We all know about Lunar New Year, celebrated most notably by Chinese and Vietnamese in January or February every year. However, other under-the-radar new year festivities take place at the start of spring.
Lao New Year is celebrated as a three-day-long festival from April 13-15 (it can vary and may occur April 14-16 according to some calendars). The 13th is the last day of the old year, the 14th is the “day of no day”, and the 15th marks the start of the new year. Catzie Vilayphonh, creative director of LaosintheHouse.com (a collaborative arts project that brings together the collective stories of Lao-Americans) puts it simply, “On the first day, we clean everything, on the second we don’t do anything and on the third, we celebrate!”
I asked Catzie to give me some insight into her new year experience, especially the foods eaten.
Unlike the Chinese, Laotians don’t celebrate with a lavish reunion dinner at home. Instead, families head to the closest Lao Buddhist temple (called a wat) to pray and seek blessings, to take part in cultural activities, and of course, to eat lots of good food. Here, they also follow an important tradition: splashing water on each other. “It’s a cleansing ritual signifying starting anew,” Catzie explains.
Catzie points out that because of schedules, and perhaps competing wats, Lao New Year is celebrated almost every weekend in April.
There aren’t any symbolic foods or traditions that usher in wealth and good luck, nor are there sound-alike ingredients for gold and long life. A practical people, Laotians eat everyday foods to ring in the new year. “There’s no one thing that we must eat,” says Catzie. “We’ll just eat everything that we like.”
As a teenager, Catzie, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in Philadelphia, went along to the temple for one reason – the street food vendors who thronged the temple grounds.
She describes some of her favorites:
- “Mieng kaham is an aromatic street snack. Sticky rice is dried, fried and smashed in a mortar with a pestle and pork broth is added to it until it becomes a sticky mush. You put the mush in lettuce and wrap it with lemongrass, toasted coconut, peanuts, dry roasted pepper and tomatoes.”
- “There’s always barbecued meat on sticks – beef chunks on skewers, chicken wings, and lemongrass sausage (som sai gok) made with ground pork that’s allowed to sit for a day to ferment.”
- And probably the most well known Lao/Thai dish:“Lao papaya salad is made with just papaya (Thai papaya salad, som tam, has plenty of extras) and garnished with pork rind for extra flavor and texture. It’s served with cabbage which is used like a spoon to pick up the salad. It’s extra sour and extra spicy, not like Thai papaya salad!”
For those of us who are accustomed to gathering at mom and dad’s for Thanksgiving or Lunar New Year dinner, it might seem odd not to celebrate this important cultural celebration with a large family meal. But eating together as a family is just as special any time of the year, not just during the holidays.
Catzie recalls annual visits to a cattle ranch as a little girl with her extended family – uncles, aunts and cousin–to pick a cow. The cow was slaughtered and butchered onsite and everyone brought home a share of the animal.
“That first meal was the best part. We had to eat certain parts (of the cow) right away and we had a big family meal (usually raw laab),” she reminisces. “Everyone took turns working and we all had a part to play.”
“Sitting down with the family all together and sharing the meal. That’s truly, authentically Lao.”
The country of Laos comprises three main ethnic groups – Lao (60 percent), Khmou (11 percent) and Hmong (6 percent). Papaya salad is a dish that’s prepared by all but this particular version comes from Sheng Yang who is Hmong. In Lao, it’s called thum bak hoong, and in Hmong, see taub ntoos qaub. This papaya salad is probably rather different from what you’ve had at a Thai restaurant – it’s earthier and more complex than its Thai counterpart thanks to fermented shrimp and crab pastes; it also lacks the usual accoutrements like crushed peanuts, garlic, snake beans, etc. Leave out the funky pastes if you prefer, and by all means add peanuts if you’d like.
Sheng’s papaya salad
Recipe excerpted from "Cooking from the Heart – The Hmong Kitchen in America"
Makes: 6 servings
4 cups shredded green papaya or 4 medium sized carrots
2 to 4 garlic cloves (depending on your taste)
1 to 3 Thai chili peppers (depending on desired heat)
1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 tablespoon shrimp paste (optional)
1/2 tablespoon crab paste (optional)
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon MSG (optional)
Juice and some pulp of 1 lime
6 cherry tomatoes
3 cups shredded cabbage (optional)
*Some Asian markets sell shredded green papaya or you can shred it yourself using a special shredding tool available at Asian markets. If preparing this dish with carrots, scrub them well and cut off top ends. Peel into long, thin strips with a vegetable peeler and set them aside.
1. Remove the papery skin from the garlic cloves and put into a large mortar. Remove the stem ends of the chilies and add the chilies to the garlic. With a pestle, pound the garlic and chilies until they are mushy.
2. Next, add the green papaya or carrot strips, fish sauce, shrimp and crab pastes (if desired), sugar, and MSG (if desired). Squeeze the lime juice into the mixture, discarding the seeds. Use a spoon to scrape some of the lime pulp into the salad. Pound together a minute or two, turning the mixture over with a spoon. Continue until the flavors are extracted and mixed but the papaya strips still retain their shape.
3. Cut the cherry tomatoes into quarters and mix them into the salad. Put 1/2 cup of the cabbage on 6 individual plates and top with the salad mixture.