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.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
When James Syhabout set out to write his new cookbook titled "Hawker Fare," he sampled a recipe that I'm going to go out on a limb and guess is not on your dinner table tonight - fire ant salad.
JAMES SYHABOUT: There was, like, ants crawling in and out of it. And they're like, do do do (ph). Put it in your mouth, chew real fast.
KELLY: Welcome to Lao food from Laos, Southeast Asia. Laos shares a border with Thailand, and Lao cooking is a cousin to Thai, except it's the distant cousin you've maybe never met. Syhabout says that's kind of the point of his cookbook, to introduce us.
SYHABOUT: The food that we know as Thai food - it's sweeter, you know? It's, like, I call it the Coca-Cola culture. We all love soda, candy, you know, things that are sweet.
KELLY: But before we get to his food philosophy, let's go back to the beginning of James Syhabout's story. His dad is Lao. His mom is Lao by language and culture, but she was born in Thailand. The family came to California as refugees fleeing violence and the aftermath of the Vietnam War. James was 2. They settled in Oakland, but the family still ate food that tasted of home, like curried green beans with candied pork.
SYHABOUT: When we came to America, our situation was very - with welfare and food stamps, you're only able to buy certain things, and we couldn't buy fresh meat. We would only buy Oscar Mayer bacon. So my mother was intuitive enough, and she used use bacon to make the green beans for us, and it's just as fantastic.
KELLY: Love that, yeah.
SYHABOUT: And that's something to remember. And, you know, from, like, a chef's standpoint, I thought it was brilliant. She was just trying just to survive, and she was homesick, but bacon it is, and it's fantastic.
KELLY: His mom opened a Thai restaurant, and Syhabout told me, as a kid, he remembers asking her, why do you cook Lao for us at home and Thai for the restaurant? Her answer...
SYHABOUT: They would probably say, it smells bad, and it's too spicy, and it doesn't appear, you know, appetizing. It was like, look, it's, like, murky green. This thing looks like a bowl of swamp.
KELLY: And you're hinting at some of what is different about Lao food as opposed to Thai, which most Americans would still be more familiar with. You're saying its smells are more pungent. The colors are different.
SYHABOUT: Yeah. I think Thai food is - it's a good introduction to Lao food. You know, it's not a...
KELLY: It's the gateway drug.
SYHABOUT: It's kind of a gateway drug. But, you know, a lot of Thai food as we know it - laap, papaya salad - it's - originated in Laos. It's actually Lao food.
KELLY: If you're trying to make Italian food, everything's got olive oil. If you're trying to cook French cuisine, everything is, you know, based with butter. Is there a signature base or ingredient that comes up in dish after dish? Yeah...
SYHABOUT: We use fish sauce as - for salinity. We use oyster sauce for salinity. And, you know, MSG - it's just the fabric of what the cuisine is.
KELLY: Syhabout's path to becoming a Lao chef was not direct. After culinary school, he moved to Europe and trained in classical French techniques, working with butter, and cream and cheese, until he got the itch to come back to Oakland. He opened the city's only Michelin-starred restaurant, serving fancy California cuisine.
And so then, I mean, you've done - you've done, like, the thing every chef sets out to do. That's amazing. What then prompted you to say, OK, I want to do this next thing now? I'm going to do Hawker Fare, which is a totally different gig.
SYHABOUT: Yeah. I don't know. I think it's - maybe it was a coming-of-age. You know, as you get older, you - nostalgic starts to kick in. And what got me cooking in the first place was this food that I'd crave and miss. It's a shame I don't know how to cook it for myself. I didn't feel complete as - soulfully, as a cook. I could make a perfect ice cream. I could do that. Make bread - I can do that. But make jaew padaek - I had no clue (laughter).
KELLY: So Syhabout opened Hawker Fare, a more casual Bay Area place - Lao and Thai street food. The cookbook it inspired features plenty of exotic-sounding dishes - rice-fermented cabbage with pig's ear and scallions, anyone? But today, I've asked him to cook me Lao comfort food.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNIVES SHARPENING)
KELLY: Syhabout doesn't have a restaurant here in D.C. - at least, not yet. We can hope. So he has taken over Thip Khao for us. It's his friend's restaurant. And the dish he's whipping up here in the kitchen for us is khua mee. It's noodles, similar to a Thai staple you've probably eaten.
SYHABOUT: Everyone knows pad thai, so this is like the stepbrother, stepsister of pad thai. I call it pad lao (ph).
KELLY: The flavors are deeper than pad thai and less sweet. There's no meat here. For protein - just egg omelet.
SYHABOUT: OK, right now, I'm going to make the egg omelet, so I'm just beating the eggs.
KELLY: A few glugs of oil go into a hot wok.
SYHABOUT: Mom's way - one-pot dish.
KELLY: I like it - less to clean.
SYHABOUT: Roll the eggs around. We can do a little flip.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)
Next step - make a caramel. But unlike the caramels he's made in formal European kitchens where sugar is cooked in a dry pan...
SYHABOUT: You caramelize the sugar in oil.
SYHABOUT: Totally go against the grain of what I was taught, you know, in pastry kitchens and all the, like - all the Michelin-star restaurants.
KELLY: Into the wok go water, soy sauce, fish sauce, a little bit of oyster sauce.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)
SYHABOUT: We're going to bring this sauce to a ripping boil. Then we add our rice noodles.
KELLY: So this is dry...
SYHABOUT: Yeah, it comes in dried packets that you pre-soak.
KELLY: ...Rice noodles - super thin. I mean, this is finer than spaghetti.
SYHABOUT: Yeah, it's the width. This looks correct. (Laughter). I think my mom would be happy.
KELLY: Syhabout spoons the steaming noodles and sprouts onto a big plate. He throws on bright green cilantro, bright red chili powder.
SYHABOUT: What you see in the book, it's always, like, you know, for four or six people or six or eight or it's part of a meal.
KELLY: Sharing food.
KELLY: We sit down to a table groaning with sauces, and sausages and more chili powder, grab some sticky rice and dig in.
James, thank you so much.
SYHABOUT: Oh, it was a pleasure and honor.
KELLY: It's just...
SYHABOUT: And thank you from, like, taking interest in Lao food because it's this little country that could.
KELLY: The little country that could - I like...
SYHABOUT: I always like the underdogs.
KELLY: Underdogs because everybody knows Thai, and this is cooking that - most Americans have not ever sat down to have a meal that looks like this yet.
SYHABOUT: Yet. Yet. You know, there's not enough out there.
KELLY: Well, thank you. This is my first Lao feast.
SYHABOUT: Thank you so much.
KELLY: The chef James Syhabout presiding over a feast from his new cookbook "Hawker Fare." It's out now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Wait, Mary Louise, what did it taste like? My stomach is growling here.
KELLY: (Laughter) Amazing. So good, so spicy. Did you hear me mention chili powder in there about 14 times?
KELLY: I was trying to interview him with tears rolling down my face.
KELLY: But amazing - I recommend it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.