Food News

Sara Hangtagool Wants You to Get to Know the People Behind Thai Food Culture

Taylor Adams
Sara Hangtagool at her recent pop-up at Haute Sweet Patisserie
Selling food was never part of Sara Hangtagool's plan, but as she’s shared her food with local residents through pop-ups, she’s finding a greater opportunity that makes it worth pursuing: sharing Thai culture.

“There’s nothing else in the world as powerful as food because it literally can take you back. It’s not just memories and family, it’s history of the people,” Hangtagool says. “It’s a story of the perseverance of the people of that culture, how they came from nothing to something, what their backgrounds are, the lay of the lands of where this dish came from.”

Hangtagool, who grew up in Arlington, does this through her company, Thid Jai, which Hangtagool says is loosely translated to “stuck on your heart.”

“I always wanted a business of some sort, so I had just over the years dabbled in different businesses and nothing ever stuck because it was never anything I felt really passionate about,” she says. “I just always had come up with excuses why I couldn’t have a business. I didn’t have a good idea, didn’t have enough money to start. Last year, somehow, one day I was like, 'I should sell some kind of Thai food.'”

As the pandemic started roaring, she started with what she’s still passionate about: selling sauces and seasonings for people to make their own Thai food at home. But what really got people returning ended up being full dishes she created from her mother’s recipes.

“With COVID and stuff, there was this shift in people: Life is too short to wait for opportunities to present themselves, so I had to make an opportunity, so I used the money I had and I started selling Thai tea by the half-gallon. It was really good at first. After a while it died down; people can only drink so much tea,” she says.

People kept asking if she would make food — something she was already doing in her day job as a chef at a foster home — and she wasn’t attracted to it. Having a restaurant was not (and still isn’t) her goal.

“I had a lot of self-doubt, but once I started doing it and the response was really positive, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I do know what I’m doing,’ and it just grew from there.”

She was gaining traction over Instagram and selling food out of a parking lot when Haute Sweet Patisserie owner Tida Pichakron came across her social media posts.

“She was doing pickups at a parking lot near the Galleria, and I was like, 'This is not safe, come to my shop and do pickups here,” Pichakron says. “And [I asked] to hopefully give her some more exposure to people to help grow her business. She is an amazing chef, and I wanted to be able to share her amazing Thai food with my customers. People had been asking when I would do another Thai pop-up, but I just haven't had time, so this was a great solution. I also feel it’s important to uplift others in this industry. It can be scary to be in this business, but to know you have a network of other female chefs to turn to makes everything a little less scary.”
click to enlarge A bag full of goodies from Thid Jai - TAYLOR ADAMS
A bag full of goodies from Thid Jai
Taylor Adams
She’s been popping up at the Northeast Dallas bakery for months, with a recent event offering her wonderful khao soi. This is one of those dishes that when you see it on a menu, you should order it. It’s a comforting bowl of rich curry with coconut milk topped with a variety of textures including crunchy egg noodles, pickled mustard, red onions and cilantro. Beneath are fresh noodles, and you’ll get a protein — Hangtagool’s was a super-tender, slow-cooked beef.

On our visit, this wasn’t the type of meal where you grab your food, head to a nearby brewery and dive into the meal (which was our plan for the nearby Oak Highlands Brewery). While the broth was warm, instructions made it clear we needed to heat it and assemble everything in a large bowl. So we changed course and headed home (admittedly, after stopping by for a beer at OHB anyway).

It was a lovely khao soi, with the properly addicting, slightly acidic broth, tender noodles and flavorful beef that clearly took time.

“This is a dish I used to beg my mom to make. It’s a little more of a time-consuming dish because of all the different toppings, components, to cook the meat until it’s tender,” Hangtagool says, noting a possibility of why it’s not on every Thai restaurant’s menu.
click to enlarge Assembled khao soi - TAYLOR ADAMS
Assembled khao soi
Taylor Adams
“I think people don’t understand how diverse Thai cuisine can be,” she says. “These are dishes I grew up eating, it is frustrating sometimes when people associate Thai food with just a peanut sauce. We have one dish with peanut sauce, and it’s probably not the peanut sauce you’re thinking of.”

And it’s also far more than drunken noodles or pad Thai, too. Though, should you be a fan of the latter, Hangtagool can help you with that. In the past she’s offered pad Thai kits with noodles, a bottle of her pad Thai sauce, marinated chicken, tofu, veggies and garnishes — everything is prepped so you would just assemble. Online, you can find ingredients such as roasted rice powder, which she explains is a staple ingredient in Northeastern Thailand. Its aroma and texture can make a sauce luscious and thick.

It's ingredients like these Hangtagool would like to provide more of.

“That’s ultimately what I want: things people can cook at home. People can bring Thai flavors at home without my having to prepare it. There’s a sense of pride when you make something, and I want everyone to have that feeling of empowerment and pride in their food, and to build positive relationships with food,” she says. “I think people can be intimidated by Thai food; I want to create these tools people can use to create delicious Thai food at home.”

While Hangtagool went to culinary school, her mother taught her everything she knows about Thai food.

“As I got older, I had felt this disconnect, when you’re a first-gen, of not being Thai enough and not being American enough, this in-between. So I wanted to embrace my Thai culture more and learn more about it, and for me how I do that is through food,” she says. “In sharing Thai culture through This Jai, I learned a lot myself, and it has also been a journey of me and my growth and my culture and being unapologetically Thai and not letting people take that away from me.”
While she knows she can Google her cooking questions or find people cooking on YouTube, she still goes to her mom to get hands-on knowledge.

“I have tried to soak up as much as I can from my mom. I want to learn it from her. I feel like that can also shed through my food, when they eat it, they say, 'oh it's different,' it's because it has my family in it, I tell people that all of my food, flavors that’s me bringing my childhood into your homes, that’s why I feel so passionate about it. I love being able to do what I do not just share my culture but parts of me and my family.”

For Hangtagool, food is memories, emotions, connections and relationships.

“I think there has been a little bit of a gap for people just not appreciating the people behind the food: ‘This is what I want to eat,’ and complaining about, ‘This isn’t the flavor I want.’ Do you appreciate the food? I think when you learn about the culture, you learn about the people. When you learn about the people, you appreciate the food more. You can’t love the food without loving the people,” Hangtagool says.

Thid Jai will have its first-ever live dinner pop-up from 6 to 9 p.m. Dec. 11 at Sandwich Hag, 1902 Botham Jean Blvd. in the Cedars.