Meet The Devotees of the Growing Lao Food Movement in a New Video from Folklife

Seng Luangrath opened a Lao restaurant in Washington, D.C. and made it a community for other immigrants

smithsonian.com

Opening a Lao restaurant was Seng Luangrath’s lifelong dream, but she was unsure whether the American palate was ready. In the few restaurants where Lao food was available in the U.S., it tended to be an off-menu afterthought. With encouragement and support from her local food community, though, Seng gained the confidence to open Thip Khao in Washington, D.C.’s Columbia Heights in 2014, expanding and promoting her vision of what she has dubbed the “Lao Food Movement.”

Many people had helped propel her dream to reality. Fans helped research potential places to open her first on-menu Lao restaurant. She got to test out recipes at a pop-up event at the popular H Street ramen restaurant Toki Underground, thanks to owner Erik Bruner-Yang.

The phrase thip khao refers to a sticky rice steamer basket that is commonly used in Laos and diasporic communities. Sticky rice is an integral part of Lao cuisine and culture. In fact, it was the first dish Seng learned to cook from her grandmother. People eat this daily staple with almost every meal, alongside other dishes such as papaya salad or laab (minced meat and chili). Sticky rice may seem mundane, but it is so crucial to Lao identity that Lao people refer to themselves as the “children of sticky rice” (luk khao niaow), whether they live within or outside of Laos.

The first time I tasted Lao food was at Bangkok Golden (now Padaek) in Falls Church, Virginia. Bangkok Golden was special because it served primarily Thai cuisine but had off-menu Lao food—and we knew it was only a matter of time before everyone in Washington, D.C. wanted to try Chef Seng’s not-so-secret dishes. I kept going back to the restaurant week after week. Although the funky smells and flavors were unfamiliar to my palate at the time, the warmth of the restaurant’s staff and owner captivated me.

Author JC Gibbs with Chef Seng
Author JC Gibbs with Chef Seng Luangrath (Photo courtesy of JC Gibbs)

Following Seng’s devotion to Lao cuisine is her son Chef Bobby Pradachith, who was eager to embrace his heritage as a child of sticky rice. Born and raised in Virginia, he reimagines Lao cuisine by incorporating the dishes he grew up eating with techniques he learned in culinary school and in fine dining jobs. His interest in historical Lao recipes and methods goes back centuries and also inspires him to create new dishes informed by tradition. From pursuing a career as a chef to returning to his parents’ restaurant business after gaining experience in some of the top kitchens in D.C., Bobby has forged his own path while honoring his family and embracing that unmistakable Lao funk.

I have been carving out my own path as well. Now that I’ve been working with Chef Seng and Bobby for several years, Lao food feels as comforting and familiar as the Panamanian dishes I grew up with. And it’s not just because the food is delicious and the ingredients are similar—it’s because Seng and Bobby cook and serve their food with such warmth and passion that feeling like part of their restaurant family comes naturally to everyone we work with.

Every day I walk into Thip Khao, I feel like I am walking into Chef Seng and Bobby’s home. I am a part of their sticky rice family. Among the many restaurants I’ve worked, I’ve never met a group of colleagues or business owners who are so concerned about my well-being. They ask if I have eaten, and how much I miss my family in Panama.

I am not the only staff member who lives apart from my family. Most of the Thip Khao employees’ families are in other countries. Chef Seng makes a “family meal” for the staff—she won’t let you start your shift without taking time to eat, and she won’t let you leave empty-handed if you’re done for the day. As soon as your first day is over, you become part of the family. It does not matter if you are Lao, Latino, Thai or American—sticky rice unites us.

The Thip Khao team: Seng, Bobby, Kung, Jeab, and JC
The staff at Thip Khao in Washington, D.C.'s Columbia Heights neighborhood. (Photo by Jon Treviño)

As an immigrant, there are these very tough moments when I remember how far away my family is. It’s easy to feel like I am alone. This sense of disconnect can worsen due to the high turnover in the food industry. However, working at Thip Khao eases the pain because I have a second home. Seng understands the struggle more than anyone else, as she herself experienced it as a refugee. Thanks to Seng’s and her husband Boun’s openness, Bobby also has a great understanding of the struggles of immigrants and refugees.

At Thip Khao, we have made new friends and created strong bonds. Some left the restaurant to move to a different city—I did so myself a few years ago. But when they return, they often find their way back to their Thip Khao home. I made that return journey as well. It’s a testament to the passion Seng and Bobby have for their work, their culture, their food. Like the rice served in a basket with every meal, we stick together.

Thip Khao’s Laab Taohu

“Minced Tofu Herb Salad”
Serves two

Ingredients

1 lb. tofu (medium firm), or another protein source
1 tbsp. fish sauce (replace with soy sauce for vegetarian/vegan alternative)
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp. lime juice
1/2 tsp. chilies, minced
2 tsp. toasted rice powder
1 tbsp. fried garlic
1 tbsp. fried shallots
1 tbsp. lemongrass, thinly sliced
1 tsp. galangal, minced (or ginger)
1 kaffir lime leaf, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. cilantro, rough chopped
1/2 tbsp. shallots, thinly sliced
1/2 tbsp. scallions, sliced
2 tbsp. mint leaves picked

Preparation

1. Dice the tofu and season with fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice, and chilies. Mix the ingredients evenly.

2. To the mix, add fried garlic, fried shallots, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, cilantro, shallots, scallions, and mint. Carefully toss the ingredients together.

3. To finish, add in the toasted rice powder, and carefully toss in the salad.

4. Present the dish on a plate, along with fresh vegetables on the side as an accompaniment for the salad. Enjoy!

A version of this article was originally published in the online magazine of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. JC Gibbs is the media and marketing manager for Thip Khao, Padaek, and the Lao Food Movement. She is also a Panamanian cook, studying food history while enjoying life through food writing and photography. Thip Khao is located at 3462 Fourteenth St. NW in Washington, D.C.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus