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SapSap: Sharing Lao-Inspired Food & Family History Through Pop-Ups

The word "sap-sap" literally translated from Laotian means "delicious delicious." SapSap owner Alex Hanesakda strives not only for good taste, but for community outreach as well.

Hanesakda learned the traditions of Lao cooking from his parents, who used food as a way to connect with neighbors when they settled in Burlington, Wis. after fleeing Laos as war refugees.

"The food alone had so much power behind our communication."

"We were known for having really good eggrolls, so that opened the conversation up to, ‘What are you guys, where did you come from, what happened?’ The food alone had so much power behind our communication,” says Hanesakda.   

SapSap was founded in 2015 as an expansion of its predecessor, Mamma’s Eggrolls. Hanesakda had never imagined he would turn his family’s cooking into a business. As a kid, he found the focus on traditional Laotian cooking to be embarrassing. As he got older, Hanesakda began to ask more about his parent’s journey and realized that he wanted to help tell that story with food.

Credit Image courtesy of SapSap
A portrait of Alex's father, Thongsing Hanesaka, stands beside Lao food in his honor.

"I was asking them more questions and just understanding the whole scope of what they went through, the adaptation of coming to America. That inspired the whole SapSap, the whole Mamma’s Eggrolls. And I was like, we can really do something with this and share our story through the food,” he says.

Part of that story is his father, Thongsing Hanesakda's service in the Royal Lao Army during the Laotian civil war. This led to SapSap’s partnership with the Veterans Outreach of Wisconsin (VOW).

Although Thongsing fought alongside American troops, he was not considered to be an official part of the U.S. Armed Forces, and therefore was not able to access help or treatment for PTSD once he settled in the United States. Nevertheless, Hanesakda says his father would connect with other Vietnam veterans in his community through food and companionship, and he works to carry on that tradition.

Credit Courtesy of SapSap
SapSap owner Alex Hanesakda infuses most of his meats with Laotian inspired marinades and serves them with traditional sides like green papaya salad and sticky rice.

"I think that's really importatnt right now to accept or find similarities more than we do differences in the whole state of things right now. And I think if we can do that as SapSap with food, I think that's very powerful," says Hanesakda.

SapSap had been moving towards a brick and mortar location earlier this year but the pandemic hit and forced Hanesakda to change his plans. He found a shared kitchen in Racine and began doing pop-up shops to serve food curbside. He has been using these pop-up events to help raise money for causes like VOW.

Their latest curbside pop-up will take place Sept. 15 in collaboration with the Iron Grate Barbeque Company in Milwaukee. The event will help raise funds for Hungry Hearts Community Meals.

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.