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Laotian Chef Helps Diners Feel the Burn of Her Native Cuisine

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Shrimp Salad, spicy fish sauce dressing, ginger leaf, lemongrass, bitter melon.
Chef Seng Luangrath
Shrimp Salad, spicy fish sauce dressing, ginger leaf, lemongrass, bitter melon.

When Chef Seng Luangrath took over Bangkok Golden in 2010, it already had a reputation for decent Thai food. She kept the Thai concept going, while slowly sneaking in some Lao dishes just to test the waters. She started with Laab, a minced meat and vegetable dish. Then moved on to papaya salad. Four years later, her menu is half Thai and have Lao dishes.

Part of serving Lao food means education her customers about her native country. Even within the diverse sphere of Washington, some people still have no idea. “Where is Laos? Is it in China? Is it Thailand?" Seng explains.

Laos is a country of nearly seven million people, nestled in Southeast Asia on the border with Vietnam, China, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand. More than half of the 230,000 Laotian Americans live in California, but our region is home to roughly 4,000 of them.

When it comes to Lao and Thai food, every new customer asks the same question, Chef Seng says. What’s the difference?

“We use similar herbs, galanga root, and kafifir lime leaves. The difference is the technique of cooking. We do a lot of grilled meat, or steamed meat. We don’t do a lot of stir fry,” she points out. Thai food uses more coconut milk, and tends to use a lighter, fermented fish sauce. In Laos they also take that same fish, boil it and create a heavier, fishier sauce called Padeak.

And in the end, Chef Seng says, the real difference between the two cuisines comes down to spice. Food in Lao, she says, is a lot more spicy than its Thai counterpart. “If it's not spicy, it's not good,” she says.

In her effort to start a Lao Food Movement, Chef Seng is opening a second restaurant, named Thip Khao, this fall in Columbia Heights.

Music: "Too Darn Hot" by Jan Harbeck Quartet from Copenhagen Nocturne / "Cruel Summer (Karaoke Version)" by The Karaoke Channel from The Karaoke Channel - In the Style of Bananarama - Vol. 2

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