Farewell Kanōm, Until We Meet Again
I love the cottage food industry. For talented home cooks, cottage food production provides an opportunity to test the waters of professional cooking without committing to a costly culinary education or a grueling restaurant gig. For those without enormous savings or a cache of investor dollars, it’s a low-stakes path to feeding the community and earning an income. For enthusiastic eaters like me, the cottage food industry opens up a world of culinary delights unavailable on supermarket shelves or restaurant menus.
Head to the Waco Downtown Farmers Market and you’ll find scads of cottage food stalls offering everything from jams and pickles to breads, pastries, pupusas, and more. But one stall stood out from the crowd, a one-woman operation offering savory and sweet Thai street food unavailable anywhere else in Waco. That stall is gone for the time being, but Kanōm Thai Street Food will be back in a year or so once its owner, Nitcha Garsee, returns from Thailand with new recipes for her menu. Keep your eyes peeled, because Kanōm is not to be missed.
The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of
While her four kids were in school or being watched by family, Nitcha Garsee was in the commissary kitchen where she rented space, prepping desserts and savory snacks for Kanōm’s extensive Saturday market menu.
Kanōm, pronounced “Kah-nome,” means “snack” in Thai, and Kanōm’s menu was packed with portable bites to satisfy every pang. You’d find familiar staples such as veggie egg rolls, steamed pork dumplings, and delightfully fluffy Thai-style pork buns, but the real stars were the dishes you may not have heard of, such as stuffed tapioca pearls and transcendent chicken curry puffs.
The pork-filled tapioca pearls were outstanding whether you gobbled them on the spot or took them home for post-market noshing. Seven semi-translucent balls of tapioca pearls no bigger than a quail’s egg were stuffed with deeply savory ground pork and toasted peanuts, steamed, nestled in a bed of crisp iceberg lettuce leaves, and sprinkled with fried garlic and toasted peanuts. The interplay of textures—chewy tapioca, crisp lettuce, crunchy toppings, juicy pork—combined beautifully with the rich flavor of sweet-pungent garlic to create the perfect light lunch or between-meal snack.
But the curry puffs, in all their golden-layered glory, stole the show.
Each baseball-sized curry puff was its own little miracle of flavors and textures—flaky, tender, moist, spiced, and incredibly addictive. A swirly spiral of flaky dough that you’d swear contained butter—but doesn’t—encased slightly sweet, umami-rich curried ground chicken and potatoes for the perfect handheld snack. They kept well for days in the fridge and were just as fantastic eaten cold as they were reheated in the oven. Forward-thinking shoppers would buy one for immediate consumption and at least four more to eat throughout the week. This was my practice until Kanōm closed, and I will forever regret not stocking my freezer with a year’s supply to tide me over until Garsee’s return.
But Garsee is particularly passionate about bringing Thai desserts to the people of Waco, and her mango sticky rice was a staple for any dessert lover. A generous mound of sticky rice was served with slices of ripe mango, a side of sweetened coconut milk for drizzling, and a teeny, doll-sized Ziplock of crunchy, toasty-fried mung bean seeds for sprinkling on top. It’s a classic tropical treat for hot weather and a good gateway dessert for those unfamiliar with Thai sweets—light, wholesome, fruity, and refreshing.
This summer, Garsee also served Thai shaved ice—the perfect cool-down to see you through your final lap around the farmers market on too-hot Texas mornings. While clinging to the shade of Kanōm’s market tent, you could watch Garsee assemble your sweet treat.
Into the bottom of your cup went a scoop of mocha-colored grass jelly—delicate, soft, and wiggly—then a scoop of firmer coconut jelly, creamy, substantial, and toothsome. A spoonful of sweet stewed pineapple in syrup came next before Garsee pushed a handful of ice through her portable shaving machine and packed it on top. Then came a generous drizzle of bright red sala syrup, made from the fruit of a palm plant that grows in Thailand and neighboring countries and adding a floral-fruity bubblegum flavor to the mix. A splash of pandan-infused coconut milk was the final touch. As the ice began to melt, an ambrosial concoction formed around the snowy mound—creamy, fruity, multi-textured, and delicious.
Bringing Thai Market Traditions to Central Texas
Garsee’s childhood in Thailand was shaped by the many outdoor markets that are central to Thai culture, particularly the night markets, when the street would come alive with vendors after the heat of the day had dissipated. The markets were major social hubs for locals, and according to Garsee, it was more common for folks to meet up at the market than to socialize at home.
“There are more Thai people here [in Waco] but, I don’t know, they don’t hang out with anyone,” said Garsee. “It’s more isolated here. In Thailand, you hang out all the time. For Thai people, it’s, ‘Let’s go out. Let’s go to a coffee shop, let’s go to markets.’ You can go and hang out at night markets four nights a week. Almost every city has a night market with handmade stuff, clothes, fashion, second-hand clothes, and snacks—one section is only food.”
These markets with their wide variety of savory snacks and sweet desserts made an indelible mark on Garsee and her culinary tastes. But her life path would eventually lead her to Central Texas, where Thai street food is scarce.
Garsee met her husband, an American missionary kid from Beaumont, Texas, when his missionary team did outreach at Garsee’s church. He spoke fluent Thai, and they became fast friends as they socialized around church services each week. But it wasn’t until he returned from Bible school in the US that sparks began to fly. Garsee had returned to Thailand from South Korea, where she was studying the Korean language and training to become a teacher. When they decided to tie the knot, Garsee focused on a new set of goals: raising a family, running a food business, and continuing with her husband’s missionary work.
“We first started with a farmers market. I had an American bakery from scratch,” said Garsee. “I did not know anything about cake. My mother-in-law taught me how to bake. We started in her kitchen, which had a giant gas oven. We made muffins—chocolate chip, blueberry. It was popular because it was new, and I used butter—good butter—for the American muffins and cinnamon rolls. Thai people don’t like sweet sweets, but people who’ve been to America, they know the taste of real cinnamon rolls and brownies.”
In 2014, when her in-laws joined Waco’s Antioch Community Church, Garsee and her husband joined them, packing up their few possessions and moving sight unseen to Waco. Garsee spoke no English, and neither she nor her husband knew anyone in Waco. It was a leap of faith that Garsee wholeheartedly embraced, despite the intimidating language barrier.
“I like adventures. I like new things. It was fun, the first few months [in Waco], but the thing that wasn’t fun for me was English—the language,” said Garsee. “It was hard. I would go with my family everywhere, and they spoke English, so I just listened a whole lot. I didn’t speak a whole lot. I just listened and smiled. Yes or no. At night, I studied from YouTube. I would have a little notebook for me to write the question and try to practice what I learned. My husband’s grandma lived with us, and I just talked to her. She spoke no Thai, and I spoke with her every day. I didn’t take a break. I spoke Thai with my husband, but I spoke English everywhere else.”
After careful study and full immersion, Garsee mastered the language, which helped her find a sense of belonging in her new home.
“I live in American culture now,” said Garsee. “Now I can feel comfortable with American people. I feel comfortable with my friends. I have all American friends, and they like to come over to my house. In Thailand, they would not want to come because we used to go out.” She chuckled a little. “Now, if I do that in Thailand, my friends would not know what to do in the house.”
When her brother-in-law, Bank Garsee, opened Curry Up and Wok This Way, first at the farmers market and later in Union Hall, Garsee pitched in to help cook. Her time there, not to mention the enthusiastic response to her mango sticky rice, encouraged her to open a stall at the Downtown Waco Farmers Market where she could focus on the Thai street food Waco was lacking. She would be able to continue raising her kids full-time while earning extra income and staying connected to her passion for cooking. It meant wrangling childcare and spending long hours in the commissary kitchen executing labor-intensive recipes, but the work and the resulting happy customers made it all worthwhile for Garsee.
A Change of Plans, A Chance to Reconnect
During her time in Waco, Garsee’s husband joined the military and was stationed in Laredo, Texas, before leaving Garsee as the primary caregiver for their four young children. Her in-laws eventually moved back to Thailand, but they visit Waco every summer to spend time with the family and help with childcare.
This summer, when her in-laws were preparing to return to Thailand after a three-month stay, Garsee decided to go with them.
“My husband’s in the military. So I felt like maybe I can move back with my in-laws so my kids can have family around and feel loved. They can have family there and siblings to play with. It will be good for them and good for me—a break. I take the opportunity to go visit, although I will have to be there for the whole year of school.”
Garsee plans to use this time to reconnect with her friends and family in Thailand, but she will also be taking notes for Kanōm.
“I will go there and learn how to make more Thai food and Thai desserts and bring the beautiful food back to Waco. So much is changing in Thailand right now, so I would like to bring that back so that people can experience what Thai food is—beautiful Thai desserts—things people here don’t know about.”
Garsee developed a loyal following at the Waco Downtown Farmers Market, and regulars like myself are very sorry to see her go. But we will wait with bated breath until her recipe-laden return. In the meantime, we’ll always have curry puffs (if only in memory).
Kanōm may be temporarily closed, but you can still browse the menu on Facebook and follow Garsee on Instagram to catch glimpses of the delicacies she is currently sampling in Thailand. Stay tuned, so you’ll know when she’s back in Waco.
Want to know more? Check out Nitcha Garsee’s recipe for stir fried black pepper chicken.
Aniceto Charles owns Tru Jamaica with his mother, Vivia Charles, whose menu reflects the dishes she grew up eating in the small town of Pratville, Jamaica.
Kanōm Thai Street Food will be back in a year or so once its owner, Nitcha Garsee, returns from Thailand with new recipes for her menu. Keep your eyes peeled, because Kanōm is not to be missed.
For more than twenty years, Helados La Azteca has been serving up Jalisco-style frozen treats, candies, and savory snacks, making it one of Waco’s oldest ice cream parlors in operation.