This is a preview of our piece on Susan, which is featured in issue 20, out now.
As a first-generation Laotian-American, I spent the majority of my adolescence trying to fit in with fellow peers by assimilating to “American” culture and dismissing my Lao side in public spaces to avoid being acknowledged as “F.O.B.” (fresh off the boat). Now, I find that the mission of my adulthood is to learn more and grasp onto my roots in fear that I’ve strayed too far away. I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers, helping them out in Buddhist temples and at gatherings as a kid. I was my mother’s sous chef from a very young age. I was always enamored by her ability to make these intricate meals look so effortless, and she did that every day, even when she was exhausted before or after work. I hoped to inherit a little bit of that.
I have been hopping around from coast to coast and craving familiarity through family time and congregating around the table for family feasts. I couldn’t have that every day, so I started revisiting palettes of the motherland through cooking. I expressed wanting to find more Lao people who appreciate food to a friend of mine (Hi, Rocky!), and he sent me the Instagram profile of Susan Kounlavongsa, an NTS Radio resident and studio manager also known for making and sharing Lao food with the Los Angeles community. Her Instagram feed is a good mix between music and Lao food: Lao sausages, khao poon (a red curry vermicelli noodle soup dish), khao yum (a refreshing rice salad with herbs and aromatics like lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves). I had to try her khao yum, so I immediately messaged her. We coordinated a pick up time, and in that short amount of time briefly talked about how cool it was knowing that there were Lao people in creative occupations and industries—how Lao food is slowly making its way to the taste buds of people who had never even heard of our country. It was so great getting to bond with someone who was also trying to hold onto their Lao roots; I don’t meet a lot of Lao people outside of family and family friends, so bonding with Susan over past experiences gave me that sense of familiarity.
What’s your story? Tell me about yourself.
My family came to the states in the 80s. I grew up in Whittier, CA living with my grandma who was trying to raise me to be the perfect housewife. Honestly, it was like, Yo, you have to learn how to do all of these things, because if you don’t know how to, nobody is going to want to marry you. We had a washer and dryer but we couldn’t use the dryer—we had to hang dry everything, wash things by hand, just do everyday chores and also watch my elders cook. As for the process, I didn’t pay too much attention to the details other than helping my grandma prep. If we were going to make egg rolls, it’s like, all right you’re going to wrap the egg rolls, or crack the egg to seal the egg rolls. If we’re gonna do sticky rice and coconut milk for khao thom, I’ll be the one wrapping it in banana leaves.
I pretty much got into cooking later when I moved out of my house at twenty-four. I hella missed eating Lao food, but didn’t have a car to visit my family at the time, so I asked myself, What can I do to satisfy this craving? I think I just have to learn how to make it myself. So that’s when I started making Lao Food. I tried remembering recipes, looking stuff up, and asking my aunts and uncles how to make things. You know how you look at recipes and they give you measurements like, 1 tablespoon of this, 1 tablespoon of that? When I went to my grandma, she’d be like, “Oh I don’t measure anything, it’s all about eyeballing everything.” Over years of cooking and remembering how I like the way dishes tasted, I started cooking like my grandma. It started making sense, and I was like, Oh wow, now it’s a language I understand because I know how I want it to taste and I’m going off of taste. I’d add a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I finally understood where my grandma was coming from, and I realized that I was getting good at cooking.
I started making Lao food around the same time this big Lao food movement was happening and introducing and sharing food that people hadn’t heard of before. I was like, You know what? It would be crazy if people had something that I grew up eating and I know they’d think is bomb. I started throwing these house parties in my backyard where I would cook food, which is funny, because people have mentioned that nobody cooks anything at house parties, but that’s such a family thing! My friends were surprised that there was actual food when they came to my house parties. I started it off with khao piek, which is a rice porridge with herbs seasoned any way you want. When I hang out with my family, we usually eat some kind of noodle soup or khao piek at night. I wanted to bring those vibes to my friend gatherings. My friends were like, “Whoa, this is amazing. What is this?” I then told them that everything I made that night was Lao food. Everyone was like, “Dude, Susan this shit is fire!” I had barbecued meats, sticky rice with jeo som (sweet, spicy and sour dipping sauce), tham mak hoong (papaya salad) and all of these things I’d continue to make for my friends. Word just got around that I made really good Lao food and everyone was super hyped about it.
I started making cooking videos on Instagram and people loved it. It was cool getting to share my culture like that. When I was able to visit my family, I’d cook with my grandma and document because I wanted to share recipes to show where I come from. I eventually did a khao poon pop-up with all of my friends at my house—total house party vibes, DJ in the back. I sold over two-hundred bowls of khao poon, and everyone was like, “This red curry noodle soup is insane.” I loved being able to share this; I loved being able to share my culture. It’s crazy because my hours were getting cut during quarantine and I definitely worried about money, but this was rewarding because I got to feed people.
When I lived in San Diego, I would frequent this Lao liquor store called Meuang Lao to get Lao sausages that were stored in these Ziploc bags in the ice cream freezer without any writing on some bags; others would have “HOT” written with a Sharpie. My first bite was so memorable! I remember taking a bite and thinking, Whoa, that shit is fire! Who is this sausage lady?! All the aunties and grandmas in that neighborhood made food out of their home to sell at the store. I’m really drawn to that street vendor, home-hustle vibe and I wanted to do that shit, too. I never made Lao sausages before, but through trial and error, I finally got it to taste how I wanted it to taste. I vacuum-sealed these sausages and wrote my middle school “S” on the bags. I immediately sold out just by word of mouth from friends and people I didn’t even know. No crazy marketing, no graphic designing, nothing. People fucked with it.
Has this pushed you to get more in touch with your roots?
Yeah, definitely. There’s still so much I haven’t eaten yet, but when I went to Laos I was so inspired by the different renditions of foods and a lot of the dishes that I didn’t grow up eating, but wanted to learn to make because everything was so good. We hella grew up Lao, but were Americanized by school and everything around us. It’s crazy to grow up in two different cultures at the same time, so identity becomes a big conflicting thing. I find myself closer to my Lao upbringing and to my family, being able to cook the food and know how it’s supposed to taste. I’m really happy to be able to show up for my culture through food, and I’ve come to realize that Asian comfort food is my forte. It’s not just something that happened right away: I take a lot of the experiences I’ve created from childhood memories and apply that to my cooking, and that’s something I want to keep alive. I don’t want to lose that. It’s so important that we keep implementing culture through immersion, too. I think we’re the only generation where we feel the most connected to where we came from. It’s so wild—I’m grateful to have this connection, but sad because my fear is loss of culture.
For more from Susan, follow @straighthoney on Instagram.
Photography by Vivian Khanounsay.