Seng Luangrath has never before been to Luang Prabang, the mountain-ringed Mekong River city that is her home country’s top tourist attraction, and on a summertime visit she is eager to test her tongue.
The chef and owner of the only Lao food restaurant in Washington, the United States capital, she has come to help shape a top-notch kitchen at a soon-to-open botanical garden. But the bubbly, driven Luangrath has a bigger mission at heart: lifting up the cuisine of Laos.
She has sat at some of the city’s top tables and is impressed with the slick presentation, but Luangrath finds the or lam, an eggplant-thickened meat stew, is lacking punch and there is MSG flavouring everywhere.
“I was surprised they watered down the food,” says Luangrath. When she inquires of locals, they reply, “Oh, because of tourists.”
Yet Luangrath has punctured the myth of bland Western palates in Washington, where she’s building an empire. She has two established restaurants – one of them, Thip Khao, was honoured last year as one of Bon Appétit magazine’s top 50 new restaurants in America – and two more in the works. She’s also working to build what she calls the Lao Food Movement, to popularise the distinctive tastes of a nation she once fled in the dark of night.
“A lot of kids are growing up in America, got married to other cultures and kind of lost Lao culture,” Luangrath says. “It seems like the food is bringing us back. It’s reconnected [us]. People are so proud of it … It’s stinky? It’s OK. It’s spicy? It’s OK. Bring it out, because nowadays, travelling people are willing to try anything new.”
Luangrath spent her early years in the capital city of Vientiane at a time of upheaval. The communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975 after a disastrous civil war that drew in the US and North Vietnam. Like many Laotians, 12-year-old Seng and her family made a break for it in 1981.
Late one night, they took a bus to a hut outside the city, she recalls, where they met smugglers who eluded patrols to take them by boat across the Mekong into Thailand. They spent the next two years in refugee camps before the US granted them asylum.
It was in a refugee camp in Thailand that Luangrath, with no school and her mother working, learned to cook from neighbours, using the less-than-inspiring ingredients provided by the United Nations. Cabbage soup was common.
The family settled in California among relatives, and Luangrath continued her culinary education by watching as much Julia Child as she could. She moved to Alexandria, Virginia, after marrying Bounmy Khammanivanh, who is also Lao.
They worked together on flooring and construction businesses, but she got more satisfaction – and rave reviews – when she cooked for clients and colleagues. So Luangrath left the business to craft a menu, testing and retesting so much at odd hours that her husband half-jokingly suggested putting a bed in the kitchen.
With US$30,000 in savings and a bit of luck, she took over Bangkok Golden Thai in the Washington suburbs of Virginia in 2010. Though their landlocked homeland has rich flavours and delicacies of its own, most Lao chefs in the US cook only the better-known food of Thailand. So it’s typically only at staff meals or in home kitchens where members of the Lao diaspora grab a pinch of sticky rice – used as both starch and utensil – and dive into shared plates that lean towards the bitter, the herbal and occasional flamethrower levels of spice.
Luangrath’s path to Lao food evangelism was gradual. Her Lao dishes started as specials made at the request of regulars and insiders. Eventually, plates such as papaya salad flavoured with fermented fish sauce and fried quail with lemon grass migrated to the menu.
The Lao dishes ended up outselling the Thai food, inspiring Luangrath to seek out a space in Washington for a Lao-only restaurant. Thip Khao opened in December 2014 to warm reviews and national buzz. So Luangrath started thinking bigger.
For a few months, she launched a noodle shop pop-up in Washington called Khao Poon. Luangrath has signed a lease to develop another, more casual Lao restaurant in the capital, with an opening date still to be determined.
The empire is fast becoming a dynasty. Luangrath’s son Bobby Pradachith, 23, now runs Thip Khao’s kitchen. (Sometimes he even has to kick Mom out so she can get some rest.) Pradachith is also sketching out his own venture to serve Lao food made from long-forgotten recipes.
“Food is the easiest way to introduce a culture,” Pradachith says, telling of classmates who did not know anything about his ancestral home. “We can really get people to understand what Laos is and really become a unique country.”
To that end, Luangrath is connecting with Lao chefs around the US via her Lao Food Movement, to which she has dedicated parts of her website, along with Facebook and Instagram pages. Her message: they don’t have to open a typical Thai restaurant, and the unusual nature of Lao food is a selling point.
“When people think of Thailand, they think of central Thailand,” she explains on her website. “This is because the country is popularised with tourism, movies, news and other media outlets. So naturally you envision this when you eat Thai food. But did you know about the Isan people?
“Isan is the northeastern region of Thailand, which borders Laos. This land was once part of the Lan Xang [Lao] Kingdom. But through a forced ‘Thaification’ the land is now part of Thailand.
“As governments rise and fall, borders are redrawn, but the people, the culture, the food remain the same. Here they speak Isan, which is a dialect of Lao. They eat thum marg hoong, they eat sticky rice with their larb, and they like their food spicy! Central Thailand was introduced to these delicious, savoury, spicy dishes from Isan, made it their own and share it as part of their culture, and now their menus at Thai restaurants in America!
“So yes you are enjoying Thai food, but when you see these menu items, you are actually getting a taste of Laos and don’t even know it!”
Thip Khao includes a “jungle menu”, with pig’s ears, fried duck heads and other rural specialities rarely found on Western plates. Luangrath is working to bring in chefs to see how she makes Lao food for Americans.
And Laos might need its own crash course.
Rik Gadella, a publisher and curator who moved to Luang Prabang from Paris in 2007, is launching a high-end restaurant connected to the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden, which is set to open in the next few months outside Luang Prabang. He connected with the author of a Lao cookbook, who introduced him to Luangrath.
She balked at first, with so much on her plate, but eventually decided to make a food pilgrimage. She had visited Vientiane a couple of times since her departure but had never made it up north to misty, Buddhist-temple-packed Luang Prabang.
Gadella hired Sing Sondara, a Luangrath protégé from Thip Khao, as chef, and Luangrath is acting as a consultant. The goal is to be more healthy, more inventive and more authentic than the pleasant restaurants in town. But getting top-quality ingredients and an efficient, crisply trained staff is always a challenge in the underdeveloped country of 7 million people and no elite food scene.
During Luangrath’s July visit, she brought along Steve Gaudio, a real-estate consultant who had helped find her Washington, DC, restaurant spaces.
“She wouldn’t say this, but she was looking for food that was better than hers,” Gaudio says. “And she wasn’t finding it.”
The best finds, as it turned out, were hidden away. For the noodle pop-up, Luangrath is trying to perfect khao soi, a popular soup made with tomatoes and ground pork. In a modest noodle shop in a Luang Prabang alleyway, she was smitten with a khao soi made with “very pungent, very flavourful” soybean paste.
Luangrath took some paste to take back, in the hopes of replicating it and finding yet another original way to challenge American taste buds.
ROASTED TOMATO DIPPING SAUCE (JEOW MARG LEN)
12 servings (makes 1½ cups)
This is a popular condiment in Laotian households; chef Seng Luangrath serves it at Thip Khao, her restaurant in Washington, DC, with a dish of sun-dried beef and pork and coconut sticky rice.
You’ll need to soak bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes before using them.
Serve with grilled fish, meats and/or steamed mixed vegetables and sticky rice.
The sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container up for up to a week. Adapted from Luangrath.
½ large red onion, or 2 large shallots
8 fresh Thai red chilli peppers, stemmed
12 cloves garlic
15 cherry tomatoes
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce (may substitute light soy sauce)
Handful cilantro sprigs, chopped
Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to medium-high (450 degrees Celsius). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them under the cooking area for direct heat. For a medium-hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about six inches above the coals for four or five seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly coat the grill rack with oil and place it on the grill.
Cut the onion, or shallots, into two-inch pieces. Thread them onto the soaked skewers, alternating with the Thai chillies, garlic and cherry tomatoes. Place the filled skewers on the grill grate, close the lid and cook for about 15 minutes or until nicely charred but not burnt, turning the skewers as needed.
Alternatively, you can use a stove-top grill pan and omit the skewers. Grill the onion, or shallots, chilli peppers, garlic cloves and tomatoes in batches as needed.
Transfer the charred onion, or shallots, chillies and garlic to a large mortar and pestle; pound until the ingredients are broken down and well combined. Add the charred tomatoes and pound until well blended, then stir in the salt and fish sauce.
Add most of the cilantro and stir until well blended. Sprinkle the remaining cilantro on top. Serve at room temperature.