Once obscured in the United States, Lao cooks share and celebrate their cuisine


LOS ANGELES — Ava Phengsy is a Laotian home cook, but I also consider her an artist.

His medium is Instagram, and the subject of his obsession is thum mak hoong – Lao papaya salad – a synthesis of many precise flavors, including concentrated black crab paste, intensely sour roasted pork plum and powerfully fishy fermentation and unfiltered known as padeak.

“My palate is pure and hard Lao,” she said. “I don’t water it down and I don’t shy away from it.”

Ms Phengsy, who lives in the South Bay area, is not exaggerating, and her devotion to Lao flavors, which she says have not been appreciated outside her community for too long, is fierce.

In one clip, she might draw your attention to the smell that lingers on her fingers after mixing the thick black bandage with molasses. In another, she’ll focus on the music of the dish: the rhythmic scraping of a metal spoon against the mortar, followed by the juicy thump of the pestle.

Thum mak hoong is Ms. Phengsy’s daily comfort food, her five-minute meal, her anytime snack. She learned to do it from her mother and has been doing it every other day for 20 years.

“Thum is adored and loved,” she said. “But a lot of people don’t know it’s a Lao dish.”

Most Americans have heard of papaya salad from Thai restaurants, in part because Thai restaurants have historically been more prevalent in the United States. Thailand, Laos’ wealthier neighbor, even invested in culinary diplomacy from the 2000s, lending money to Thai companies to open more restaurants internationally.

In his excellent 2019 cookbook, “Hawker Fare,” Bay Area chef James Syhabout recounts how his Laotian mother was working in a Thai restaurant when he arrived in the United States. Later, she opened her own Thai restaurant.

Why not a Lao restaurant? For many Lao immigrants establishing a new business in a new country, the concern was that a Lao menu would be too obscure for American diners – too bitter, too spicy, too fishy, ​​too salty. In short, too risky.

Because it wasn’t just the food culture of Laos, but anything about the country, it was unfamiliar to most Americans. This, despite the deep US involvement there during the Vietnam War – the US military dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos beginning in the late 1960s and illegally sprayed over 600,000 gallons of toxic herbicide in his fields.

Thousands of families fled then, during the Lao civil war, and afterwards, when a communist government came to power. Many escaped by crossing the Mekong, arriving in refugee camps in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. They both revised and preserved their eating habits in these in-between spaces, within Lao immigrant communities, around Lao Buddhist temples, and at home.

For decades, Lao cuisine in the United States has been almost hidden from outsiders, but that is changing as more cooks share their food at markets and restaurants, at pop-ups and events, on Instagram reels and in YouTube tutorials.

Cooks like Ms Phengsy say they were inspired to speak a little louder about their food thanks to Seng Luangrath, the chef and restaurateur behind Thip Khao, in Washington DC Ms Luangrath learned to cook in the early 1980s from his elders at the Nakhon Phanom Refugee Camp in Thailand. In 2010, she took over her first restaurant, Bangkok Golden, training staff to tell diners about the “secret” Lao menu.

“At first, I didn’t have the courage to make real Lao cuisine,” Ms. Luangrath said. But later she added Lao dishes to the menu and renamed her restaurant Padeak, after the thick Lao fish sauce.

Saeng Douangdara is a private chef and cooking instructor in Los Angeles who makes delicious, often cheeky cooking videos. In a more serious moment on camera, he explains why his parents shared sticky rice with his friends, but never padeak.

As a child, Mr Douangdara couldn’t understand it, but “after 20 years of being told the bucket of fish sauce was disgusting, embarrassment and shame have become part of their lives”. That Ms. Luangrath named her restaurant after the ingredient – putting it front and center, celebrating the true beauty and potency of its glorious stench – was not lost on Lao cooks who had hidden their padaek, whether at literally or figuratively.

Referring to his parents, Mr. Douangdara closes this video by saying, “I am proud of Maeh’s artistry in making unfiltered fish sauce; I brag about Poh’s skills in slaughtering a cow. Our food is spicy, hot and above all, it is sufficient. We are enough.

A traditional, family-friendly Lao meal revolves around sticky rice. Around it could be jeow – a kind of savory relish – with soup, meat and vegetables that everyone can reach for in common.

But Lao cuisine is hard to compress. It’s vast, regional and diverse, making everything at hand – wild vegetables, flowers, tendrils and bitter herbs, a pile of white ant eggs, blood and offal of all kinds, and even the pesky tiny crabs that live in rice paddies. Nothing is wasted.

That same reach isn’t always achievable in Southern California. At Kra Z Kai’s Lao BBQ in Corona, Calif., Musky Bilavarn’s menu is tweaked to keep things very simple: a few kinds of marinated and grilled meats, a dripping papaya salad, and lots of sticky rice.

Diners get these combo platters, return to their cars with fragrant, moist bags of Lao sausages, or they sit by the window, pinch chunks of sticky rice with their fingers, chew the glistening, springy meat around the ribs. short cleaved, cut like the Korean galbi.

Tharathip Soulisak runs a small, traveling pop-up in Los Angeles that changes its name and menu with the seasons. He ferments his own padeak and serves delicate little cubes of blood cake with handmade noodles. And he often plans menus based on what he feels like eating – if you’re lucky, that might be nam khao tod, the habit-forming, labor-intensive fried rice dish tinted dark red with curry paste and speckled with chunks of pie and bouncy jerky.

Mr. Soulisak is currently considering adding chewy grilled brisket to his menu, aware that some diners might expect the cut to be wonky, steamy and tender. “Am I going to get complaints about his chew?” he said. “I don’t know, but softness is a texture that Laotians love!”

When Mr Soulisak’s parents fled Laos, they were living in the Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand, and he often refers to his own cooking now as “Lao refugee food” – dishes removed from home, changing out of necessity, surviving through resilience.

California is home to more Lao immigrants than any other part of the country. Although there is no centralized Lao neighborhood with temples, businesses and restaurants in Los Angeles or Orange County – no little Laos – there are centers for Lao food scattered around the area. .

Sisters Manoy and Kayla Keungmanivong took over Vientiane, Garden Grove, California from their father, Saveng, more than a decade ago. They had previously worked in their father’s kitchen, preparing Thai and Lao dishes (including a Lao papaya salad with whole salted crabs served on the side, if you know how to ask for them).

The goi pa, a vibrant fish salad, is shimmering and opulent, flavored with many kinds of mint, the bits of meat almost invisible among a generous mass of makrut lime leaves and red onion. The laap (also anglicized to ‘larb’) is a joy, and includes one made with beef and fuzzy, stretchy tripe, seasoned with bile if desired, which pushes the flavors out until they are very bitter and appetizing.

“There are a lot of foodies out there, and a lot of restaurants are changing things up for them, but not us,” Manoy Keungmanivong said. “We keep it traditional because our elders are used to these flavors.”

It would be a shame to leave Vientiane without stopping at the fridge, which is always stocked with thin terrazzo-like slabs of som moo, preserved pork the sisters cook at home, and jars of deeply flavored dips and condiments. , made from ingredients like mustard. leaves, roasted peppers and grilled tomatoes.

You can choose just one of these dips and turn it into a luxurious meal at home, making a spread with sticky rice, pork crackers, lettuce, herbs and raw veggies, or whatever else you have around. Everything will be enhanced by a small pot of delicacies.

There’s nothing more exciting than a prolific and generous home cook opening up her kitchen to you. In the Mission Hills district of Los Angeles, Mannie Sithammavong turned professional in 2018, when she took over a Chinese restaurant near her husband’s body shop.

Ms. Sithammavong called it Kop Jai Lai, serving mainly Thai food, but devoting a section of the menu to Lao dishes she had cooked for her family and friends back home: papaya salad, slippery, aromatic mok pla steamed catfish dumpling, and a whole range of laap and noodle soups.

A curated menu makes things deliciously simple for diners, although many Lao dishes are not easily or rigidly categorized – they are borderless, served in more than one style, owned by many people in many places .

The khao poon pla, made with catfish, is particularly rich and comforting. And the khao piak, which whispers softly in the international language of chicken noodle soups, includes a heap of homemade rice noodles.

Nokmaniphone Sayavong, who goes by the name Nok, moved a few years ago from Vientiane to Santa Ana, California. She started selling spicy, delicately crispy beef jerky and delicious sai oua – a dreamy pork sausage seasoned with red curry paste, made shiny with makrut lime leaves and lemongrass.

Sold at his Orange County business, Nok’s Kitchen, the Lao sausage has been a hit, especially with local Vietnamese and Thai restaurants. She’s taken notice, and in just a few months, Ms Sayavong and her husband are planning to open their own restaurant in Westminster – another small win for Laos’ burgeoning food scene.


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