 4 inch circles. Roll out leftover dough and keep cutting. There should be no dough left over. This makes about 14 – 16 bao. Make sure individual bao are lightly floured and covered with a clean dish towel or they will stick to the counter and dry out.
Gently pass a rolling pin over a single bao 2 – 3 times to flatten it out a bit and to give you a little more surface area for the filling. Carefully scoop a heaping tablespoon of filling onto the center. Fold the edges up and over the filling, then give a hard pinch to press them all together and repeat. Itʼs a little tricky at first but keep going! Itʼll get easier! Place the bao on lightly oiled parchment squares. (You can do this with a cooking brush or an oiled paper towel.)
Steam using the Spruce Steamer for 15 minutes.