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Letters from America
A Little Bit of Laos — A Culinary Adventure
By Greg Evans
Special Correspondent
Charlotte is not only a place that has adopted the excellent cuisines and culture of South Korea, but also that of Laos. Photo by Greg Evans
It was a foodie’s dream vacation on Willard Street in Charlotte, where I took part in a festival of eating that would make Mark Wiens fall to his knees with jealousy. Stepping into the two-story, pale-yellow home, I thought I had an idea of what to expect, a nine-year-old girl’s birthday party; I figured a typical spread of fast-food chain pizza or pigs in a blanket, but the reality was that I had no clue.

The aromas that filled my nostrils, less than a foot into the residence, nearly lifted me off the ground and up into the clouds. I immediately started salivating and could barely greet and introduce myself to the hosts and the rest of the family. There is something about Southeast Asian food that I find irresistible, and the southeast Asian people are the most generous to strangers I have encountered.

For me, the ultimate culinary experience is a menu that the average Charlottean would have trouble pronouncing, and dishes that most might be skeptical to even try. I breathed in deeply, I knew the bouquet, I knew I was where I needed to be.

The most familiar scent was “Larb,” country of origin, Laos is the national dish of Laos. I shared pleasantries with the host family who kindly welcomed me into their home. I found myself standing before a steaming tray of this porky, minty, cilantro-blasted, lime juice-squeezed, toasted ground rice-mixed, and fish sauced-infused meaty salad perfection. Did I mention the perspiration-inducing lightning-hot chilies? For a non-Lao to partake in a true Laotian spread requires one to bring along a beach towel to prepare for the heat. The spice of the food is at a righteous level that helps to weed out the weak in the population. Even my eyeballs seemed to sweat.

There was Lard Nar, Tam Maak Hoong (spicy green papaya salad), sticky rice, and egg rolls. I was offered a seat at the table, provided a plate, and handed the first serving spoon, along with a baggy of sticky rice steamed in banana leaves. Conversations, most of them in Laotian, were taking place in both the kitchen and the living room. The sound of the language is like music, soothing, and accompanies the exotic display of foods as the pairing of fine wine.

Lao cuisine is different from some of the neighboring Southeast Asian countries in that the food is not sweet. There is a common saying in Laos, “van pen lom; khom pen ya,” translates to, “sweet brings you down; bitter is medicine.” The food is sour, bitter, salty, spicy, and citrusy but not sweet as one might expect in Filipino, Chinese, or Thai dishes. Lao cooking is also known for using a healthy amount of raw, undressed vegetables and greens on the side.

Sitting at the table, glancing over the buffet trying to decide what else to eat despite being uncomfortably full, I kept admiring the large platter of fresh greens and herbs, fragrant, welcoming, and organic, cleansing not just the palette but the mind. Eating well is indeed living well, and one of the best ways to get to know another culture is by sharing an authentic meal.

As with any culture, the food of Laos was influenced over the years by colonizers, traders, nomads, and others that arrived bringing new ingredients and sharing cooking secrets and techniques. It was primarily the Columbia exchange, named after the Italian explorer, and colonizer, Christopher Columbus, that changed the landscape of the culinary experience in Southeast Asia including Laos. Plants, animals, technology, and most importantly humans (both enslaved and free) had a dramatic influence on gastronomy. Non-native foods brought to the region from faraway places include papaya, tomato, pineapple, and chili peppers to name a few.

As much as I would love to wake up tomorrow in Vientiane or Luang Prabang and partake in a culinary adventure, I am lucky in the sense that I don’t have to leave Charlotte to experience a little bit of Laos.



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Greg Evans, associate director of communications of King University in Bristol TN, in the US, serves as a special correspondent for The Seoul Times. The seasoned journalist has been writing for such papers as the Mooresville Tribune, Lake Norman Citizen, the Bristol Herald Courier, and the Sentinel-Progress (Easley, SC). He can be reached at gaevans1@king.edu

 

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