Make LAAB, Not War!
Posted: Aug 5, 2021
Laab Gai made by Chef Saeng with added fried crispy chicken skin to garnish. (Los Angeles, CA 2019)
It was a foggy morning in Luang Prabang. Mist was floating above the Mekong, animals were rusling in the palm trees, and monks were making their last turn around the block. I left my hotel room to head towards talaat sao (the morning market) to grab some fresh fruit and a khao jee. I entered the market with a homecoming gaze. Each merchant had their own specialty, whether it was selling Lao desserts, colorful sinh, or all the varieties of bird’s eye chili peppers. My main goal in Luang Prabang was to learn, taste, and understand what Lao food meant to me. I was particularly interested in laab, the national dish of Laos. There are many varieties of laab and each protein has its own unique laab recipe. With so many regions and ethnic groups in Laos, laab is our culinary unifier. Laab is eaten in every region of the country, but with a unique and delicious local style.
Saeng’s family standing in front of Mom’s garden. She always grew Lao herbs for all the Lao dishes she made. Saeng was 2 years old in the photo. (Janesville, WI 1994)
Back at home in Wisconsin, there was no end to the varieties of laab my mom could make. Each one could stand on its own since there were still stark differences. My parents never let me eat laab diip (raw beef salad) as a kid, but now I enjoy it whenever I get a chance. Laab exemplifies the core ingredients in Lao food: khao kua–toasted sticky rice powder; padaek – unfiltered fish sauce; nam paa – fish sauce; several fresh herbs; and it’s all eaten with khao niew – sticky rice. I am prideful of laab because it is a dish that brought my family to the pah khao Lao table and it was always an abundant meal with endless veggies, soups, jeows dips, and khao niew up to the rim of the thip khao.
Saeng’s mom’s large Southeast Asian plate filled with Lao food she made: grilled fish, fermented fish, gaeng nor mai, pickled greens, khao poon, khao niew, and a jeow. (Parent’s House, 2018)
It was my mom who taught me how to cook. I was always in the kitchen helping her peel eggroll wrappers and make khao niew. All of these experiences shaped my perspective on why it is important to uplift Lao food. I love teaching about Lao food because it’s an opportunity to showcase Lao culture, the Lao community, and my mom’s delicious recipes. I started uploading my Lao cooking tutorials to my social media pages and it’s been a game changer. The Internet connected me with like-minded community members who want to make Lao food mainstream. With Chef Seng’s Lao Food Movement and the momentum of other Lao creators, Lao food has become a sought-after cuisine. I hope that people can see the power of food and the big impact and visibility it can give to our community.
All this talk about Lao food reminds me of the struggles my parents endured fleeing the country as refugees during the Vietnam War. Lao food is intertwined with our community’s history. Food is also the perfect catalyst to teach about our history. The campaign “Make Laab Not War” was created after I made the hashtag #notlarb. The #notlarb hashtag was born out of my frustration at hearing people mispronounce the national dish of Laos and also from my concerns that many people do not acknowledge the origins of laab as authentically and uniquely Lao. My intention was to bring in the community to talk about the importance of our food. “Make Laab Not War ” was created not long afterwards. Boreth Ly, professor of SEA Art History at University of California, Santa Cruz, coined the phrase; She has written published articles on history and art related to war and the SEA diaspora. Legacies of War Board Member Suzette Gabriel Schoebitz approached me about a possible partnership between Legacies of War and Lao Food Foundation. I designed the shirt to support both nonprofits that advocate for the Lao community. The shirt was a perfect way to merge both food and history while teaching people how to pronounce laab. I hope the Lao community and allies can rally together and support both of these wonderful organizations by rocking the shirt while enjoying their favorite style of laab.
In partnership with the Lao Food Foundation and Chef Saeng, the “Make Laab Not War” campaign is meant to uplift the Lao community and Lao food. This campaign is part of the #NotLarb movement founded by Saeng and is used to encourage the public of the pronunciation of Laab and the origins of Lao cuisine while also bringing greater attention to the issue of unexploded ordnance in Laos.
All proceeds from “Make Laab Not War” go towards supporting Legacies of War and the Lao Food Foundation.
Thank you Saeng for designing the t-shirt and raising awareness with this campaign in partnership with Legacies.
Join the movement and get a shirt today: https://my-store-b84bf2.creator-spring.com/listing/make-laab-not-war?product=2