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Strange Foods Festival To Celebrate Unfamiliar (To Many) Cuisines

By Janet Rausa Fuller | October 18, 2016 5:12am

Lao baked eggs from Immm Rice and Beyond are a popular street food. [Keng Sisavath]

WEST LOOP — The first Strange Foods Festival is not intended to be some Andrew Zimmern-themed carnival, high on the ick factor, replete with fried insects and innards on sticks.

No, the strangest thing to be served at the Nov. 6 event, at least in festival founder Keng Sisavath’s opinion, is also “the most fascinating,” and not that odd: a scrambled egg baked in its own shell, commonly eaten on the street in Laos and Thailand.

“It comes out with almost this custard texture,” said Sisavath, 36, who’s half-Laotian, half-Thai. (He was born in a refugee camp on the border between the two countries.)

Listen to Janet Rausa Fuller share details on the Strange Foods Festival.

The baked eggs will be courtesy of Immm Rice and Beyond in Uptown, one of more than 15 restaurants taking part in the festival at Moonlight Studios, 1446 W. Kinzie St. It will run from 1-4 p.m.

The cuisines will span Southeast Asia, Mexico, Cuba and the Middle East.

“I’m not a foodie,” said Sisavath, a dental technician. “I just like to introduce new foods to people.”

Immm, which specializes in Thai street food, is among the many family-run ethnic restaurants that Sisavath frequents and has come to hold in high regard in the six years he’s lived in and explored Chicago.

After going to the Chicago Food + Wine festival last year, with its lineup of nationally known chefs, Sisavath left thinking, “I recognize all these restaurants. What if I do [a festival] for the not-so-well-known at a more affordable price?"

What distinguishes the Strange Foods Festival from others, aside from the food, is the ticket price, said Sisavath — $45, which covers all food, wine and beer. (Tickets go up to $55 after Oct. 23.)

“When you go to street festivals in neighborhoods, how much do you spend? And you don’t even get to try everything, and it’s just food that they can cook really fast and make money on,” he said.

JSmile 51's spin on a Hong Kong egg waffle is dessert and then some. [Keng Sisavath]

For many of the restaurants, this will be their first festival experience.

“We’re trying to get our name out. A festival will help. We’ll do our best,” said Rocky Chen, co-owner of JSmile 51, a dessert cafe in Bridgeport. Chen will sell Hong Kong egg waffles, a popular street snack trending from Los Angeles to New York.

The JSmile 51 version comes topped with ice cream, fruit and a chocolate drizzle. Chen is still figuring out the logistics of how he'll handle the expected crowd of 500. He has one machine that makes a waffle every five minutes.

Serai, a Malaysian restaurant in Logan Square — the only place to find Hainanese chicken rice in the city, says Sisavath — plans to be there, but co-owner Sing Wang said he's not sure yet if he'll serve the fragrant dish of poached chicken and rice or another dish, or how he’ll staff the event.

Aha Crepe, a Lincoln Park shop, will offer Thai rolled ice cream, another street treat that can be had across Southeast Asia and, increasingly, in hip stateside locales like Brooklyn and Austin.

“They take the ice cream batter, mash it and mix it all around and flatten it on an ice-cold griddle," Sisavath said. With a spatula, the ice cream is then scraped into rolls.

Thai rolled ice cream is a trend picking up in the States. [Keng Sisavath]

Not long ago, Sisavath didn’t consider himself an adventurous eater.

In the early 1980s, an uncle sponsored his family’s move from the refugee camp in Laos to Atlanta. From there, they settled in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he ate his mom’s cooking and “whatever else they had there.” Cheddar bratwursts were about as exotic as it got.

In 2009, he took a year off from work to travel (“every major city in the U.S.,” he said) and figure out where he wanted to live next. Along the way, he blogged about restaurants and memorable meals.

But it wasn’t until moving to Chicago in 2010 that Sisavath realized how little he’d experienced of other cuisines and how much of them Chicago had to offer.

Take Mexican food. Sisavath wasn’t keen on it because, “I always assumed it was enchiladas and tacos and burritos,” he said. A visit to seafood-focused El Barco on Ashland, where he ordered a whole fried snapper, changed that.

“I said if it’s this good, what if I go to Little Village and Pilsen, and so I did,” he said.

Last year, he started chronicling what he ate on Instagram under the handle strangefoodschicago. He has more than 37,000 followers.

Keng Sisavath, founder of the Strange Foods Festival, doesn't consider himself a "foodie." [Keng Sisavath]

Helping him organize the fest is Jed Swartz, who posts on Instagram as chicagofoodevents. The two met while wandering among the booths at Chicago Gourmet last September. They started planning the Strange Foods Festival in earnest in April.

Sisavath acknowledges there are more fitting words than “strange” to describe the festival and these underexposed foods from his and other cultures that excite him.

“I actually don’t like the name. It’s kind of offensive to these cultures. But I needed to find a way to grab people’s attention. I couldn’t put 'Authentic Foods Chicago,” he said.

But that’s the thing. With a few exceptions, the food at the festival is going to be a lot like home, however many thousands of miles away home might be.

Sisavath has wooed one out-of-town business, Atlanta's KhaoLaam, which sells a Lao dessert by the same name made of coconut sticky rice packed and roasted in bamboo stalks.

Other Chicago vendors will include Jarabe Mexican Street Food in the Medical District on the Near West Side, Shokran, a Moroccan restaurant in Irving Park, HoneyDoe, a Syrian catering company in the South Loop and Logan Square’s TropiCuba.

The Cambodian owners of Somethin’ Sweet Donuts in Belmont Cragin, which Sisavath declares the best in the city, plan to serve something very familiar and not at all strange: red velvet and blueberry cake doughnuts, according to Ling Chao, who co-owns the shop with her husband Jim.

KhaoLaam, an Atlanta business, will bring the Lao sticky rice dessert by the same name to the Strange Foods Festival on Nov. 6. [Keng Sisavath]

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