Bee Satongun and her husband Jason Bailey, founders of one Michelin starred Paste in Bangkok (n.28 of the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2019 list), were asked to open a restaurant in Luang Prabang, the popular Laotian city, neither of them had set foot in the country, despite it being right next to Satongun’s native Thailand.
Despite this, Lao culture had long been a part of Satongun’s life, whether she liked it or not. “I could not exactly track how far back it was that [my ancestors] came to Thailand from Laos, but I know because they follow some of the same traditions. My dad’s family are Hmong,” she says, referring to an ethnic group prominent in Laos.
BACK TO THE ANCESTORS
As a child, she remembers eating freshwater green algae, called kaipen in Lao. Virtually unheard of in central or southern Thailand, it was nonetheless a tradition her father’s family held dear. “It looks like hair,” she says with a laugh. “When I was young, I didn’t really understand, and I thought it was weird, but when I grew up, I realised what they were actually cooking, and it gave me more understanding about herbs and vegetables.”
“In Laos, they put tomato, garlic, and sesame, inside it to make it a sheet and dry it together, like a cracker. You can get it anywhere in Laos,” she says. At Paste Laos, the restaurant she opened late last year in Luang Prabang, she serves kaipen as an appetiser, with sweet crabmeat atop the algae crackers.
For the Lao outpost, Satongun is rediscovering her roots with the help of one of the most important culinary figures in Lao cuisine, Phia Sing. He was the chef and master of ceremonies to the kings of Laos, and a cookbook derived from his notes was published posthumously. This collection of recipes proved to be a treasure trove of resources for Satongun, who had alreadydeveloped a habit of researching ancient texts for Paste Bangkok.
“In the old days, people didn’t have machines and couldn’t [take shortcuts] so they needed to know the process of what they were actually making. When you study all this history, you also understand what people thought about how they created that dish, or how they created patterns [for how to cook],” she says.
HERBS AND VEGETABLES
A key pattern Satongun found is that Lao food favours herbs and vegetables. “It’s a plant-based cuisine. I think Lao food is simple and elegant, and they don’t like sugar, [whereas people in] central Thailand love sugar. Southern Thai is spicy and uses a lot of black pepper. In Lao food there is not too much spice.”
“One of the most important ingredients in Lao food is sakan wood. It’s added to curry and gives it a peppery taste. Lao people believe it’s also a kind of medicine,” she says. Instead of fish sauce like in Thailand, Lao cooks use fermented fish, called padaek. Satongun says, “Their seasoning is padeak and salt; they don’t have fish sauce. The fish still [retains] some water, and you can usually still see the fish, but it depends how long you ferment it for. They’re small fish – most of them are river fish. It’s not as salty as shrimp paste, but it has a stronger aroma. It’s between fish sauce and shrimp paste.”
These are vital ingredients in or lam, a dish that Satongun feels most represents Lao cuisine. Known as a clear curry, Satongun’s or lam is light and refined, with the consistency of a broth, punctuated with the gaminess of slow-cooked local fowl.
“What I learned from Phia Sing’s cookbook was the foundation of Lao food. His cookbook gave me the boundaries of what I can do with Lao food, to not go too far, to not change the cuisine too much,” she concludes.