Eating ethnic foods is like travel on the cheap. One taste of octopus with paprika and I'm back in Galicia, eating pulpo a la feria across the street from the beach. I'm powerless to taste jerk chicken and not be at that roadside oil-drum barbeque on Jamaica's north coast. And though I've never been to Vietnam, all it takes is a bowl of pho and I'm there in my mind.
But the first time I headed for Sang Dao Restaurant (5421 El Cajon Blvd.), a Laotian place (billed as "Thai and Lao") in the College Area, I found myself at something of a loss. I had no clearer idea of Lao food than to suppose it was something like Thai with, perhaps, a bit of Vietnamese thrown in. While I could find Laos on a map, my knowledge of its history was limited and somewhat conflated with that of Cambodia. How could I travel somewhere in my mind when I had no idea where I was going?
The first dish we ordered was the Lao version of papaya salad, a Thai favorite of mine. And with my first bite of this otherwise familiar dish, I was introduced to padaek, the Lao take on fish sauce (or, more accurately, its profoundly fermented, evil twin). Nuclear in pungency—a result of the long fermentation process that gives it a thicker and richer flavor—padaek's aroma is likely detectable a block away. My first impression was, not to put too fine a point on it, less than favorable.
But on my second visit, I found myself acquiring a taste for the stuff. On this trip, we ordered larb, a classic Lao salad consisting of meat (chicken for us) cooked with ground, roasted rice, Thai bird chilies, lime juice, green onion, cilantro and padaek. While the pungency was still there, it seemed more of a purr than a roar.
In general, Lao cuisine is quite similar to Thai, particularly that of Northeast Thailand's Issan province (in large part because of the many transplanted Laotians in the region). But there are important differences. Lao food emphasizes bitter and pungent over sweet. The balance it strikes between spicy, sour, sweet, salty and bitter elements is different. As the Lao saying goes, "Sweet makes you dizzy, but bitter makes you healthy."
The tie that binds nearly all Lao meals is sticky rice, khao niao, a glutinous rice that's ubiquitous on the Laotian table. The rice comes wrapped in plastic (traditionally banana leaves) in a small wicker basket, the idea being to eat it alongside your other dishes or, classically, as a utensil with which to grab your food (much like the Ethiopian injera about which I recently wrote).
I'm still having some trouble picturing myself rafting down the Mekong River. But after a couple of trips to Sang Dao, I at least have some mental image of how it might taste.