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Cooking classes and travelogues fund care visits to Thailand leprosy colony

By Cindy Hval For The Spokesman-Review

She grew up in a leprosy colony in Thailand, moved to the U.S. and became a wife, mother, food blogger and photographer, but Suwanee Lennon never forgets where she came from.

Cooking and sharing Thai cuisine keeps her connected to her culture and to the family she left behind at 13.

But first, a bit of history.

“Seventy years ago, leprosy broke out in Thailand,” Lennon explained. “People were extremely afraid. The government built 13 villages which were locked and gated to keep people in and out.”

Lennon was born in Bangkok to a young, unwed mother who didn’t tell her American soldier boyfriend of the pregnancy. Unable to care for the baby, she gave Lennon to her sister.

“ (My aunt) and my uncle both had leprosy and raised me in a government-run leprosy colony.”

Though the disease has been eradicated in Thailand, the colonies still exist and are home to not only the original leper patients but their children and grandchildren, too.

“I went to school outside the village,” Lennon said. “We were considered outcasts – made fun of and bullied because of the stigma of leprosy.”

Being biracial only added to her isolation.

When she was 13, an American woman traveled to her village with a Thai doctor who cared for leprosy patients. She and the American had an instant connection. Her birth mom and her aunt and uncle knew Lennon would have more opportunities in the U.S., so they agreed to let the woman sponsor Lennon’s move and eventually adopt her.

“My American mom took me to an Asian grocery store to let me choose familiar foods and spices,” recalled Lennon. “The only thing I knew how to cook was jasmine rice!”

But she quickly learned to create the flavors and recipes of home.

“Thai food is a lot about presentation and the explosion of flavors,” she said. “It’s influenced by Portuguese, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Indian food. Thai food is an important and easy way to introduce people to other cultures.”

She married a serviceman and had two children. When her husband retired from the Air Force, and they settled in Spokane, Lennon decided to finally pursue her dream.

“I wanted to go back to Thailand and feed my village,” she said. “Four years ago, I started my food blog ( and began teaching cooking classes so I could raise funds to feed my village.”

While working as a graphic designer, she fell in love with photography. Her blog overflows with lush photos of the flavorful food she creates.

“We use a lot of bright, bold flavors with fresh herbs, peppers, garlic and lime,” she said. “My all-time favorite dish to make and eat is green papaya salad. It’s got all the flavors – salty, sour, sweet and umami.”

Knowing that some are intimidated by the seeming complexity of Thai food, Lennon posts her recipes with step-by-step instructions and photos.

“It’s not complicated – it’s just unfamiliar,” she said. “I post photos of the ingredients, too.”

Her cooking classes often revolve around a theme like curry, noodles or spices. She’s created a spice blend that she offers for sale at the classes.

When she left Thailand, her aunt took her around the colony to say goodbye to the people she grew up with.

“Each person gave me a white cloth to wrap around my wrist as a blessing, and they each gave me a couple of small bills,” Lennon recalled. “I couldn’t realize what that meant at 13. The people were so poor. They couldn’t work, so they lived on government checks.”

That experience fueled her desire to repay their kindness by cooking for them. In April, she fulfilled her dream. During her visit, she and 15 women cooked enough food to feed the village for two days. They gathered in plastic chairs under mango trees and enjoyed the feast.

“These women are naturally gifted cooks and chefs.”

On Sunday at the South Hill Library, she will share her experience of growing up in a leper colony and show photos of her recent visit. Lennon plans to return to Thailand in April to feed her village again.

“Every time I go back, I learn something new,” she said. “I’ve seen where I come from and I don’t want to forget.”

Pad Mee

¼ cup vegetable, peanut, coconut, grapeseed or soybean oil

8 ounces dried angel hair vermicelli rice noodles (Lennon uses Wai Wai brand)

2 cup bean sprouts, wash and set aside

1 cup green onion chopped into 1½ -inch pieces

4 tablespoons sweet dark soy sauce

3 tablespoons Golden Mountain seasoning sauce

3 tablespoons thin soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

Soak the vermicelli rice noodles in warm water in a large bowl for 10 minutes. Or cold water for 15-20 minutes.

Drain and cut the noodles into 6- to 8 -inch lengths and let sit until it’s time to cook.

In a small bowl, combine sugar and all the sauces in a small saucepan using thin soy sauce, sweet soy sauce, and Golden Mountain seasoning sauce

Place the noodles in a large bowl, then pour the sauce mixture over the rice noodles.

Use your hands to mix the sauce into the noodles. Knead very lightly to get the sauce to marinate with the noodles. Let sit to marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes and stir quickly before cooking, breaking up any large clumps of noodles.

Heat the vegetable oil in a wok or large skillet on medium heat. Add the noodles and stir with a wooden spatula for 5-6 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add some water if the noodles are sticking to your pan. Turn the heat down slightly if your wok or pan gets too hot. An extra teaspoon of oil also helps to loosen up the noodles in the pan.

Add the green onions and bean sprouts and stir together lightly. Turn the heat off, remove the pan from the stovetop, and serve your Pad Mee. Garnish with a lime wedge, chili powder and or fish sauce or sugar.

Contact Cindy Hval at