James Syhabout’s Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes from a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai and Lao Roots is a wonderful and necessary addition to the food and cookbook world. The book gives Lao and Isan Thai food prominence and recognition, carving out official shelf space in international cuisine. But Syhabout’s book does more than that. He shares the cultural wealth of his Lao community. He lovingly legitimizes Lao and Isan Thai culture for all Lao and Isan Thai Americans.
Syhabout’s writing is fresh and comes alive off the page. James’ mother stands out. “Moms,” is a shrewd and sacrificing woman and leaves northeastern Thailand with her family as refugees. She leaves the land and the food she loves dearly to give her two sons better opportunities. Moms turns the family’s studio-sized apartment on Twenty-fifth Street in Oakland, the “Laotian Ghetto,” into a familiar world of fermenting fish funk in Country Crock margarine containers and pork and fish drying on their corner of the apartment roof. She foregoes English classes for an opportunity to work in a Thai restaurant kitchen and eventually, alongside her husband and relatives, starts cooking in her own Thai restaurant in Concord. Yet she sacrifices the simple, hearty and bitter, salty, umami-filled foods of her homeland for the tastes Westerners appreciate: sweet coconut curries and bell peppers with no spice.
It is evident that Moms is a true heroine for Syhabout. His early days as a “commis” are in her kitchen pulling apart garlic and sneaking bites of salted sticky rice. She keeps a watchful eye on him, replacing all things known as free time and vacation with work in the restaurant. I now have an image of a 10-year old future renowned chef sleeping on sacks of rice in the stockroom next to his bike, waiting for a moment to ride or to pile in the car to go home. Moms financially and emotionally supports her son to go to culinary school, not without warning of a lifetime of unhappiness. As he enters the restaurant business she houses him while he works in Berkeley and eventually at Manresa in Los Gatos. She is his rock, and it is ironic that just as she leaves to return back to Thailand, he realizes that it is her food he wants to cook.
This book, James Syhabout says, is an apology letter of sorts. It is his giving reverence to Moms, her food, his homelands, both Thailand and Laos. The pictures alone are striking, the vibrant colors of the produce in the markets, the greenest of greens in the rice fields and mountains of Northern Thailand, and the orange dirt Syhabout alludes to that covers the streets of Laos. As someone who just spent a year in search of her own culture in Thailand, I only wish the photos had captions so I could say, “I went there!” or “We’re going there next!”
The recipes feature lots of Hawker Fare’s signature dishes like Da’s Blistered Green Beans with Bacon and the Lao Green Papaya Salad. Many of the recipes are introduced with even more anecdotes about family or cultural tradition in Laos and Thailand. Of course, those stories were my favorite parts.
There are more off-the-beaten-path recipes like Beef Soup with Offal and Betel Leaves and Bile, and Raw Beef Laap, and then the simpler recipes like Mama Noodles with Poached Egg. While in Thailand for a year, I saw how popular Mama or instant ramen noodles were, and love that Syhabout includes a recipe in his book. (Unsurprisingly, it’s the first recipe I want to try!)
He includes recipes for padaek, fermented fish sauce, and jaews, various dips. Syhabout makes these recipes less intimidating by including specific brands of ingredients like palm sugar, coconut milk and even rice, to stock your pantry. I didn’t think I’d miss Thai food after spending a year in Chiang Mai, but reading this book has made my mouth water for the punch of spicy som tum, papaya salad and the bright flavors of sai oua, herb sausage, again. Luckily, I live only a few blocks away from Hawker Fare and can satisfy these cravings without cracking open this book!
As a middle school librarian and teacher, this book is powerful to me on so many levels. Syhabout talks about the Laotian Ghetto in Oakland and the number of his peers who, like him lived on top of each other with family, perhaps got caught up in gangs, or dropped out of school. What if those young people had Syhabout’s book to read? What if they had the story of a Lao and Isan Thai refugee much like themselves, living under the same conditions and saw him graduate from high school, decide to attend culinary school and become a world-renowned chef? What if those young men and women read a book about a boy who never had the opportunity to play, and perhaps like themselves, worked every spare moment to support the family business? And saw, possibly like their own, a family that by no means was “perfect”? What if they saw him use his self-determination to become somebody? To not only master the art of fine dining, but to embrace his culture, their culture, and share this culture with the world? How would James Syhabout’s journey into self-love affect other Lao and Thai young folks? I know, for myself – a 40-year-old Thai and Chinese woman – I am thrilled to be able to share this book with my children.
I almost wish Syhabout’s book was not marketed as a cookbook. I wish the first half, his memoir, was written as a standalone. One that could be published and placed in every school library as a memoir. Imagine it – this good-looking Lao and Isan Thai young man on the cover. Imagine if the sons and daughters of the Lao refugees formerly from Oakland’s “Laotian Ghetto” saw this book on display in their school library or heard their teacher read aloud from it. How powerful would that be?
I can’t even imagine because I think those young people might stand a little taller, smile a little wider, and maybe, just maybe believe that they too could be like James Syhabout.