Celebrate Solar New Year With Inspiration From These Southeast Asian Chefs

On the menu is tom yum, larb, cassava cake, and more.

solar new year food thailand laos cambodia
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

Solar New Year is a time for splashing water to cleanse away the past and bring fortune into the new year, making merit, and—most importantly—being among friends and family for a new year feast. Every family, and country, celebrates a little differently. But whether it’s boiling tangy tom yum soup, grating papaya salad, or eating sweets made from cassava root, there’s always a delicious option on the table. Here are some of the ways that Thai, Laotian, and Cambodian chefs ring in the new year. 

George P. Pengs

Chef/owner of Dakzen

“My favorite memory of the Songkran festival was in Thailand. People celebrate Songkran by splashing water around on each other on the public streets in Bangkok. I traditionally [celebrate] by gently pouring water on to my family members which they [receive] with good luck words. Songkran festival in Thailand is usually celebrated with family. Most people go back to their hometown and parents cook for the whole family. Most of the celebrations foods for the meal are tom yum goong soup, pad Thai noodles, spicy grapao, ba mee moo dang, or barbecue pork noodles—it really depends on what recipes are specialized for individual families.”

Donny Sirisavath

Chef/owner of Khao Noodle Shop

“In our household, we celebrate Lao and Thai new year by first brining down our Buddha statues or amulet. We create a water blessing bowl out of flower petals and fragrance and splash the water mixture onto the Buddha statue while saying a little prayer to bless us for the new year. Next in line would be our elders—parents and grandparents. This is very important to us, in asking forgiveness, to starting a new year off with a fresh start. 

“There are so many dishes we create to celebrate the new year. Anything with noodles, papaya salad, sticky rice, or grilled protein is how we would celebrate the year with plenty of shots and beer. One of my favorites to make are fresh noodles—whether it be boat noodles, khao poon, mee kati, or khao piak sen, noodles are needed for the after party to sober up. But most importantly, it’s signified that if you eat noodles, you’ll have a life filled with longevity and happiness. Sabaidee Pe Mai Pe Nong, Ma Khao Gun Der! [Happy New Year friends and family, let’s come together!]”

Pai Yaiprab

Head Chef of White Orchids Thai Cuisine

“For a dish I have around Solar New Year, my folks always made a Kanom Jeen with pineapple red curry. Similar to Pennsylvania dutch pork and sauerkraut, where the pig can’t look from side to side and can only look forward, you can kind of think of having ‘long noodles for a long life’ as a good luck dish around New Years. The kanom jeen noodles are a super-thin (think thinner than angel hair) fermented rice noodle in Thai cuisine that is extruded through a thin strainer into boiling water. It’s spun into little nests and we serve it cold putting the hot savory curry on top. When we were younger, we’d try to stretch the noodle out or un-spin it to make it as long as we could before breaking. We usually have this dish a few times a year due to its tedious undertaking in making.”

Nikky Phinyatawana

Restaurateur/founder of Nikky Feeding Souls

“Thai New Year holds some of my fondest memories, including when I was younger living in Thailand and the community would come together for the water festival. The water festival is symbolic in the Thai community, as it represents the cleansing of the old and bad, and brings in the new year with new blessings. The temperature in Thailand can get very warm, so the splash of the cold water with the water guns was always so refreshing and fun alongside my family. Personally, my favorite custom around the holiday is visiting the Thai temple where we give an offering to the monks. In my household, we usually make an array of delicious Thai recipes including my favorite papaya salad, larb gai, pad kee mow, Thai tea, and mango sticky rice!”

“G” Benchawan Painter 

Chef at Street to Kitchen

“Every year, I would travel from Bangkok to my hometown of Nakhon Sawan to visit family, where we play water gun battles, eat my grandmother’s famous hot pot, and dance the night away at the nearby Buddhist temple. In 2014, my husband Graham and I rode his motorcycle all the way from Bangkok so he could meet my family, where my grandmother shot him with a water gun and would not let him stop dancing. Such a great memory!”  

Vanarin Kuch

Pastry chef at Koffeteria

“My favorite tradition on Solar New Year is making my grandmother’s grated cassava coconut cake. The taste brings me back to when she used to yell at me for eating all the edge pieces—because that’s where all the sugar caramelizes. There would be food all over my face, but I’d always deny it anyway. She always knew, but she always let me have it.”

Musky Bilavarn

Chef/owner KraZKai

“Growing up, New Year is the best party time. Family and friends from near and far come together to celebrate. I see it as a reunion because sometimes the people you see you [haven’t] seen in years. So it’s great to see old friends and family. Lao people love Hennessy and that is the choice of alcohol beverage for the party. For food, [we will] definitely be having Lao sausage, barbecue chicken, kow poon [Lao vermicelli soup], and papaya salad, which is all definitely eaten with sticky rice. Every year we have water fights with balloons, water guns, buckets, and hoses. We believe that when you wet or splash someone, we are washing away all the bad luck and bringing good luck along the way for that person.” 

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn