Photography by Bobby Pradachith
Chef Bobby Pradachith grew up in Northern Virginia in a Lao household. He has a strong connection with his Lao Culture all thanks to the language of food! It’s an incredible moment in the life of this Lao-American chef and we are thankful to share all about his experience after visiting Laos for the first time since he was a little kid!
Interview by LFM (Lao Food Movement):
LFM: Chef Bobby, please tell us what you were looking forward to see and/or experience when visiting Laos? Did you do them all, or did you discover something different once you arrived?
Chef Bobby: Searching, tasting, documenting as much local ingredients as I can and trying to figure out their utilization in the cuisine.I want to know which ingredients are used similar that I can achieve back in the US and which ingredients that are challenging to find fresh and available. Through this research, I find that I can creatively think other local ingredients back home to use that provide similar qualities such as taste, aroma, & texture. I discovered that there were ingredients that I believed were not used, in which we prevent to incorporate on our menus, were actually utilized in the cuisine. I was pretty surprised, but at the same time, I was excited to now know I can cook with them because I learned that those ingredients are apart of the cuisine.
In sought, to discover productions and to understand the whole process of the fermented soybean paste was something I was looking forward to do. The reason was to share details with my friends, who own a fermentation business, in which they are helping me to develop this paste with locally-grown ingredients. Currently, they had developed various testings and felt close to match the similarities, but we are still unsure if we are completely following similar step-by-step methods. This was very challenging to find because when I would ask locals where to find the productions, they expressed with questionable looks as if these questions were never asked to them or considered why this foreigner is so curious. Later on, I learned that the most common place to make the soybean paste is located on the northern tip of Laos, even more up north than Luang Prabang. I really wanted to go visit there but the rest of my trip was already planned through my itinerary and the distance between where I was already located to there was no chance in time.
The purpose of the trip was not solely for food discovery purposes, but rather more to search more information about myself and it starts with the origins of my mother, my father, and the family histories.
Visiting my parent’s villages and hoping to meet close family members that I had never met before. The purpose of the trip was not solely for food discovery purposes, but rather more to search in-depth information about myself and it starts with the origins of my mother, my father, and the family histories. Meeting some of my family members for the first time was something I look forward to but was not sure how we would interact. Once that moment happened, it started a little awkward in the beginning but slowly and surely, we connected very well together and ate so much food. They had seen photos of me growing up through my parent’s facebook and they were just so happy to finally met me in person. In comparison, I was happy as well, but also dealt with sadness, only to wonder when the next possible time I would revisit them. That sudden moment when I was stepping on the same soils as my parents had brought these visions that I could see of them running around as kids and to know how those places are planted to them as their homes. I hope to visit Laos again, but next time with my parents so I can hear furthermore upon their memories they created in their home villages.
LFM: How long was your trip and which cities did you get to visit around Laos?
Chef Bobby: I was in Laos for one full month from the end of January till the end of February of this year. Vientiane – 13 days, Vang Vieng – 3 days, Luang Prabang – 7 days, and Xieng Khouang – 3 days. In addition to this trip, I spent two days in Bangkok, Thailand after Laos.
LFM: What are your suggestions of things to do for those traveling to Laos for the first time for just a few days?
Chef Bobby: 1 – Visit a temple, pay respect to the religious culture & people, and pay attention to the beautiful architectural details that were built hundreds of years ago.
2 – Eat any noodle shops, especially the places serving Lao Khao Soi. So good!
3 – Go to see some of the caves in Vang Vieng. So breathtaking!
LFM: After your experience around Laos for a month, if you could bring something back from Laos to the US, what would it be?
Chef Bobby: This could be very dramatic, but important to say, I would bring bomb fragments from the US secret war to be displayed at one of the Smithsonian’s museums because I solely believe that people in America should know the ongoing effects that still create damages, both physically and mentally, to the local civilians.
Food wise, I would like to bring the very indigenous ingredients that are prevalent in Laos, but hard to grow in US soils. This would allow us to showcase the more truest essence of Lao flavors.
Eat any noodle shops, especially the places serving Lao Khao Soi. So good!
LFM: Please tell us about your favorite bites around Laos and where you had them!
Chef Bobby: Grilled baby bananas stuffed with shredded fresh coconut meat in the Doung Mak Kai Market, about 30-45 minutes north of Vientiane. Khao Soi noodles in the Luang Prabang night market or restaurants. Pomelo salad in the Pad Tad Ke Botanical Gardens in Luang Prabang. Naem Khao with various herbs, banana blossoms, & green lettuce at a restaurant called Han Euey Nong in Vientiane. Ground beef skewers wrapped in some edible citrus leaves (almost to grape leaves) in the Lao Food Festival in Vientiane. Steamed baby taro in multiple stalls within Vang Vieng.
LFM: How was it to visit Laos for the first time as an adult and exploring it on your own?
Chef Bobby: Before my first solo trip ever to Laos, I was full of emotions. I was ecstatic to visit the country where my whole family had lived through generations after generations. At the same time, there were nerves that bothered me, only to not know what I will be facing during my visit since my personal upbringings are a complete difference to my family’s people. I spent the last eight years studying Laos, from the initial early colonization, religious cultures, to food history. I wanted to learn as much as I can with limited resources and through stories that were told by my family. Up until this past February, I was given the opportunity. I felt as though I had some good knowledge through my studies, but once I placed my feet on to soil, there was a unknown realization that I knew nothing. The journey I partake was a chance for me to fully immerse myself within the culture and people. The one full month I had was for me to re-learn and find clarity within answers I was searching for. From then on, I was motivated to understand who I am truly as a person and to discover more in depth about my family.
LFM: Where would you go on your next visit to Laos?
Chef Bobby: I would like to visit the Southern parts of Laos, since my first visit was from the Central to the Northern parts. Southern Laos are known for their high qualities of coffee and teas, which are popular throughout Southeast Asia. The beginning of this year, I had revamped our coffee and tea program at Thip Khao by collaborating with local small businesses who are so passionate on this aspect. Bringing Lao coffee and tea to the US would allow us to showcase more about Lao culture. The difficulty with this is that the demands are not as high, so shipping Lao coffee and tea would generally be expensive both on the small businesses and its clienteles, if the businesses are not able to sell them at a fast rate. I hope to collaborate with farmers and work on how to bring Lao coffee and tea to the US. I think these products present high qualities that I feel the enthusiasts will enjoy them as well.Posted on