Food is the sensory landscape of Laos. The streets are lined with vendors, and markets overwhelm the senses with produce grown or foraged nearby. Dishes including sticky rice, laab (minced meat with herbs), green papaya salad, and kao poon (coconut curry noodles), are beloved as national symbols and markers of Lao identity. This is the world the Phapphayboun family left behind when they came to the United States.
Toon’s mother Noubath sold fermented pork sausages in her neighborhood of Vientiane. In Morganton, she still makes these as well as the year-long fermented Lao fish sauce, padek. Dara, the youngest Phapphayboun daughter, opened Asian Fusion Kitchen downtown in February 2013. Through her restaurant’s decorations and menu, she is teaching native Morgantonians about Laos. In Dara’s words, “It would bring something out to show everybody where I come from, who I am, and why I do what I do because I wanted to introduce everyone to Laos. Because everybody says ‘Hey, you Chinese.’ Laos never exists! That’s why I said I’m going to open a restaurant or grocery store one day and I’m going to tell them I’m not Chinese, I am Lao.”
Cooking and eating traditional foods together is a key way the Phapphayboun family and other Lao-Americans nurture their connections to one another, to their homeland, and to their faith. Through her cooking at Asian Fusion Kitchen, Dara skillfully pulls from her private world of culinary heritage, food, and family to provide for her customers and build a successful business. To eat a dish at Asian Fusion Kitchen is to connect to the Phapphayboun family’s rich food heritage, in forms that are often willingly adapted for Morgantonians. As a result, not only does the local Lao community have a gathering place and a convenient source of ingredients, Morgantonians are presented with an opportunity to learn about Laos.
The included quotes by Daraphone (Dara) Phrakousonh are from an interview with the author conducted on March 10, 2014, in Morganton, NC.