When I was 13 or 14 years old, I tasted a dish that a cook and kitchen manager at my family’s Mexican restaurant had prepared at home and brought to work for us to try. She was Laotian, an excellent all around cook, and she executed our Mexican recipes perfectly.
By that age, I had been exposed to a few ethnic cuisines, Mexican, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian and maybe Indian, and I always enjoyed trying new things. The dish she offered us certainly looked exotic, minced ground chicken with fresh herbs and red peppers on a bed of lettuce, but I was completely unprepared for what my palate was about to experience. It was a sensorial epiphany of sorts, an explosion of flavors and textures which hit every note in a completely unfamiliar way. These days the dish, called “larb”, is fairly well-known, and it shows up on Thai, Chinese and Burmese restaurant menus frequently. But it is of Lao origins (in fact it is their national dish) and the fact that one finds variants of the dish is a result of Lao immigration. Though I was a night prep and line cook our restaurant at the time I tasted it, I was also a clueless teenager, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t ask for the recipe, or maybe even ask her to show me how to make it … lessons learned.
The flavors I experienced that day were so deep and savory, yet so bright and fresh that I’m sure it changed something in my brain, realigning my senses to a new reality. Exposing my palate to the entirely new flavors of fish sauce, shrimp paste, galangal, mint and lemongrass all in the same dish was transformative. Over the years, I’ve looked for Lao restaurants while traveling around the country, and there aren’t that many that I’ve found which are exclusively Lao, rather than a few menu items at a Thai/Laotian restaurant, or Lao-influenced Asian Fusion. It confounds me a bit, that one doesn’t find more, as the cuisine is totally distinct and utterly delicious. Perhaps it’ll be the next break-out Asian cuisine, though I said that about Cambodian food too, which is still just as difficult to find outside of NYC, San Francisco and a few other large US cities. Something to hope for I guess.