Sunday, June 30, 2013

Building the case to appreciate Lao cooking

Over the weekend, the Center for Lao Studies held "A Taste of Laos" at St. Cyprian's in San Francisco, where participants could "learn how to make Lao dishes, such as bamboo shoot soup, laab, mango-sticky rice, and spicy papaya salad from top Bay Area Lao chefs." $20 was the suggested donation and included cooking lessons, ingredients, and tasting. The event was initially limited to 20 people. It was an interesting program that might be possible to replicate in other communities.

Lao cooking isn't incomprehensible, but I think a lot of our cooks could use a hand making it accessible for people to build a hunger and expertise for it.

One thing I hope my readers pick up over time is that Lao cooking is not a "one and done" cuisine. Even if you've tasted the dish from one Lao restaurant, every restaurant does a dish just a little differently, with interesting variations possible even from day-to-day at the same restaurant. Today's industrial food culture doesn't typically appreciate that, wanting 'standardization' and baselines. But Lao culture values individualism over monolithic conformity.

A dish well-made is a reflection of the chef's spirit, the diner's spirit, the culture's spirit, and even the ingredients itself. A dish made in the middle of chaos such as the wars or the refugee camps will taste different from one made in the heart of Texas during Pii Mai Lao or welcoming a venerated master of Fon Lao in Seattle. That's not to say that EVERYONE gets it 'right' but there's so much to appreciate with it. Take a little time to try to understand it. Or better yet, take a lifetime.

We are also about to enter the golden era of Lao cuisine, and I wish more people appreciated it. Lao culture traces its culinary heritage over 600 years with periods of engagement with French, Russian, Australian, Japanese, American, Thai, Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. Some just for a few decades, others for centuries. We shouldn't take that for granted.

This is a rare era where we will have people who still have access to the knowledge and memories of cooking from the monarchy era, and how our cooking is translated by the community in diaspora, particularly in democracies. We are seeing new iterations of the cooking emerging within the historic geographic boundaries of Laos, and Lao fusion cuisine as we engage with Lao interpretations of dishes from other cultures, while inventing all new culinary delights, too. It will also be interesting as we watch many of the historic contributors to our cuisine break away to re-define their own cooking traditions, such as the Lue, Tai Dam, Khmu, Hmong and Mien. For some it will be a slow break, others are just snapping it right off.

If you're not watching now with fascination, for shame!

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