I’m eating at a frenetic pace, using a spoon, chopsticks, and my hands — this gives me three times the speed. Chef Soulayphet Schwader asks me, “Sab eelee? It’s delicious?” I nod yes feverishly.
I am at Khe-yo in Tribeca, New York’s first restaurant serving the cuisine of Laos; think sticky rice, zesty papaya salads, and chicken-on-a stick — dishes often mistakenly associated with the cuisine of Thailand.
A mountainous and landlocked country that borders Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and China, the People’s Republic of Laos saw the heaviest bombing in the history of warfare. Nearly three-fourths of its population fled to neighboring Thailand, where they waited in teaming refugee camps for sponsorships to safer havens. Some of these Southeast Asians exiled from their homelands and headed to American shores to begin anew. They came with nothing, spoke little or no English, and weren’t skilled at much more than farming.
About 15,000 immigrants from Laos arrived in New York City during the 1970s. With the help of church groups and humanitarian organizations, they found housing, primarily in the Bronx, and were pretty much left to fend for themselves.
Even for these war-ravaged refugees, the Bronx was a terrifically challenging and chaotic place, filled with crime, drugs, and desperation. It was so frighteningly similar to what these quiet, simple people had just escaped from that many of them left for California, the Midwest, and other agrarian places to work as farm labor.
How fortunate we are that the flavors of Laos have found their way back to New York City.
While the ubiquitous galangal, kaffir, and lemongrass feature in most Southeast Asian cuisines, in Laos, mint and dill are used liberally. Another big difference between Thai and Lao gastronomy is the omnipresent sticky rice, served in a straw basket and meant to be eaten with your fingers. Sticky rice also shows up in nam-khao, a crunchy coconut rice dish with lemony kaffir leaf sausage. The sweet from the coconut magically enlivens the flavors of the spicy sausage, leaving a deliciously chewy and flavorful crunch in the mouth.
Spoons are used for soup and white rice only, and noodles are eaten with chopsticks. The soup is sipped throughout the meal, and mounds of glutinous, yummy rice can be dipped in a flavorful sauce. Khe-yo calls theirs bang-bang for a reason — beware this spicy, hot, peppery, fiery chili sauce!
My sinuses are on fire.
Don’t miss their quail on a bamboo stick called ping-nok-noi. This deliciously tender, charred bird is marinated in a marriage of chili, lime, and garlic, and of course, is accompanied with bang-bang sauce.
And don’t close that rice basket yet; it’s customary to do so only when everyone’s finished eating.
Video produced by Thomas Peisel