Ava Phengsy works as a Lao home chef, but I consider her to be an artist as well.
Affectionately known as “thum mak hoong” (Lao papaya salad), this dish is the product of her obsession with Instagram. It is a synthesis of many precise flavours that includes concentrated black crab paste, intensely tart roasted pork plums, and the powerfully fishy, unfiltered fermentation known as padeak, among others.
“I have a hard-core Lao palate,” she said. In addition, I don’t sugarcoat it and I don’t shy away from it.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Ms. Phengsy, who resides in the South Bay region, is passionate about Lao tastes, which she believes have been underappreciated outside her community for far too long.
It’s possible that she may draw your attention to the fragrance that stays on her fingers after combining the thick, treacle-dark dressing in one of the clips. The melody of the meal will be emphasised in another, with the repetitive scraping of a metal spoon against the mortar, followed by the juicy thud of the pestle, being the centre.
Thum mak hoong is Ms. Phengsy’s go-to comfort food, her five-minute supper, and her go-to snack for every occasion. Making it is something she learnt to do from her mother, and she has been doing it every other day for the last 20 years.
The majority of Americans learnt about papaya salad via Thai restaurants, which is partly due to the fact that Thai restaurants have traditionally been more prevalent in the United States than elsewhere. Thailand, Laos’ richer neighbour, has even made investments in culinary diplomacy since the early 2000s, giving Thai enterprises money to expand their operations abroad by opening additional restaurants.
James Syhabout, a Bay Area chef, writes in his excellent 2019 cookbook, “Hawker Fare,” about his Lao mother’s experience working in a Thai restaurant when she first arrived in the United States. Later on, she launched her own Thai restaurant in her hometown.
What’s wrong with a Lao restaurant? Many Lao immigrants who were starting a new company in a new nation were concerned that a Lao menu would be too esoteric for American diners — too bitter, too spicy, too fishy, or too salty — and that they would lose customers as a result. In a nutshell, it’s too hazardous.
Due to the fact that most Americans were unfamiliar with not just the cuisine culture of Laos, but with everything about the nation as a whole. In spite of the United States’ extensive involvement in the country during the Vietnam War — the American military dropped two million tonnes of bombs on the country beginning in the late 1960s and illegally sprayed more than 600,000 gallons of poisonous herbicide into its fields — the country has remained peaceful.
Thousands of families left then, during the Lao Civil War, and again after the war, when a communist regime came to power in the country. Numerous people fled by way of the Mekong River, ending up in refugee camps in Thailand and other countries around Southeast Asia. They both changed and kept their foodways in these in-between sites, such as Lao immigrant settlements, the areas surrounding Lao Buddhist temples, and at their own residences in the countryside.
Although Lao cuisine has been almost unknown outside of the country for decades, that is changing as more and more chefs share their recipes in markets and in restaurants, at pop-ups and events, on social media channels such as Instagram and YouTube.
Many chefs, including Ms. Phengsy, have expressed gratitude to Seng Luangrath, the chef and restaurateur of Thip Khao, a Thai restaurant in Washington, D.C., for inspiring them to be a little more vocal about their cooking. Ms. Luangrath learnt to cook from her elders in the Nakhon Phanom refugee camp in Thailand, where she lived in the early 1980s. In 2010, she took over her first restaurant, Bangkok Golden, where she trained the employees to inform customers about the “hidden” Lao cuisine that was available.
The khao poon pla (catfish soup), which is extremely thick and soothing, is a specialty. Furthermore, the khao piak, which is spoken gently in the universal language of chicken-noodle soups, is garnished with a stack of fresh rice noodles prepared in-house.
Nokmaniphone Sayavong, also known as Nok, relocated from Vientiane, Laos, to Santa Ana, California, a few years ago. She began selling spicy, delightfully crunchy beef jerky as well as delectable sai oua — a dreamy pork sausage seasoned with head-filling red curry paste and flavoured brilliantly with makrut lime leaves and lemongrass — in her neighbourhood.
The Lao sausage, which she sold via her Orange County firm Nok’s Kitchen, was a favourite with customers, especially those who frequented nearby Vietnamese and Thai eateries. Mrs. Sayavong took notice, and she and her husband hope to launch their own restaurant in Westminster within a few months, marking yet another tiny triumph for the rapidly expanding Lao culinary scene in the city.