Hollywood has taken the trend of many cultural foods and used it in their motion pictures. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, they used the line “I larb you.”. This can lead to a food’s popularity but also the incorrect associate of foods. This happened to the national dish of Laos, called laab. You’ve probably seen it at many Southeast Asian restaurants; it’s usually a minced meat dish tossed with its signature roasted sticky rice powder, fish sauce, padaek, and many fresh herbs with a squeeze of lime. When it comes to phonetically translating Asian words to English, it doesn’t always come out the way you want it. This made a big impact on the Lao community and is the case with what people see often with the word “larb”. It should be pronounced more like “laab” or “laap”.
I cringe every time I hear someone pronounce laab with “r” and say “LARB”. There is a discomfort in me because it’s a dish that represents my Lao community. If you look at food history, laab is very well traced and dates back to coming from Laos (and previous region of Laos, now known as Issan). Its a great representation of how Lao people didn’t waste any parts of the animal. It’s a meal made with a whole protein such as chicken where you’ll find the meat, gizzards, innards and all mixed with its traditional seasonings. With the extra chicken bones, it’s usually made into a hardy chicken soup on the side to dunk your sticky rice in. As a traditional Lao dish, there have been other surrounding countries that have adapted it to their liking. With this adaption also comes the confusion because Laos does not usually hit the mainstream radar on food. It was eventually taken and seen as another type of cuisine because people don’t hear about Laos.
In the Lao language, there is no “r’” since 1975. In the Thai language for certain uses, the “r” is sometimes pronounced as an “l” or an “h” depending on the word. For “larb”, the “r” is supposed to be pronounced with a “h” sound so it would be spelled as “lahb”. The trend started with Western restaurants wanting to find a way to spell out this word but it turned out to backfire on the dish.
This is an example of how the national dish of Laos was adapted to another country and with time, the mispronunciation was adapted into the Western food world and seen as another country’s dish. I make this point to show how important it is to understand food history and how representation matters in the food world. You must cook, eat, and talk about your food to be given a seat at the table.
Things can’t change in a day, but you can help through conversation and eating Lao food. With the Lao Food Movement in full force, this is your opportunity to uplift and shine a bright light on the food you love and grew up eating. Let’s call it Lao food. Let’s call it laab.