The following essay, recipe, and photos are excerpted from Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes From a Refugee Chef's Isan Thai & Lao Roots by James Syhabout. A word on the marinade: though it is pictured with kalbi (beef), which is how James's mom prepared it, it goes just as well with chicken. Memorize it before grilling season goes into full swing. The essay has been lightly edited.
What's Lao food?
People ask me all the time. I answer, "It's laap, sticky rice, and papaya salad." Some say, “That sounds Thai!” and of course it does. The answer to what is Lao and what is Thai is simple, but also complicated—it has to do with colonialism, politics, war, and migration. In the States we feel like we know Thailand: It’s part of the landscape of take-out menus we stuff in a drawer or click through on Yelp. But Laos...it’s a mystery.
Geographically, Laos is a small, landlocked nation, put away from the eyes of the world. It’s poor, it’s communist, it’s intensely Buddhist. Unlike Thailand and Vietnam, its neighbors, Laos is rarely represented in American popular culture or mentioned on the news. Just like how the campaign to ambush Laos during the Vietnam War was called the Secret War, Laos is kind of the secret country.
I think awareness of Lao culture also suffers from the lack of confidence of Lao Americans like me. Because for so long, when you tell people you’re Lao they’re like, “What?” When people ask that question, or they see your last name and try to pronounce it—honestly, you get embarrassed. Your self-esteem stumbles and you shy up, pulling your head back into your shell like a turtle.
It’s just easier to say you’re Thai.
Say you’re a Lao refugee to America in 1981, the year my family and I arrived. Maybe, like my mom, you get a job in a Thai restaurant where all the other cooks are Lao, also refugees. And remember it’s the 1980s, when cool Americans in cities are starting to get excited about Thai food, get their first taste of curries and phat Thai and bright yellow chicken satay skewers, and start losing their minds over all of it.
Then say—again, like my mom—you finally save enough to open your own restaurant, and it’s in a good spot out in the suburbs, way out from where most Lao people live. What do you do? Do you take a chance on Americans looking up Lao food in the Yellow Pages and finding you? Or do you call it Thai? Cook those sugary curries and orange phat Thais, and maybe mix in a few Lao dishes, tame versions of laap and papaya salad, and say it’s all Thai?
Where it gets complicated, is that even though my mom is Lao by language and culture, she’s technically Thai. I was born in the same tiny village in Thailand she was born into, in the northeast region known as Isan, just across the Mekong River from Laos.
And since way, way back, starting in the 1800s, Isan people have piled into Bangkok to find jobs as maids, taxi drivers, construction workers, cooks. In Bangkok, almost all service workers speak Lao, and the foods of Laos and Lao Isan are everywhere. They’ve crossed over. Naturalized as Thai. So yeah, you could say laap, sticky rice, papaya salad, and gai yang have become Thai, but they’re Lao by birth, conceived deep in the Lan Xang Kingdom—Land of a Million Elephants—out of the Laotian landscape of river and jungle.
And while there are mirrors between Thai and Lao cuisines, there are also walls—as a popular Lao saying goes, “same same but different.” The sweet-sour flavor combination is common all over Southeast Asia, but not in Laos. Lao cuisine favors umami. The flavors are salty, bitter, and herbaceous, fragrant with fresh dill and heavy with spice. A papaya salad in Luang Prabang tastes very different from one in Bangkok.
And Lao food tends to be focused inward; it’s far less public than Thai food. You rarely eat in restaurants in Laos—if you’re not eating at home, you’re slurping noodles on the street. Restaurants are fairly new venues in Laos. It’s a true farm-to-table culture.
Here in the States, the Laotian community isn’t large enough to pique much interest from outside. There are no neighborhoods in American cities called “Laotown,” no commercial strips known as “Little Vientiane.” When a cuisine stays in its local expat community, its value stays depressed. Say a city has one, maybe two Lao restaurants. They exist to service the community, cook for mostly blue-collar workers too busy to make Lao dishes at home: mechanics, service workers. As a restaurant owner, you know your clientele, your people. And you’re also doing a service by providing food for the community, but the price point has to stay low—it’s what the community can afford, or is willing to pay. It sets the value of the cuisine, fixing a ceiling that becomes difficult to break.
That price point doesn’t necessarily match the economics of a restaurant. At Wat Phou, the Thai restaurant my mom owned in the 1990s, a rice plate cost four and a quarter, maybe four-fifty. To make that work, she couldn’t buy the best ingredients, although not that many customers cared about free-range, antibiotic- and hormone-free meats back then. Now they do, and at Hawker Fare—my Lao Isan restaurant in San Francisco—where we use good ingredients and try to charge a fair price, the pushback is hard from customers conditioned to think of Asian food as cheap. Sometimes I’m like, Man, my ancestors really undersold themselves.
Perfect example: The Oakland Friday farmers’ market, where my mom used to shop, where I do now, and where a lot of the vendors are Asian. It’s, like, a dollar a bunch for morning glories: They’ve been a dollar a bunch since 1986! Because that’s what the community can afford, to feed their families. But I worry about the farmers and their families. Many times I refuse discounts for buying in bulk because I know how hard it is for them—we all need to support each other. I’m grateful to these farmers for growing the beautiful produce that keeps the heart of our culture beating.
Maybe when more and more restaurants call themselves Lao, things will change. It helps that second-generation Lao Americans are still interested in the traditional foods, proudly supporting Lao culture, Lao cuisine. There’s strength in numbers.
A Note on Beef Short Ribs Satay
When the Korean supermarket opened in our Oakland neighborhood, it was a godsend. Like the chef she is, Moms scoured the butcher counter for product to play with, and ended up bringing home Korean-style short ribs, something foreign to Thai and Lao cooking. At the restaurant, she made satay short ribs as a special. They had a built-in skewer: the bones. Grilled medium or medium rare, the delicious meat pulls from the bones, and you salivate even more as your teeth work to chew the gristle, a plus with most Asian meats. I put these on the menu at Hawker Fare, and just like back in Moms’s day, people love them.
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced lemongrass
- 1/8 cup fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1/4 cup sliced shallots
- 5 medium garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 tablespoons oyster sauce
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1/3 cup unsweetened coconut milk
- 1 pound beef short ribs