Catching Up with Sawatdee's Supenn Harrison

The first time Supenn Supatanskinkasem (now Harrison) cooked her native Thai food in Minnesota, she was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and lived with a host family. She learned very quickly that Minnesotans did not like "stinky" Thai food when her hostess told her to stop cooking her offensive dishes. She figured out that some of the traditional Thai seasonings - shrimp paste and fish sauce to name two - appeared to be the offending ingredients and she learned to cook the dishes without them. Fortunately, for all of us she did not simply stop cooking.

Since 1976 Harrison has been cooking and serving Thai food through her Minnesota State Fair Booth, Siam Café, and Sawatdee chain of Thai restaurants. And, thanks to the ever expanding tastes of Minnesotans, she has been able to add back some of those "offensive" seasonings. Also, thanks to her persistence and success, more people opened Thai restaurants until now there are more than 100 in the state offering the food of Thailand. She planned to retire a few years ago, but found too many things that still needed to be done in the Sawatdee business and now plans to retire next year. Her daughter Jennifer is now running the Washington Avenue Sawatdee giving Harrison more time to spend with her grandchildren. But, somehow that has not stopped Supenn's push to do more with Thai food in Minnesota.

Part of that effort is in keeping up Thai traditions including celebrating the Water Festival. This year each Sawatdee restaurant will have special festival menus and the Washington A venue location in Minneapolis will have two days of special entertainment. April 12 and 13 with two seatings at 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. each day. Entertainment includes Thai music, dancing, and the water blessing. (Wear something drip dry!)

Last year Harrison published her third cookbook that combines two of her favorite things -her joy of cooking and her belief in Buddhism. She adds some of her own philosophy as well. "A waken to Thai Cooking" features some of the favorite dishes of Sawatdee diners along with cooking tips and quotes from the Dhammapada. It is available at any of the Sawatdee locations or at www.sawatdee,com. And, in keeping with her philanthropic efforts proceeds are donated to the Thai monks in the Twin Cities.

After an absence of several years, Harrison opened a Sawatdee in St. Paul at 486 Robert Street. This time she teamed up with former Sawatdee chef Kung Ha. Together they have turned this newest location into a popular gathering place and has Harrison looking around for the possibility of more new locations.  

She may be returning to Lake Street in Minneapolis soon, not far from her original Thai restaurant, Siam Café. And, she may even be back at the Minnesota State Fair this year where her Thai food operation all began. For more information on Sawatdee's Water Festival, restaurant locations, and Harrison's cookbooks go to the website shown above or call 612-338-6451.

Food Note My thanks to the cousins of Honnay Chin Molloy who sent my column "Do  You Remember John' s Place" to her in Ohio. She is the granddaughter of John's Place cofounder Woo Du Sing and ac- tually worked in the restaurant. I really appreciate your efforts! They will help make our upcoming book on Asian food in Minnesota a true tribute to the Woo brothers who started Asian restaurant food in Minnesota back in 1883.  

Phyllis Louise Harris is a cookbook author, food writer and cooking teacher specializing in Asian foods. She is founder of the Asian Culinary Arts Institutes Ltd. dedicated to the preservation, understanding and enjoyment of the culinary arts of the Asia Pacific Rim. For information about ACAI's programs call 612-813-1757 or visit the website at www.asian culinaryarts.com.

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