Laotian food in Honolulu at S&T Thai Cuisine

Many of the Thai restaurants in town are run by Laotians (i.e. Keo's Thai, Souvaly Thai, S&T Thai Cuisine). Why? Thai food is easier for Americans to grasp, especially when it's sweetened and dialed down in heat for the American palate.

Laotian food, a friend says, is like "dirty Thai."

That's a draw, not a deterrent for us. Nat Bletter (of Madre Chocolate) recently organized a Laotian dinner at S&T Thai. It turns out that S&T Thai, which has a pretty standard Thai menu (and a good one at that), will prepare Laotian dishes given a few days notice. All you have to do is ask.

Our spread yielded unfamiliar and surprising tastes. While Laotian cuisine is perhaps less refined than Thai, without the bright vegetables and flavors, there were certainly some crave-worthy dishes that I'd go back for.

Our dishes:

khao lam (above left): sticky rice roasted in bamboo, a common roadside snack in Laos
khai paen (above right): river weed. These are incredibly addictive, delicately brittle like fried nori, with a salty, ultra-concentrated seaweed flavor.
laap pla dook (top image): a finely chopped salad of catfish, lemongrass and roasted rice powder, similar to the larb that's often found in Thai restaurants.

– sup new mai (above left): a bamboo shoot salad, seasoned with bai yanang, what Bletter calls an "MSG plant" for its natural MSG content, released by massaging the plant in water. The crunch of thinly sliced bamboo and deep savory flavor of this dish makes it one of my favorites.
tam makhung (above right): a familiar green papaya salad, but in this dish, you can really taste the difference between Thai and Laotian food. The fish sauce for this dish is much more pungent and funkier than in the Thai version.

khao phun (above): a thin red curry soup, with just a touch of coconut milk (Laotian cuisine uses very little coconut milk), spooned over round rice noodles, chopped cabbage and green beans.

orlam moo (above left): a pork and pea eggplant curry, with spare ribs and the stew thick and bitter from the pea eggplants
– dessert (above right): not traditional, but with Thai flavors—stewed taro with fresh ginger and bathed in palm sugar-sweetened coconut milk.

Bletter notes that Isan (northeast Thailand, the poorest part of the country) and Lao food are very similar since they used to be one kingdom. "There's a great Isan saying about how they eat everything," he says:

"We eat all the trees of the forest except the telephone poles
We eat all the creatures of the sky except the airplanes
We eat all the inhabitants of the forest except the hermit
We eat all the amphibians except the bridge pontoon (half in the water, half out, like amphibians)
We eat all the reptiles except trains (trains are called snakes in Isan)
We eat all of the creatures of the water except the boats"

Our total bill for six, including tax and tip, came out to $20 a person.

(Food for thought on the subject of immigrant chefs and cuisine: there's a recent article in the New York Times with theories on why sometimes white American chefs do ethnic food better than immigrants.)

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