Since moving to Fort Worth, TX nearly two years ago, I have become more and more interested in cooking. It started off as way of passing time while adjusting to living in another city, but now has become a way to share a little bit about myself and my culture. I have always loved food. I will pretty much eat everything at least once, and have been blessed to have lived in diverse areas so that I have been able to try new foods all the time. When I cook, however, I tend to lean towards certain foods like spring rolls, different types of wraps, and noodle salads. The more I thought about it, I craved these foods of course for their taste, but also because they remind me of a time and place that has special meaning to me. Most importantly, they make me feel at home.
For this article, I will highlight a few of my favorite foods and explain their special meanings. Getting hungry? Read on!
1. Vietnamese Spring Rolls & Peanut Sauce
Spring rolls. They’re my go-to food. Mainly because I’m usually stocked up on rice vermicelli noodles and rice paper, and also because I can stuff them with whatever meat and veggies that I have on hand. I’ve done grilled sirloin, leftover rotisserie chicken, nem nuong and of course the standard pork shoulder and shrimp. The latter is definitely my favorite and I always accompany it with a simple peanut butter & hoisin sauce.
Spring rolls remind me of home, particularly, Little Saigon in Orange County, CA. Although spring rolls have been adapted to other Asian cultures, the version with shrimp and pork shoulder is quintessentially Vietnamese. The sauce? Vietnamese American. I think the true Vietnamese sauce that goes with goi cuon, the Vietnamese name for spring rolls, is made out of liver. But with bottled hoisin sauce and peanut butter readily available, peanut sauce is now a staple for both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike.
2. Khao Piak Sen (Lao Chicken Noodle Soup)
Lao parties. At the very end of the night, whether it’s a celebratory party, a funeral, or an informal family gathering, Lao people will boil a few chickens and make some khao piak sen for all the guests. It’s especially great when people are drunk – it’s like a magical hangover cure! Khao piak sen is by far my favorite noodle dish since it’s relatively easy to make and you can eat it at any time of the day. And just like the way American chicken noodle soup warms the heart, khao piak sen always stirs up memories of warm family gatherings.
3. Tum Mak Houng (Lao Papaya Salad)
A Lao staple, especially when the weather’s hot. I have to have mine Lao style – red chillies, sugar, salt, lime, fish sauce, and the secret ingredient, padek. I’ve also made it with shrimp paste and crab paste, sometimes with garlic, sometimes without. I like my tum mak houng with warm sticky rice, chicken wings, and fried pork rinds. Again, it reminds me of home, family, and my Lao heritage. You can’t find a Lao person that doesn’t like papaya salad.
4. Tum Khao Poon, Tum Mi Wai Wai, Tum Khao Piak, etc. (Lao Noodle Salads)
I didn’t even know these existed until I lived in Laos. It seems like someone took the Lao staple of tum mak houng and spiced it up a bit! My favorite is tum mi wai wai. It usually has the base sauce along with blanched Mi Wai Wai instant noodles, cherry tomatoes, blanched cabbage, morning glory, and meatballs, and topped with peanuts or fried onions – an amalgamation of pure goodness! My second favorite is tum khao poon.
These types of tum remind of lunch time while I was teaching in Laos. Almost every day I would go over to the food kiosk next to the building where I taught and eat different types of tum with my co-workers and students. The spiciness of the noodle salads helped us cool down in the hot and humid weather.
5. Pun (Lao Wraps)
Pun in Lao literally means “wrap.” It’s a popular style of eating in Lao culture and usually consists of one or more types of meat accompanied with rice vermicelli noodles, lots and lots of veggies, and some kind of dipping sauce. You can pretty much pun anything, but my favorites are pun pa, or fish, and pun nem nuong, or Vietnamese grilled pork. Pun is usually best during those warm, summer days, and can be accompanied with a side of papaya salad as well. Pun reminds me of the importance of spending time with friends and family, conversing over mouthfuls of meat, noodles, veggies, and delicious jaew!
6. Nem Khao (Lao Fried Rice Ball Salad)
One my all-time favorites. It’s one of those Lao foods you can really only get at parties or family gatherings, although some Lao restaurants are beginning to serve this on their menu. Truly, this dish reminds me of my aunt who lives down the street from my parents’ house. She makes the best nem khao. The house where she lives is referred to as the “Gala” or the Garage and they pretty much throw parties every weekend complete with music, karaoke, and of course, delicious Lao food. I grew up celebrating all types of birthdays, holidays, and life events at this house. They taught me what it meant to be Lao – to look out for each other, to have fun, and to make sure no one goes hungry!
What are your favorite (Lao) foods? What kind of memories do they stir up for you?
Little Laos on the Prairie