Restaurants serving Laotian food, like C.R. Noodle House in La Vergne and King Market in Antioch, have been in the Nashville area for more than a decade. But many people may not even know what Lao food is, or that a steady stream of immigrants from Laos — a small landlocked country at the heart of the Indochinese Peninsula, bordered by China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — has been flowing here for more than two decades.
In fact, Middle Tennessee houses one of the largest Laotian communities in the U.S., with roughly 7,000 Laotian Americans spread out around Nashville, Murfreesboro, La Vergne and Smyrna. (Members of the Laotian community will participate in the Lao New Year Celebration May 26 through 28 at Wat Lao Buddharam in Murfreesboro.) If dishes like larb, papaya salad or curry sound familiar, then you’ve probably had Laotian food in Nashville before — just in a “Thai” restaurant.
Americans are becoming more receptive to more and more international cuisine thanks to globalization and the COVID-19-inspired wave of traveling through food. And more Laotian restaurant owners who used to hang their hats on the more recognizable “Thai food” label are opening Lao-specific restaurants. Now a new generation of young Laotian Americans in the Nashville area is embracing their heritage, culture and food.
Food to Feed Everyone
Laotian food incorporates the best parts of many Southeast Asian cuisines. Flavors are bright and fresh, often steeped in the savory umami of fish sauce (a staple) or fired up with the heat of tiny crushed cayenne peppers. Dishes are universally garnished with Thai basil, mint and kaffir lime leaves. Padaek, or fermented freshwater fish paste, is used in everything, and gives Lao papaya salad a unique saltiness compared to the sweeter Thai version. Sticky rice is another staple, and traditionally eaten with the hands in tiny balls that are used to grab food from communal plates. Rice noodle soups, like khao piak (Lao chicken noodle soup), are slightly more savory than pho, and their curries use more lime and padaek. Their national dish, larb — which represents “luck” — is a chopped pork salad served either raw or cooked, typically accompanied by a soup made from the bones of the meat being used.
C.R. Noodle House, founded by Somphong Rattanavong 12 years ago and named after his children Crystal and Ron, sits in a converted Asian grocery store in La Vergne (down the road from a Thai restaurant with Laotian owners). Somphong’s immigration story resembles that of many of the first-generation Laotian immigrants I spoke with — he landed in New Mexico thanks to a church sponsorship after fleeing the communist regime in 1981, and moved to Tennessee in 1990 to work in the factories around La Vergne before opening the restaurant. Ron, who was born in New Mexico after the family immigrated from a Thai refugee camp, now runs the restaurant, but his father still goes to Saeng Produce every morning to hand-pick fresh produce. Somphong wakes up at 7 a.m. three times a week to cook their signature pho (which Ron says is thicker and more seasoned than Vietnamese pho).
“It makes him happy to see the community say his food’s good,” Ron says of his father. “It’s a compliment to him.”
Back around the time when C.R. Noodle House opened, owners of many Laotian restaurants — such as Thai Papaya, Thai Esane and King Siam — advertised their food as “Thai” due to wider recognition, similar to the way their Thai or Korean predecessors would often open Chinese restaurants. Both Ron and another Laotian community organizer, Loi Sivilay (vice president of strategic development for the National Association of Asian American Professionals of Tennessee), attribute the recent shift in attitude to globalization and COVID-19. Many Americans unable to travel during lockdown were inspired to try different types of cuisines. Eateries like SaBaiDee Cafe, Laovin It, South Ahan, Sitane Market & Deli and Xingha Sab Bor Lao proliferate in Middle Tennessee cities including Columbia and Murfreesboro.
“A lot of Thai restaurants around here are owned by Laotian owners,” says Sivilay. “Now more and more Laos food is being celebrated.”
Over a huge meal of Laotian specialties at C.R. Noodle House with Ron, his family and a few Laotian community members, I spoke to Sivilay’s daughter Taylor Akhom and her friend, who are both freshmen at Belmont University. These second-generation Laotian American Gen Z-ers feel at ease with their Laotian heritage. Akhom occasionally wears Laotian traditional dress just because, and when asked about Laotian food, Akhom cites a romantic scene between Peter and May from 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming.
“Larb got very popular after Spider-Man. … ‘I larb you.’”
The Next Generation of Laotian American Food
Chef Nokie Bayluangrath started the food truck Laovin It in 2016 to service the Nashville area, and opened South Ahan in Columbia in March of this year. (While she’s focusing on South Ahan at the moment, she plans to resume operations with Laovin It in Nashville soon.) Laovin It serves up street classics like chicken basil fried rice, sai oua (Laotian sausages) and hearty beef pho with shrimp. The bricks-and-mortar South Ahan continues the tradition with additional Thai and Vietnamese selections.
Bayluangrath was born in Laos and moved to Alabama from a Thai refugee camp when she was 3. Her family relocated to Nashville in 1992.
“When we first moved to [the] Nashville [area], there weren’t even a handful of Laotian restaurants within driving distance,” says Bayluangrath. “Now there’s one on every corner, especially in Murfreesboro.”
When Bayluangrath was growing up, her mom worked in a Thai restaurant and was a renowned cook in the Laotian community. Bayluangrath inherited her cooking skills — along with her recipe for jeow bong (spicy chili paste), which she also sells on her website. She’s excited to continue spreading knowledge of Lao food and hospitality.
“It’s very unique being Laotian here in Nashville, because people don’t know about our culture, they don’t know who we are,” says Bayluangrath. “I guess that’s why I’m in this career field.”
“But we love to cook, we love to serve others through food, we have big hearts.”
Source : Nashville Scene