During a lunchtime feast at the Hmongtown Marketplace, I ask Christina Tia, a YouTuber with over 10,000 subscribers to her Lao cooking channel, House of X Tia, about her favorite Lao restaurant in the Twin Cities.
“There isn’t one,” she says.
“But, what about…”
“Nope,” she says, searching among our spread for the plate of purple sticky rice. “I mean, a few places serve a few dishes, but there isn’t really a Lao restaurant.”
I wonder aloud, through bites of fried smelt and stuffed chicken wings, why that might be. I mean, we’re sitting in a Hmong food court, eating like kings for what seems like pocket change. There’s a well loved Cambodian restaurant not far from here, on a street that has Thai and Vietnamese restaurants on every block. If every other Southeast Asian cuisine is thriving in this corner of St. Paul, why not Laotian?
Christina nods in agreement and smiles. “You should meet Ann.”
Ann Ahmed opened Lemon Grass Thai in Brooklyn Park in 2005. She serves a few Lao dishes, but she also makes pad thai and sushi. “Nobody really knows of our country, and so it’s harder to know our food,” she tells me. “I started Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine so people are more likely to walk in—versus Lemon Grass Lao Food, they would drive right past.”
She says that’s changing, though. Over the years, people have stopped asking for standbys, and started asking what’s off the menu, or what she might make for herself. She thinks now she could indeed open a fully Lao restaurant and make it work.
But why? Has something changed in the last 11 years that’s emboldened Minnesotans to set aside their kung pao chicken to learn about, say, mok gai? To put it another way, is there something other than the passage of time that makes a cuisine familiar? Or how does food stop being, well, ethnic?
To answer that, we have to look back, all the way back to where food stories always begin—in someone’s grandmother’s kitchen. Christina’s grandmother ran a street cart in Laos. She and her daughters would sell snacks like khao nom kok—little fried cakes made from rice flour—and sakoo—bite-sized gummy tapioca balls with pork and peanuts inside. Christina couldn’t wait to move out of the house, stop cooking, and leave Lao food behind—that is until she actually did, and realized how much she missed it, how much of herself she had left behind in the process.
Ann, on the other hand, was always drawn to the kitchen. Growing up in Bloomington, her grandmother would prepare after-school Lao feasts, usually involving the braised five-spice pork belly called thom kem. Her family had long been in the restaurant business but they actively dissuaded her from doing the same. She pacified their fears by going to San Diego to gain a teaching degree.
“Living in San Diego opened my eyes,” Ann recalls. “Not a lot of things were ethnic, it was just good food.” She entertained her friends with renditions of popular Thai dishes, essentially working out the menu for the restaurant she always knew she’d have one day.
Christina found the same kind of support in her social circle—she couldn’t believe how many of her friends were begging for the Lao recipes she’d bring to parties. She made five short videos of her most requested recipes and posted them to YouTube, which blossomed into the tremendous online following she uses to give voice to her (not her mother’s, not her grandmother’s, her) Lao cooking.
So here are two people, Christina and Ann, both Minnesotan, both Lao, both making their food right here, spreading it in two different ways. Ann, slowly but surely, snuck Lao onto the public’s radar using Thai and Japanese as a Trojan horse. Christina, using her social media savvy, did the exact opposite—she shouted Lao from the online rooftops and found there’s an audience who wants to hear it.
Which brings us back to the original conundrum—if there’s growing interest, a clued-up audience of adventuresome eaters, and the people who eat it at Lemon Grass love it, then why don’t we have Lao restaurants in the Twin Cities? As you might expect, it’s complicated, and any explanation almost certainly elides over decades of complexity. It’s a tangle of identity, immigration, proximity, assimilation, politics, infrastructure, and, ultimately, fermented fish sauce.
Here’s a first guess: Lao food is overshadowed in the Twin Cities by Thai food. It’s a similar cuisine, from a neighboring country, with several dishes in common. But Thailand is an emerging second-world country, familiar to many Americans through a booming tourism industry. Laos remains solidly in the third world. And Thai food is more marketable. It’s lighter, more delicate and perfumed, more citrusy and sweet—perfect for the American palate. Lao food tends to be earthier, funkier, more direct and assertive.
A second guess, along those same lines: Lao food still tastes ethnic to many Minnesotans. A Scandinavian-bred Midwesterner might find the texture of sakoo completely unrecognizable in their sense memory. Or they might balk at the earthy flavor of Lao food, which owes largely to padaek, a fermented fish sauce that seems to be in every Lao dish. (If a dish is ever described with the option of being prepared Thai-style or Lao-style, chances are that padaek is the X-factor.)
A third guess: The niche that Lao food could have filled in the Twin Cities was filled by Hmong food. Again, a similar cuisine—several dishes at Hmongtown are served Lao-style. But the Hmong, a stateless people in Southeast Asia, had an obvious impetus to organize once they congregated in Minnesota. That St. Paul has two Hmong-specific marketplaces is, for them, a long time coming.
We contemplate these ideas—all probable, though certainly none that fully explain it—seated on the floor at Ann’s home around two rattan pedestals arrayed with dozens of dishes. I’m sitting cross-legged for the first time since kindergarten, shifting around to find a position where my thighs aren’t crying for relief.
But the pain isn’t too bad because I’m more focused at my mouth being on fire thanks to a group of condiments called jeow—that’s pronounced JOW, which is also the sound you make the first time you eat too much of it.
“I think of jeow and sticky rice as chips and salsa,” Ann says. “It’s our bread and butter. My grandma was always creative, making jeow was also like a way for her to clean out the refrigerator. The main component is always chilis, but if she had some dried beef left over from the night before, that would go into the jeow.”
The spice is washed out by swig of Lao rice lager, and a dab of sticky rice—the alpha and omega of Lao cooking, a staple at every meal including breakfast. Everyone is eating with their hands, grabbing a hunk of sticky rice and mashing it into a small patty, and then plucking a slice of dill-scented fish from the banana leaf wrapper, and drizzling it all with a little jeow. The beauty of jeow is how the spice stays on your fingers—automatically seasoning the next thing you pick up.
It’s only through experiencing this feast that the food becomes familiar—to get your hands in it, discovering how an odd texture here or a jolt of spice there actually works when it’s all combined. It all seems foreign—ethnic, even—until it doesn’t, until it’s in your hands.
Foodways are never perfectly paved, and that term—ethnic food—may be the rockiest trail of them all. The phrase is ultimately meaningless, used only to draw a distinction that the food is not us—it’s them, it’s other. Shedding the label means no longer thinking of food as being from somewhere else historically, but of someone else contemporarily—someone in your hometown, right now, right in front of you.
And we drink more Beerlao, and toss back khao nom kok like they’re Tic Tacs, and I wonder how this is the first Lao meal I’ve ever had. And I try to categorize this meal in my head as not authentic but rather true-to-them, and not ethnic but new-to-me, and I scurry my brain about the differences therein. But the more I eat, the more the adjectives fall away, and it’s hard to consider this food anything but good.
I look at Christina, who can read the bliss on my face. “This food,” she says, “it’s just been hidden in our moms’ houses for too long.”
Want to eat Lao food with Ann and Christina? The Growler is hosting a pop-up of these and other Lao favorites on Thursday, January 19. Click here for more information and to buy your tickets.