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Chefs of the Mekong pop-up restaurants

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When night falls in Vientiane city, it turns into pop-ups galore. Many Lao families work to feed the hungry crowds of tourists grazing along the Mekong after shopping their hearts out at the night market.

I took my usual stroll at about 5:00pm to find out more about the people behind these pop-ups. I met a duo of Lao women, who were in the midst of setting up their mini-restaurant. They rolled in a huge metal cart full of fresh food from fish to papaya and a truckload of tables and chairs. The set up? Only 15 minutes. Then they were ready to sell, sell, sell.

“Sao, are you hungry?”, said one of the women. I was a bit intrigued by her motherly gesture. Then again, I was visibly salivating hovering over the kok (mortar) and how she threw in pepper after pepper to make papaya salad. I decided to chat with them…while munching away at some fried chicken gizzards.

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“What’s your name?”

“Fon.”

“When did you open your shop here?”

“One month ago.”

“What did you do before?”

“Worked the fields.”

“What food do you cook?”

“Fried fish, papaya salad, grilled hot dogs. Everything the falangs will eat, pretty much. [laughs]”

“What do people think of your food?”

“I hope it’s good. Nobody’s gotten sick, yet. That’s good enough, right?”

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“I’m the niece. I just turned 16-years-old.”

“Do you help your aunt run the restaurant after school is done?”

“Yeah. I get free food and get to practice my English.”

“Do you like it?”

“It’s simple. I like simple.”

There’s something alluring about street food in Laos. The coal burning. Steaming heaps of fresh broth. A bright array of vegetables and meats. The enticing aroma fills the air and it smells all too familiar like mom’s homemade cooking. These are the original chefs of the Mekong. They set up and take down in a matter of minutes, every day, trying to sell what they know best to win you over: through your stomach. Some will say to stay away from street food if you have a digestive fear of the unknown, but many locals here will tell you it’s the same people working the same kitchens of fine dining establishments too. While the city is seeing a surge of restaurants offering all kinds of Western comfort food to overtake the taste scene, it’s the Fons of the town– your typical mae, euy, bah (mom, sister, aunt) that invite you to take a seat with them and watch them cook a real homemade Lao meal right in front of you. There’s more comfort in that. Kip well spent, I say.

-Chanida Potter, editor@littlelaosontheprairie.org

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