Writing for Southern Foodways, Katy Clune explores how a small group of Laotian refugees uses food to build community in the mountains of North Carolina. In Morganton, a town of 17,000 northeast of Asheville, Clune learns about Lao cuisine and culture from two sisters, Toon and Dara, who fled Laos in the 1980s:
The family’s daily togetherness is a triumph over history and circumstance. It is the taste of Laos that enables the Phapphaybouns to nurture their connectedness to each other and to home. At the same time, they use its spicy, tangy, salty, and sweet flavors to share their story in Morganton and build bridges of understanding.
Dara Phrakousonh opened Lao Lanxang Grocery in 2010, and Asian Fusion Kitchen in 2013. The restaurant and grocery store are places where the Lao community can gather to share a taste of home, but they also provide a space to engage the wider community of Morganton:
She chose the name Asian Fusion Kitchen because it didn’t sound too spicy, and because some of her dishes “throw America and Asia together a little bit.” Lao and Hmong know to order laab or khao poon noodles off-menu. Through a gentle diplomacy of flavor, Dara is slowly introducing Morganton to her native cuisine. The restaurant is a success: She has expanded tables into her grocery store. Sticky rice is one of the most popular dishes. Dara loves it when her customers call it by its Lao name, khao neow.
Pam Roths, a native of Morganton, believes Dara and her family’s hospitality has a lot to do with her success in this small town. Pam likes to say that, on her first visit to Asian Fusion Kitchen, she “came looking for pho and found family.”
The rest of Morganton is catching on. Local craft brewery Fonta Flora created a special brew inspired by the Beerlao that Dara stocks. Brewed with turmeric, Charleston Gold rice, and miso, they call it Year of the Wood Goat.
Dara and her family bring Laos to the American South by balancing traditional foods with the palates of their customers. This spirit of accommodation makes Asian Fusion Kitchen an essentially Lao restaurant. “The Lao way is to be humble,” says Toon. “We do not force anything down anyone’s throat, and yet we accomplish what we want done. There are two ways: You can force the horse to water, but it won’t drink. The Lao way is to show you how to get to the river, and if you want to drink the water, that is fine—but you have found your own way there.”
Read the full article here.