It is a blessing to be able to appreciate youth at a young age. It is a blessing to be able to taste good food while your taste buds are still fully functional (assuming you have stellar ones to begin with). I spent my wonderful teen years in Laos; living the life of a poor vagabond, rich in experiences. I knew a life where happiness came from the company of good friends and a table decked with good food. Everything was cheap and simple because we were all broke and bumming off of our parents, anyways. We were truly happy. In 2017, $10 could feed a group of at least five! We did not have shopping malls filled with brand name shops or the money to spend in “hi-so” (expensive/luxurious) restaurants but we had sunsets on a river’s bend and heaven at a roadside food stall.
My friends were an eclectic bunch: from humble farm boys to business owners, from the very young to the very old; my requirements were not age or background specific, rather only requiring a pure heart and an endless stomach.
March 5th 2016. That was the day it all began. I volunteered to help out at a half marathon organized by a friend. The event was hectic, stressful, and exciting: just the kind of thrill I needed.
That event created opportunities to do more, see more, experience more. Over the course of innumerable community events, I met and became friends with many wonderful people: student volunteers, a certain old uncle from Xan Xoom, a humble farmer/hitman/Mr. Do It All, and a certain gang of Lao Americans who would become my mentors throughout my teenage years.
Growing up in America was lonesome for me. I didn’t fit in with the American kids and was even more alienated from the Lao American youths. For the longest time, I didn’t have a people.
It was nice to finally make some friends back home in Laos.
If it wasn’t for my having friends, I would have said what I miss most about home is the food. It is my opinion that to truly experience the food of a culture, you gotta dig your hands into what the common people eat!
Ninety percent of the time my friends and I met for the sole purpose of eating! Since food is abundant and cheap: we were always eating.
On a regular school day, high school students are given two hours to leave school for lunch. They aren’t fed by cafeterias like American students are so they have the options to either go back home for lunch or eat out at nearby restaurants. On a weekday, you would usually find me sitting with a couple of friends, they in their white and black uniforms, along a roadside restaurant, eating my favorite lunch dish: Khao Ka Mu (stewed pork on rice). While it is not Lao food, it has become a staple for young professionals and students in the city. It is simple and hard to go wrong.
The pork is left to simmer for hours in a sweet cinnamon broth until the meat becomes melt-in-your-mouth tender. Slices of sweet tender pork are served with: jasmine rice, alongside sliced cucumbers, boiled eggs, boiled sliced mustard greens, and a chili-vinegar sauce on the side. It’s not an exaggeration when I say I had it five days out of the week.
When hanging with my friends, we always inevitably found ourselves chowing down on street food. Our favorites were Tum Mee and Ping Cheen. Tum mee or noodle salad is basically a dish substituting noodle for papaya in Tum Mak Hoong, a spicy Lao style papaya salad with fermented fish. For a company of friends, each person armed with chopsticks, a plate of tum mee is made quick work of, with orders for more inevitably following. No matter the reason, when I met with my friends, we always ended up enjoying a plate of the tum mee.
Another favorite was Ping Cheen which translates directly to Chinese grill. Your choice of skewered protein, mushrooms, and various vegetables is grilled then rubbed with a mixture of spices and herbs. You can usually find a Ping Cheen stall on the side of almost every main road selling this Chinese inspired street food. On most occasions, the level of spice chosen is almost guaranteed to be mouth numbing but orgastic nonetheless.
The last food I’d like to tell you about is Seen Dart, Korean BBQ but with a Lao twist. Seen Dart is no mere food item. It’s an experience. A group of friends sit tight around a coal heated grill, waiting, all burning like the coals. Anticipation builds. The server delivers your food piece by piece, starting with the vegetables, which usually includes lettuce, carrots, mushrooms, glass noodles, Enoki mushrooms, and spinach.
Then comes the sauce, the very thing that makes Seen Dart, Seen Dart. The sauce or “jaew” is a peanut-based sauce that, depending on the restaurant, makes or breaks the whole experience.
You are now at the end of the road, what’s left is the meat. You have a variety of options, from seasoned steak to tender pig belly. You got choices. Once the meat starts sizzling on the grill, you’re on your way to indulgence to a level of something savage, and it’s delightful.
Now, for me personally, Seen Dart holds a special place in my heart. In the aftermath of some hectic event, my friends who were also my coworkers always cooled down with a Seen Dart dinner. We’d sit and unwind, reflecting back on our work and talk about what our plans were next over the smell of cooked meat on a steaming grill.
For Lao people especially, food plays a major part in our social life. It’s what bring us together. If in Laos, you will always be invited to dine in if you ever happen to catch a group of people eating. You’d hear the genuine calling of “ma der, ma der,” and that is when you know you’re in good hands.