Cassandra Lam of Laksa Shop: Life is a Bowl of Laksa
We've carried Mama Lam's delicious Malaysian curry pastes and hot sauces since almost the beginning of Pearl River Mart Foods. So when we heard founder Cassandra Lam had opened a pop-up serving up laksa (noodles soups popular throughout Southeast Asia, we knew we had found the perfect pop-up for Little Eats 小吃, our "substantial snacks" stand in Pearl River Mart Foods.
We had the chance to chat with Cassandra about how Mama Lam's and the Laksa Shop came about, what craft-beer-drinkers and laksa-eaters might have in common, and of course food food food!
Tell me a little about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
My mom's from Malaysia and my dad's from Hong Kong. They met in New York. I grew up with different kinds of food – Canton, Malaysian, and lots of curry. It was a very food-oriented household. My mom was more of a stay-at-home mom and always prepared our meals for us. One of my favorite memories is from when I was about five, standing over a stove with my dad cooking. I grew up always eating and always surrounded by food.
Have you always lived in New York?
Yes! I was born in Flushing Hospital. We lived in Kew Gardens Hills until I was 10, and then in Stony Brook. I went to St. John's University for marketing, and I still live in Queens.
How did you go about starting your own business?
In addition to being a stay-at-home mom, my mom also worked from home as a travel agent. My dad is a small business owner and runs a silver jewelry shop. So I grew up surrounded by a kind of entrepreneurial spirit.
I worked at an advertising agency for a few years. It was a very corporate world. After five years, I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do. I was looking for new opportunities when my mom said why don’t I use her curry paste recipe and try to start a business?
We always travel a lot. About eight or nine years ago, my sister, mom, and I were at an outdoor market in Canada. They had curry laksa, which we were happy to see since finding Southeast Asian food is still very rare. It was good, but we all thought my mom's was better. That also helped inspire me to try a food business.
We started with a stand. It was very spur of the moment. We rushed around getting this license and that license. I quickly realized the food industry is very tough. Plus I didn't have the proper training. I thought, I don't know if I can handle this right now. Let's pivot to product. And that's how Mama Lam's came about.
People call my mom Mama Lam so we thought that was what the brand should be called. We focused on curry paste and hot sauce. The CPG [consumer packaged goods] route is very different from serving food. There's more of a production aspect. My brain works better in that sense. We launched Mama Lam's in 2017. It was a little while later that I quit my job and decided to focus full-time on Mama Lam's.
Before we talk about your Laksa Shop pop-up, what is laksa for those who don't know?
It's a noodle soup dish but may be different from ones more popularly known. In Japan the popular noodle dish is ramen, in Vietnam it's pho, and in Malaysia and Southeast Asia it's laksa.
What makes laksa different from, say, ramen are the flavors and noodles. In Malaysia it's more common to use lo mein egg noodles, thin rice noodles, and a kind of chow fun noodle. In Singapore the noodles are round and thick and made of rice. The flavors are different too. There are more curry spices and ingredients like lemongrass.
How did the Laksa Shop come about?
Everyone kept asking about laksa. We just said you can use our curry paste to make it. It won't be restaurant quality, but it will hit the spot.
A while ago I felt like I wanted to get back into the food service industry. I was waiting to find somebody — a chef who understood my vision and what I wanted to create. Laksa is not that common. To find a chef who understands the dish and the flavors was very important to me.
That was how I met Lizzy Singh-Brar, the chef who created the recipe for the soup for Laksa Shop, using our curry paste. She was teaching a culinary course in our commissary kitchen. She said our curry paste smelled familiar, and it turned out she had bought it at her farmer's market. So random!
Another interesting angle is that Lizzy is Australian and Australians love laksa. It's a very common dish there. Plus Lizzy is half Indian-Malaysian. Her father is of Indian descent and is from Malaysia. There are three main ethnic groups in Malaysia: Malays, Chinese, and Indian. So our noodles have more spices than a Thai curry because of that Indian influence.
What happened after you met Lizzy?
I told her my idea and we tested out some recipes. We did taste tests at a few restaurants. Of course my mom was involved with the taste testing too. Lizzy took the feedback and notes, and eventually came up with the recipe, which includes both vegetarian and traditional non-vegetarian versions.
We also took allergens into consideration — the traditional has soy, shrimp, and gluten while the vegetarian has just soy — and how to minimize them so that as many people as possible could eat the laksa. Because you only have to try it once to think, This is definitely something I need in my life.
Then we started doing popups at breweries and craft beer bars. I'm a big craft beer person. People ask why we have popups at breweries, and honestly it's more of a personal thing. Also I thought that since the clientele at craft breweries are usually seeking our better quality beer, they're probably seeking out better quality food, and are open to trying new things.
Is the goal to open your own place?
Yes, my goal is to have a brick and mortar, and more if possible. I would like Laksa Shop to be like the neighborhood ramen shop. A place to go whenever you feel gloomy or want a hearty meal. I want to add more to the menu. Laksa has so many variations. We have just the curry now, but there's also one called assam, which has a more sour flavor and is fish based. Singaporean laksa is also curry but the notes hit differently. The noodles are different. In Penang, there's a different version that's a white curry laksa.
What's the most surprising thing you've learned while starting your own business?
One big surprising thing is meeting other Malaysians and Singaporeans. Growing up we frequented a Malaysia restaurant, but other than that we didn't know too many other Malaysians. It wasn't like I would meet them in class. Now I'm meeting all these second-generation Malaysians as well as expats who miss laksa and Southeast Asian flavors.
What do you to re-energize if you're feeling burned out?
When I feel burnt out, I definitely like to go out and eat. [Laughs] I eat pretty much anything. So it could be Korean, Indian, Nepalese, or Mexican. I'm also a big seafood person. My husband and I like to find places via Google maps. We’ll pick five places and just go eat.
What's something you're obsessed with right now?
One of my favorite spots, Food Struck, just reopened, and I've been thinking a lot about that. They have a mix of everything. Like loco moco, a Hawaiian dish that's a hamburger over rice with an egg and gravy on top. They also do fried chicken and pork belly. They put a unique twist on comforting dishes.
What's your favorite food city or cities?
Kuala Lumpur has a ton of different foods since it's such a big city. But because it's so big, you have to know where to go. You have to go to specific restaurants. Penang is smaller but you can go to one area of the city that's all food stalls. You go there and think, Yeah, this is where I want to be.
Learn more about the Little Eats 小吃 x Laksa Shop popup in Pearl River Mart Foods.