When chef James Syhabout set out to write his new cookbook, Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef's Isan Thai & Lao Roots, he sampled a recipe that is not on most American dinner tables: Fire ant salad.
It's a traditional Lao dish that he ate in his mother's home village. The ants nest in mango trees, and little children are sent into the tree to harvest the ants and their eggs.
"We got this salad, came to the table and there's like ants crawling in and out of it," Syhabout says. "You just bite them before they bite you."
Laos shares a border with Thailand, and Lao cooking is a cousin to Thai — the distant cousin you've never met.
Syhabout says that's kind of the point of his cookbook: To introduce more people to the cuisine
"The food that we know as Thai food, it's sweeter ... I call it the Coca-Cola culture" he says. "We all love soda, candy, you know, things that are sweet."
Syhabout's father is from Laos; his mother is Lao by language and culture, but was born in Thailand. The family came to California as refugees, fleeing violence and the aftermath of the Vietnam War when James was 2 years old. They settled in Oakland, but still ate food that tasted of home, such as curried green beans with candied pork — despite the family's meager means.
"With welfare and food stamps you're only able to buy certain things. We couldn't buy fresh meant — we would only buy Oscar Mayer bacon. So my mother was intuitive enough, and she used bacon to make the green beans for us," Syhabout says. "From a chef's standpoint, I thought it was brilliant. She was just trying to survive and she was homesick."
His mom opened a Thai restaurant. As a kid he remembers asking his mother, "Why do you cook Lao for us at home and Thai for the restaurant?"
Her answer involved perception, saying, "They'll probably say it smells bad and it's too spicy and it doesn't appear appetizing — like, 'look, it's murky green, this thing looks like a bowl of swamp. ' "
He calls the Thai food that most Americans know the "gateway drug" to Lao food.
"A lot of Thai food as we know it — laap, papaya salad — it's originated in Laos, it's actually Lao food," he says.
James says he spent a lot of hours at his mother's restaurant growing up. Because of that he says he missed a lot birthday parties and other events while he was washing pots and pans and picking the stems off of chilies.
That being said, he loved how stimulating a kitchen could be. The smells, the sounds and getting to learn how to use the tools of the kitchen were all things he enjoyed. By his sophomore year of high school, his mind was made up: He would become a chef.
After culinary school, Shyabout moved to Europe and trained in classical French techniques, working in some of the best restaurants in the world. Eventually he got the itch to come back to Oakland, and opened the city's only Michelin-starred restaurant, Commis — serving fancy California cuisine.
But then, he said, nostalgia set in.
"What got me into cooking in the first place was this food that I crave and miss. It's a shame I that I [didn't] know how to cook it for myself. I didn't feel complete soulfully as a cook," Syhabout says. "Make a perfect ice cream? I can do that. Make bread? I can do that. But make jeow padek? I have no clue."
So, Syhabout opened Hawker Fare in San Francisco in 2011. It's a far more casual place in the Bay Area, serving Lao and Thai street food.
The cookbook it inspired features plenty of exotic-sounding dishes — including rice-fermented cabbage with pig's ear and scallions — but it's not all complicated. One of the simplest recipes in the cookbook involves just three ingredients: a ramen packet, water and an egg. That dish, Syhabout says, makes him feel like a child again.
"You go home after a long day and you're like — I need a hug. So I make some ramen noodles," he says.
For the most part, the recipes in the cookbook are made for sharing, being able to serve four, six or eight people.
Shyabout says writing the book, remembering certain dishes, was like a time machine. Picturing a dish, he could remember "who was in the room, what was the lighting like, what was the smells, the colors on the walls — all of a sudden I remember those things, immediately."
Hawker Fare isn't the definitive Lao cookbook — and it isn't meant to be. Shyabout simply calls it the "food about how I grew up."
But he says he is a champion of Lao food because "it's this little country that could, [and] I always liked the underdogs."
Lao food is an underdog because everybody knows Thai, yet Syhabout's book is full of cooking that most Americans have not tasted. At least not yet.
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