Preserving Culture Through Lao Food

by Saeng Douangdara


What if I told you you can live in a world that knows about your culture, history, and food?  A world where you didn’t have to explain your origins or have to say “we are similar to this or that country”.  We are on the edge of giving this world to the next generation of Lao kids.  If we want to be known, seen, and heard, it must first start with talking about ourselves in the right light and saying what it is and not going the easy route.  Tell them you are Lao.  Tell them you eat Lao food.  Tell them you are from Laos.  Empower yourself, your family, and your community and know that our food is worthy of any table.  It is our own voices that dictate where our culture and food will go.  

Growing up, my parents instilled with me that I was Lao and we ate Lao food. In contrast, the conditioning of my public identity and many other Lao people got confused to the public.  It was a constant “Lao/“ identity.  There are many factors that have contributed to this confusion. As a Lao food advocate, it is important to voice my opinion in hopes to pave a solid and grounded Lao food identity for generations to come.  

My family came late as refugees post-Vietnam War in 1992, so there were many 1st generation Lao that had settled in the United States since 1975. The community was scattered all over the U.S. and had created something out of nothing.  They were in a land that was unfamiliar and wanted not to be seen as foreigners and outsiders.  There was one piece that many Westerners were familiar with of Southeast Asia and that was Thai food. Thus, the snowball effect of Lao owned Thai restaurants started opening.  There was an urge for many Lao people to still keep their identity and later in the years restaurants started to be identified as Lao/Thai.  With a few restaurants’ success as a Lao/Thai restaurant, that escalated to others opening Lao/Thai businesses.  These restaurants grabbed on to the “/Thai” in the belief that the Thai food success would uplift their businesses. 

These experiences created one of the factors that ignited the confusion of Lao food and the Lao identity. The community is being watched by their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generations and many are very proud of their identity and food. This shift has created a handful of Lao owned Lao marketed restaurants that have truly honored and centered Lao food. These businesses have received accolades and put a bright light on the deliciousness and success of what Lao food can be.  Let me repeat, these Lao centered restaurants are thriving and succeeding. 

With a constant eye on Lao food, I do see people outside of the community seeking Lao food.  They are craving for something different than the hundreds of general Southeast Asian restaurants around the corner.  There are even non-Lao people opening up Lao restaurants because they see the success that we can have. I implore the Lao community to take their culture and food in your own hands so it is represented from your authentic experience. 

I write this in understanding why the Lao community needed to hold on to the slash when they first came to the U.S. and now is the time to move the needle into centering what Lao-ness means. My 3 big asks are:  

1. To have “Lao/“ restaurants shift their marketing as Lao restaurants

2.  To have Lao people who use social media to center their descriptions and hashtags as #Laofood 

3. To have the community talk about our food and just say Lao and not “Lao/“

My hope with this shift is empowering our community and generations to come to find success in their authentic selves. We lived through many secrets when it comes to our history; the secret war to the secret food hidden from the public. It is time to acknowledge what has happened and move forward in centering our identity and that begins with our Lao food.  

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