Saeng Douangdara, a famous Lao-American chef spoke with The Laotian Times last week during his visit to Laos to give his thoughts on Lao and American cuisine.
Fresh from the Lao Food Festival, the chef sat down for a fruitful discussion about his thoughts on the contrasts between how people prepare and eat food in Laos and how it may have evolved among the Lao-American population in the US.
“Lao food in the US was frozen in time when the community started building roots there. So many Lao parents shared traditional recipes and in may ways, these are very similar to the traditional Lao recipes in Laos,” he said.
Saeng said his love for Lao food started early in life because his mother would cook Lao meals like kaeng nor mai (bamboo soup) and sai oua (Lao Sausage) at home. He also explained that some Lao families in the US sought out farms to get the freshest meat to mimic the taste of particular Lao meals.
“My parents always foraged for mushrooms and bamboo in Wisconsin to use in bamboo soup. And many families had to grow their own herbs and vegetables like lemon basil because it’s not easily accessible in US grocery stores.”
He noted that it is sometimes challenging for Laotians in the US to source certain ingredients like Lao seaweed to cook laab thao (river algae) or mai sakaan (paper tree bark).
“There are usually substitutions, such as using blended spinach for laab tao and Szechuan peppercorn to mimic mai sakaan,” said Saeng.
But he said that he never alters his cooking to suit foreign tastes.
“I would say – for me personally – my value is that I do not change anything because I think it is important to show people how I make Lao food at home so they know what Lao food is to me.”
He noted that he is aware that not everyone will appreciate the authentic taste of Lao food, but he believes that there are those who will find it delightful.
This is Saeng’s third trip to Laos, during which he intends to go across the country and find inspiration.
“My passion is to cook Lao food because [although] I know Lao food is continually evolving in America, I want to come and experience what Lao food has become in Laos, especially because a lot of things must have changed since the pandemic,” explained the chef.
Although he was not aware of the Lao Food Festival until two weeks before the event took place, he was fortunately in Laos at the right time to participate in the festival and was impressed with the event.
“Back in LA, we have Asian-American night markets where there are tents like a food festival, but it is not as pretty as the Lao Food Festival. This festival is very well put together and presented in a professional manner.”
With his strong passion for Lao food, Chef Saeng plans to help teach people how to cook Lao food on YouTube, Tik Tok, and Facebook. He also appeared on the American reality culinary show “Rat in the Kitchen”, where he won a cooking contest in which he made a ton of sai oua.