I spoke with Catzie Vilayphonh about her upcoming ‘Blessed’ Laos New Year Pop-Up dinner that she’s doing this Saturday with the duo [Chef Manila Southammazong and Chris Walkes], I Eat Lao Food, at The Asian Arts Initiative. While the event serves the mission of her project Laos In The House—”Bringing together Lao Americans to continue their cultural legacy through storytelling and the arts”—which is named after her eponymous poem, the dinner is meant to showcase Lao cuisine and culture to anyone and everyone in Philadelphia.
What’s happening at the event?
Lao New Year is mid April and what I’m doing is trying to bring all the things that Lao people have done or seen or experienced during our New Year to other people who may not have experienced Lao culture. I’m partnering with my friends, I Eat Lao Food who are based out of Brooklyn. They are an organization that uses Lao food as a vehicle to educate on food equality—food equality meaning that some of the poorest parts of the city don’t have access to fresh quality groceries. They have been doing pop-up dinners in Brooklyn. This will be their first in Philadelphia. I’ve done fundraiser dinners before in Philadelphia, two of them at Vientiane Café, which is Philadelphia’s oldest Lao restaurant. I think recently there was an article about how they got started. They were originally called Blue Tent because it was like a speak easy kind of deal where you just went to the house and said, hey, I’m here for the food and they served people in their background.
How will the dinner be arranged?
The dinner will be multi-course, though in Lao eating culture , we don’t have courses. We don’t have, here’s your appetizers, here’s 2nd course, 3rd course. We kind of just have things and serve it to people. Sometimes you help yourself, sometimes it’s already made for you. We’re serving it as courses because we want to show all the different kinds of foods that Lao people eat. We are serving it in a way that isn’t traditional. In between each course, I’m going to have a special guest speaker come and tell their story because a part of my project Laos In The House is promoting story telling in the Lao American community. All three of my guests aren’t Lao America, but I think it’s important that we support similar organizations with agreeable social justice paths.
Who are your guests?
The first guest, Channapha Khomvongsa, is the founder of Legacies of War, which campaigns for the awareness for the unexploded bombs that are still left in Laos. The second is Naroun Chin. He is part of 1Love Movement (#Righttoreturn) which is fighting for an agreement between the United States and Southeast Asia countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, which currently, because of a clause in The Patriot Act, has lots of convicted felons who have already served their time and are not U.S. citizens to get deported back to Cambodia. Many of them have never even been to Cambodia. They are, or were, like me, born in refugee camps, so they may not speak Cambodian. They don’t know anyone over there. There’s not really a process. So they’re fighting to end that.
Third guest is Ben who you know [who has been pushing for a broader conversation on immigration reform with his wife, Cristina Martinez, through the success of their restaurant, South Philly Barbacoa].
What will the experience be like?
We’re trying to give the experience of being at a Lao house. Every thing will be served on the floor on short tables that only go up to your knees. In the background, in between the guest speakers and all the food coming out, will be Lao karaoke videos—the old school kind because that’s usually what’s playing if you go to a Lao house. We’re going to have a Monk from the Temple to give a water blessing. The water blessing is important because water is significant in Lao New Year culture. It represents the washing away of last year. We’re also have…I used to call it a money tree in English but I found out that money tree wasn’t the right term for it. It’s basically a little tree that has threads on it and the threads are what you tie around the wrists to give someone a blessing. Blessings can be given to other people by anyone. If you come with your friend, your friend can give you a blessing. If you meet somebody new, they can give you a blessing. It’s about, here’s all these things that you would experience at a Lao person’s house but also at Lao New Year. This isn’t just about trying to sell it to people who haven’t experienced Lao culture but also Lao people who have experienced it back home, but they moved to Philadelphia or other big cities and they don’t know where the other Lao people are and they miss all of that. And then there are people like me. I’ve seen it my whole life but I’ve never taken part because I just felt it was something my parents did. It was old fashioned. I was Americanized. I was like, I wanna to watch my MTV or hangout with the other kids in the basement. For me, I feel I’m getting a chance to relive my childhood, to make up for all the times I didn’t want to get blessed.
Reconnecting with traditions and culture.
Yea, because everything I’ve done so far has been a learning experience. A lot of people have told me, oh, you’re so cultured or you’re so smart. I’m learning as I do it. The tree with the threads on it—I didn’t know what it was called until a month ago. I was calling it the wrong thing for the last year or so.
I Eat Lao Food—Are they activists who happen to be in the restaurant industry?
I don’t know if they would call themselves activists. It’s Manila Southammazong and Chris Walkes. They both just really like Lao food and realize that there’s a need for food equality. Those two things just happen be what they’re passionate about.
So informal, communal dinners are the norm for Lao New Year—or any day of the year?
We have these little short tables that are meant for sitting on the floor because that’s normally how you would eat in Laos. You eat in groups. Everything’s served communally unless it’s something like soup where you get your own bowl. The staple of Lao food is sticky rice. Usually when you make sticky rice, it doesn’t matter what comes out with the meal. We can’t just pick things and say this is indicative of what comes out with the sticky rice in a traditional Lao meal. Somebody is going to say, you forgot this. This is very typical of Lao food and this is the national dish of Laos. It depends on what region you’re from when it comes to what’s served with the sticky rice, which is what you’re picking up all the food with—with your hands.
We’re serving laap , which I can’t even figure out a way to describe it. It’s kind of like ceviche, but I know that ceviche is raw and it’s made with fish. Laap is any kind of protein—we’re using tilapia—and it’s mixed together with herbs and spices and for the most part, it’s a little tart, a little spicy.
The second dish is Mok Ba, which is a catfish that has been steamed inside a banana leaf and seasoned with dill, kafir lime leaves, chiles. It’s very flavorful.
The other dishes that are part of the sticky rice…there’s Lao sausage which is usually marinated with dill or lemongrass depending on the recipe. The one that we’re doing has lemongrass. We’re not making it. We’re getting it from a Lao-American food product manufacturer who happens to be a friend of ours. We know that their stuff sells and that it’s good. They’re based out of Rhode Island and the name of their company T.O. Nam and nam is a kind of sour pork sausage or ham. That’s actually what goes into one of the other dishes that we’re serving. The other product that they’re giving us is called Paradise Beef Jerky. The Lao name is Seen Savanh. Sin meaning meat. Savanh meaning heaven or paradise. The jerky tastes like a teriyaki because it’s sweeter than it is salty. Sometimes people will just dry the meat and eat it as is. A lot of times people will just fry it so it’s a little crispier than regular jerky.
So T.O. Nam makes stuff that ends up in Lao or Asian markets?
Yeah, you can see them if you go to any of the Asian markets. Most likely the pork rinds and the nam—the sour cured ham or sausage. It’s pork that has been cured with sticky rice so it turns a little bit sour. You’ll see it vacuum packed and sealed inside of refrigerators and it’s pink still.
What are some of the other dishes?
What we’re serving as the first course is nam khao—it’s a coconut curry fried rice. The way that our rice—or fried rice—is different from other peoples’ rice is that instead of throwing all the rice into a wok and stirring it to death, we season, make it into balls, and we deep fry the balls. So after the outside is kind of crispy, we break up the balls and then we add the other seasonings including the sour pork.
The other one is Mieng. It’s hard to explain, to make it sound appetizing. It’s basically a savory sticky rice oatmeal, I guess. I don’t want to call it mush because that doesn’t sound appetizing, but that’s kind of the texture. It comes with a bunch of different toppings: sliced lemongrass, peanuts. Both the Nam khao and the mieng are served as lettuce wraps, which is why we’re serving them together.
How many courses will there be?
3 total but there’s going to be so much food in all of them. The last course is called Khao Piek Sen. It literally translates into wet rice noodles. It’s a noodle soup made from homemade thick sliced noodles made from rice flour. It can only be made from homemade noodles. If people try to cheat—they go buy udon noodles from the store—we can tell.
How do the dishes represent Lao food, in terms of flavors and recurring themes?
Lao cuisine is always eaten with your hands—or a lot of it is anyway. Having dishes that come with the sticky rice reiterates that this is a Lao dinner. I’ve had this conversation with people about my khao piek sen. Some people might look at it and think, it’s so plain, it’s just chicken noodle soup. The thing is, I don’t know many other ethnic cuisines that start with making the noodles at home and cutting them yourself [laughs]. [For other people] It’s, okay, buy a pack of noodles and then you make the broth. Whereas this one is, you have to start with that pack of flower.
How is it different from other chicken noodle soups?
I guess it’s hard to explain to someone who’s not Lao because I feel like when Lao people talk about it, they say, oh this reminds me of home. It’s a homemade thing that your mom makes. Some of the things that go into it—every broth is different. It’s semi-clear. Clear like the way pho is clear. But if you make the noodles right, some of the starch goes into soup, so it gives it a thicker texture than what you would get with pho. Fried garlic usually goes on top. There are optional things you can put out just like with pho. What I remember, is there’s always an oily garlic pepper—basically fried garlic oil with chiles. There’s usually a soy seasoning that’s saltier than soy sauce made by Magi. Sometimes there are bean sprouts and limes.
What’s informing the broth besides the chicken itself?
It depends on each chef but when I make it I use lemongrass and ginger.
What are some of the flavors in the other dishes that are reflective of Lao cuisine?
Lemongrass, kafir lime leaves. Mieng has sliced lemon grass as one of the toppings. With the mok ba, if you open the banana leaf, you’ll see the kafir lime leaves. It’s like a bay leaf. You don’t eat it. The fresh ones, you can eat them.
What’s the context within which these foods are normally eaten? Are any of them street food? Breakfast versus dinner?
Lao New Year isn’t really about, oh, these are special foods that you can only eat one time of the year. We kind of eat whatever we like. That’s the liberty I have with this being my event. In your ideal dinner what would you have? Naroun and I are having this competition with our lettuce wraps. He is known for making his Nam khao (coconut curry fried rice) and I’m known for my mieng. We’re testing whose is better.
Can we breakdown the courses?
First course is Mieng and Nam Khao and they are the lettuce wrap courses. Second course is the sticky rice and that comes with Laap Ba, Mok Ba, the Lao sausage and the beef jerky. The last one is the homemade noodle soup.
What about drinks?
Drinks, we’re having sugar cane juice [Nam Oi Oganik] which makes an appearance at all Lao New Years. There’s the man with the sugar canes and his sugar cane press. There’s something called O-Lieng Mao which is a sweet brewed iced coffee. The coffee comes in a bottle and it already has the sugar and you add [evaporated] milk or ice. [The finalized menu has Muang Phet or mango juice].
Anything else food or drink wise?
We’re going to have alcohol to add to the drinks—I didn’t mention them before because these drinks can be served without the alcohol. For the sake of it being a Lao cuisine event, one of the drinks [Muang Phet with an optional spicy honey vodka and splash of lime] will be spicy. It’s supposed to be a tradition to have brown liquor. We haven’t decided between Hennessey, Johnny Walker or this homemade concoction that Manila’s uncles makes that tastes like alcohol that has been soaked with a woodsy herb that kind of tastes like liquorish but not so sweet.
I’d try that.
We don’t know for sure if his uncle is going to make it. If not, it will be some type of brown liquor.
When you’re celebrating Lao New Year, what’s the atmosphere like?
Because a lot of it is rooted in Buddhism there will be some people who are there who are dressed very gracefully and they’re there to pray. They’re there to get blessed and they’re thinking of the New Year. Then there’s people who are there for the food and there’s the crazy party people who sing really loud and make a lot of noise and they’re forcing a lot of chocolate on everyone. It’s kind of a variation. If you’ve ever seen a Lao New Year parade, the procession starts with the most pious and ends with the rowdiest and craziest. In a typical Lao New Year procession, sometimes the monks lead first , then there’s a float with princesses on it because there’s a folktale that has to do with seven princesses and you know, these are girls who are dressed up to the nines in traditional Lao attire. Right after that is the older ladies who are dressed up really nice and then it kind of just….it kinda [laughs] I don’t want to say goes down hill but, you know, you can tell everyone gets looser as you go towards the end.
How is the obvious biggest difference for Westerners—sitting at a table on the floor—conducive to the experience?
In a traditional Lao house, you have to take off your shoes, so already, it’s informal. You sort of feel at home. Once you sit down with everybody, you kind of feel these are your peers, there’s no aura of I’m important, I’m sitting over here. We all just sit together. And we sit close. It’s very rare for people to eat by themselves.
There’s the whole, bridging gaps between cultures and people with food, but how important is to go beyond that and work in the issues being brought at the event? To say that if you want to get to know me you should know what I’m concerned about?
People love events where there’s food and especially if it’s food they’ve never had before. It’s like going on an adventure. I think giving people another experience on top of that helps getting to know us. It’s not an exhibit type thing, people just looking at us—they’re a part of it too. They experience it. We experience it. The project that I have, Laos in The House, I know that it’s multi-faceted, so a lot of time people are confused as to what our mission is. Whether we’re an organization. Are we a project or are we a non-profit. I think reiterating that we promote story-telling through art is sort of restating our mission and I don’t know if food art is a thing—maybe there are food artists and maybe they’re just called chefs. People tend to celebrate people who have been established, right? I think that when food has been made by somebody who doesn’t call themselves a chef and you respond to people who ask by saying, no, I just love food and want to cook and share it with you, I think people appreciate that.
What are the larger issues you’re trying to at least introduce people to while welcoming them to your culture through food and the New Years celebration traditions?
For Laos In the House itself, it’s the idea that there have been Lao Americans like myself who have come to this country and have been unaware of their immigrant status in terms of being refugees. I think a lot of us were [simply] thinking that we’re immigrants. It was later that I found out the history of the wars in Laos and how The United States contributed to those wars and the crisis of being refugees. I think it’s very important that we provide a space for those stories to be told before it’s too late. It’s another way of honoring all of our parents and our families who have come to the United States…who have survived the war. This is how we celebrate what we’ve done—through sharing out stories.
Not being aware of one’s immigration status—how big of a problem is that for people in the Philadelphia Laotian community?
I couldn’t place a number. I just know that it’s an issue because when I meet other Lao people, some of them are unaware that their parents were in a war and some of them aren’t aware of the United States’ contribution to it, that there are still bombs left over from the war in Laos. I guess it’s still a problem as long as I keep meeting people who don’t know what I know.
When you’re talking about the Lao community, is it entirely in South Philly?
No, it’s not. It’s spread out. There’s a community in South Philly. There’s a small community that’s split between Southwest Philly and Upper Darby. There’s another community that’s in North Philly in The Olney section. And then everybody else kinda just lives in the suburbs either in Jersey or in other parts of Pennsylvania. And of course, we don’t see all of them until it’s New Year’s time and they’re all at the temple.
Where are the temples?
There are two in Philly. A big one on Rising Sun and Chew. The small one is on 20th and Washington.
You were at Ben’s Right To Work event recently and he’s going to talk at your event Saturday. How important is it for there to be support between communities facing the same issues?
I think it’s important because for the longest time Lao people just celebrate Lao New Year with each other and New Year’s not meant to be exclusive, to feel like it’s only [for you] if you were born here, or if you have this last name, or can speak the language. I think my extending a hand to Naroun and Ben is my way of welcoming them to my New Year. I know that for Right To Work and Right To Return, when you speak on issues that are heavy—immigration issues—sometimes people don’t want to listen or they feel, it’s not my issue. I think that by standing with them and saying that this is our issue because it will affect us and just because it doesn’t affect someone directly that I know, it could indirectly affect you and you’re not aware of it.
It could affect someone you’re connected to in one way or another.
How is Lao cuisine represented in the Philly restaurant scene?
For the longest time, a lot of Lao cooks had to go find work in Thai restaurants because America wasn’t familiar with Lao cuisine. It’s changed definitely, because of the “foodie”/millennial kids who want to taste and see something different. They don’t want fusion. They want something that’s authentic. You don’t really get to see it unless you go to these restaurants, which are rare, or if you know someone who is Lao.
What are the one’s you would recommend?
Definitely Vientiane Café, which is the first and oldest Lao restaurant in Philly. The other is on 7th between Ritner & Wolf. It’s a Lao grocery’ store that has been there for years. In the summer, in the afternoon, the lady will come out and grill meats on sticks and she’ll make papaya salad on the spot. Those are the only two spots I would point people to if you’re tying to have real Lao food in Philly.
Is there much beyond that?
Not really. You can go to New York and eat at Khe-Yo which is the first gourmet Lao restaurant. The taste is authentic. The presentation may not be because it’s a little more refined the way it’s laid out. I went there in April for Lao New Year. They have a special New Year. His [Chef Soulayphet Schwader’s] mom is there and she’s giving the thread blessing and she’s happy to see us because we speak Lao. I bring my daughter and she’s so happy there’s a little child who can do the right thing in terms of getting blessed. It’s great to see other people who grew up like you and to meet them in far away cities with their families and go, oh, my God, you know exactly what I’m talking about.