Cooking doesn't get much simpler than this: steamed flounder seasoned with black pepper, ginger, cilantro, soy sauce, and lime juice. The preparation is minimal, but the flavors are fresh and bold. This is how Laotian-born chef Jeannie Ongkeo cooks her fish, and when she does, the fans come out of the woodwork.
Food like hers is rare in the U.S. outside a few small cities like Des Moines, where Lao communities have slowly grown since the 1970s and 1980s. In New York City, the only place to find homestyle Lao cooking is when Ongkeo helms the kitchen of her brother's restaurant Mangez Avec Moi, a modest Asian fusion spot in Tribeca that mostly caters to office lunchers.
But the action really begins at night, when Ongkeo serves a semi-secret Lao menu at dinner that draws serious Southeast Asian food fanatics from across the city (and the attention of some critics). She started doing so in 2012, when a young food blogger's request for real Lao home cooking suggested she had an audience for the food from her home country.
We spent an evening with her during a crowded dinner service, watching her cook family recipes by sight and feel. Wearing an apron adorned with teddy bears and sporting sweatbands around both wrists, she looked tough but maternal as she maneuvered through Mangez Avec Moi's tiny kitchen, marshaling ingredients and dispatching them into bowls and pots.
Here's what Lao cuisine looks like through her eyes.
Food in Laos overlaps with its neighbors—Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and China—and bears traces of its French colonial influence. But it remains distinct. While many Thai dishes are dominated by fiercely hot chilies and the marriage of sweet and sour flavors, Lao cooking focuses more on the interplay of fresh herbs and mildly funky undertones.
Take the ubiquitous papaya salad. Thai som tum combines tart lime juice, sugar, garlic, and chilies, but the Lao version (called tom mak hook) adds in padaek, a special Lao fish "sauce" with a salty, unapologetically funky edge. It's that funk—and the deft subtlety with which it's employed—that's won Ongkeo her followers.
Her favorite dish—one she often makes at home in Elmhurst, Queens—is or stew (also known as or lam). It arrives at the table brimming with green vegetables, savory mushrooms, tender bites of chicken and pork rinds, and earthy Kermit eggplants cooked to the verge of disintegration. The thick broth, girded with a slurry of glutinous rice flour, blends fresh dill, garlic, and salty-funky padaek with floral hints of lemongrass and makrut lime leaves and just enough chilies to leave your mouth gently humming with heat.
Each cook's or stew is different. "I do my own style," Ongkeo declared, brandishing a bottle of her homemade padaek and adding careful squirts to her stew. She makes a new batch of padaek every month or so, fermenting raw fish with Thai fish sauce, spices, and her own special touch: melon rind or pineapple skin to temper the sauce's intense fishiness and aggressive aroma.
It's an essential ingredient in Lao dishes—especially or stew. A single generous spoonful of Ongkeo's padaek left to simmer with vegetables, fresh herbs, chicken breast, and pork rind yields a deeply flavorful broth that's complex yet perfectly balanced.
At the opposite end of the Lao culinary spectrum is nam kao, a popular rice salad in Laos. Ongkeo starts by mixing cooked rice with ground pork, red onion, shredded coconut, Thai fish sauce, and red curry paste. She tosses it thoroughly—until her hands hurt—then adds an egg and forms small cylinders, which are then deep-fried into the Lao equivalent of Italian arancini.
The cooled rice balls—golden-crisp outside, soft within—are broken up and tossed with scallion, cilantro, lime juice, ground red chili, more fish sauce, and bits of som moo, a sour Lao pork sausage that's fermented with rice and chilies and eaten raw. (Ongkeo used to make her own som moo before it was commercially available here. These days she procures it from a specialty Lao food distributor in Fairfield, Connecticut.)
Scooped onto a lettuce leaf and popped down the hatch in a bite or two, nam kao is at once refreshing and funky, with an appealing light crunch. It goes down exceptionally well with a bottle of Beerlao, the smooth, malty local beer of choice in Laos.
These days, Ongkeo, who is now 64, looks forward less and less to the long hours she has to spend in the kitchen. She unwinds after 10-hour kitchen shifts with Lao soap operas and Indian classical music, and is considering taking time off to travel—but not just yet.
"I don't want to work at all, but I love to eat," she says. "If I don't cook, I won't get my food."
Essentials of the Lao Kitchen
Looking to try your own hand at Lao cooking? Here are the essential ingredients you'll need, and how they're used.
In mountainous, land-locked Laos, freshwater fish (from the Mekong River), pork, water buffalo, and plenty of vegetables—especially leafy greens, bamboo shoots, long beans, and several dozen varieties of eggplant—are in frequent meal-time rotation.
Garlic, chilies (fresh and dried), lime, scallion, and fresh herbs—like dill, makrut lime leaves, cilantro, lemongrass, and galangal (ginger's spicier cousin)—are all vital to Lao cooking, adding bright flavors to counteract fatty pork, subtle fish, and funky fish sauces.
That fish sauce, which comes in several varieties, also gives food its salty edge. Lao cooks rely on padaek to bring a funky, savory, and salty depth to their food. Made from slowly fermented fish paste, padaek is thicker and stronger-smelling than typical Asian fish sauces.
Chinese immigrants in Laos introduced cooking oil and frying techniques, but Lao cooks still rely heavily on steaming, grilling, and stewing. Raw vegetable dishes and glutinous sticky rice (serving as both carb and eating utensil to scoop up sauces) are also integral parts of most Lao meals.
Laos is small—about the size of Utah—so regional differences in cooking are minor, though food in northern Laos is usually spicier than in the south. (For instance, sakhan, an indigenous woody vine that has a numbing effect similar to Sichuan peppercorns, is only used in northern Lao cooking.)
About the authors: Anne Noyes Saini edits economics books and covers food culture and immigration in NYC. She has contributed to Narratively, The New York Times, and WNYC-FM, and is features editor of Real Cheap Eats. Follow her on Twitter @CitySpoonful.
Mark Rinaldi writes about global cuisine and culture over at his blog, Cooked Earth, where he is cooking and documenting a meal from every country on Earth, alphabetically. He likes hot chilies, cold beer, and death metal.