My name is Penn Hongthong author of Simple Laotian Cooking 2003 and Healthy Lao Cuisine 2009. I am a cooking instructor since 2001, host my cooking show Simple Lao Cuisine on public access LTV East Hampton, New York since 2008 and on YouTube: Penn Hongthong https://www.youtube.com/user/pennhongthong. My primary motivation is that I want the world to know Lao food, culture and home country and be a good role model to the first generation Lao-Americans. My second motivation is to give America a new flavor; teach busy Americans how to cook with little meats and a lot of fresh herbs to flavor the vegetables.
I was born in Pak Lay, Sayaboury Laos in 1962. When Lao became communist, my big family of 9 children, parents, and grandmother escaped to refugee camp in Thailand. In 1980 we all immigrated to Long Island, New York. Upon our arrival we started to learn English; I attended high school.
A year later I moved my mom, grandmother and 6 younger siblings to Portland, Oregon, where there was a large Lao population. I graduated from high school, got married and gave birth to my daughter Soutara the following year. After my daughter was born, in 1985 we all returned to New York. Determined to make a better life for my daughter, I decided to attend college and work at the same time.
In 2000, I attended an Entrepreneurial Assistance Program, graduating in May of that year.
I had work as a credit investigator, store manager, administrator assistant, bookkeeper and Lao/Thai interpreter/translator.
In October 2000, I contacted Newsday Food section, looking for a co-author for my cookbook. Joan Reminick, food writer for Newsday was interested in writing an article about and my cooking. The article was published in Newsday’s food section on October 8, 2000.
Both the Traveler Watchman on May 9, 2002 and The East Hampton Star February 7, 2003 were followed with articles covering my cooking demonstrations.
in 2001, I was recommended by a celebrity chef Joseph Bonanno Jr http://www.chefbonanno.com/ to take a class How to get a Cookbook Publish with professor Gary A. Goldberg
My cookbook, Simple Laotian Cooking, was published by Hippocrene Books, Inc. and was reviewed by the New York Daily News, New York Newsday, Compass, New York Times, Austin Chronicles, Jewish Herald-Voice, Long Island Gourmet TV and WLIW (public channel 21).
I grew up in the small town of Paklay, Sayaboury, in the northern part of Laos, a country bordering Vietnam and Thailand. I am a 3rd child and 2nd girl of nine children. My father was a well-known teacher, and my mother managed the convenience store that my parents owned in the house. Besides the house chores, I had to help care for my younger brothers and sisters and the store.
My earliest childhood recollection was life during the Vietnam War spreading into Laos. After dinner we got ready for bed and had the lights out by certain time. I remember countless trips we made to the underground hiding we shared with neighbors. If the gun fire persisted we would go to The Mekong River dune for more protection. I didn’t witness any actual shooting and none of the citizens got kill but the the gunfire and bombing were extremely loud.
My last memory of the war was, the time we stayed at the dunes until dawn and the gunfire did not stop. As we sat by the river we realized that in addition to the usual gunfire, heavy bombing was taking place. We had no choice but to leave town for about a week. As there was not much we could do about the war we went on with our everyday lives. Eventually, I managed to put the war behind me.
Growing up in a large family, I have been cooking as long as she could remember. From this experience, I cultivated a large collection of traditional and healthy recipes. Laos is a 3rd world country with no running water and no electricity. I carried water from Mekong River and build fire to cook. I loved gardening with my grandmothers; daily picking of fresh herbs and vegetables from my grandmothers’ gardens to cook for dinner was my best memories of growing up in Laos.
My elder sister and I shared the responsibility to prepare food for the family. My sister prepared sticky rice and clean the house in the morning while I went food shopping at the open market. Selecting fresh fruits and vegetables, creating new dishes, and planning and cooking the meals for my large family were one of the things I enjoyed. I had to be creative with cooking as livestock was limited and fruit and vegetables were seasonal.
In my small town, you had to be at the market by 5:00 AM in order to get fresh and scarce meat and vegetables. Most of the vendors were farmers selling extra crops, or livestock, and the rest of their day was spent on their rice farms.
Pork was the only meat in display everyday and the last thing we turn to. We prefer wild game and fish. Poultries were sold live. Vegetables, wild game, and fish were varies daily. Beef was not available because they were not easy to raise and needed to plow the rice farm. Water buffalo was occasionally for sale; they were also needed to plow the rice farm.
To have water buffalo meat the whole town had to be in it together. There were no refrigerators to store the meat, so each family received large amount of meat at once. The first night, every family had lob (lab) for dinner because lob requires fresh and lean meat. Some of the meat got salted for next day’s meal, some got marinated for dried meat (beef jerky), and the rest got smoked and dried to make it last.
Laos is poor and landlocked country; we could not afford to eat a lot of meat. Food was prepared with little meat and a lot of fresh herbs to flavor the vegetables serve with plain sticky rice and more vegetables. There are no dairy and bread in Lao cuisine. Noodles are made from rice flour. Most of the dishes are roasted and steamed in banana leaves.
When I arrived in New York, my first trip to supermarket was amazing; the convenience of shopping carts and the price was on every item (no bargaining). I didn’t think the large eggplant and celery were for human. My family was sponsored by Dix Hills Evangelical Free Church. We were living in a very wealthy area on Long Island. The pastor, his family and the church members were the kindest people on earth. Because of our big family, we were allowed to buy as much food as we needed. My first 3 months in the USA I ate a lot of meats, drank a lot of soda and ate a lot of ice cream. After that I had enough and went back eating the way I used to. It was a great habit I am very proud of being born and raised in Laos.
My first American meal was roast beef; it was like a whole cow sitting on the dinner table. I was very excited to eat a big piece of meat; I dreamed of having a meal like that all my life but the meal did not turn out the way I expected. I didn’t know that the taste change after: vegetables have been refrigerated, meat has been frozen, and tomato has been canned. The worst part was I could not speak or understand a word of English. I couldn’t tell my sponsors what was going on. For many years I did not feel at home and did not like American or other kind of food.
I am living in the greatest country on earth but it took me almost 10 years to embrace my new country USA. I am now a single mom to my 26 years old daughter Soutara. She is respectful of elders and the traditions of our culture. She is kind and has very good heart. She is very intelligent, beautiful inside and out.
My friends say: I am a hard worker, determined, motivated and independent.
My family says: I have a fiery personality, I move quickly, and I get things done.
Patrons in my cooking class say: I make cooking fun and easy. I am a great teacher that is informative, patient, charming, and funny. Sometimes they call me adorable, Asian Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart.
Success for me is seeing how much people enjoy my food, and giving them the tools to recreate it for their own families. Making healthy and delicious food for people gives me great satisfaction. The more people I touch with my food, the greater my accomplishment.
I love gardening. Growing herbs and vegetables are my favorite. I enjoy creating new recipes and writing down recipes for my next cookbooks: Classic Lao Cuisine and Gourmet Lao Cuisine. I also enjoy picnics, wine tasting at vineyards, hosting dinner parties, going to fruit and vegetable farms, traveling, reading, theater, and dancing.
In my spare time I work on my memoir which will include my experiences in Laos during the Vietnam War, living in a refugee camp in Thailand, and adjusting to life in the U.S.
After living in the USA for so many years I have come to accept my new home and learned to like the food but I always wondered why Americans eat so much meat and very little vegetables. My theory is that the meat does not have enough flavors, so people eat a lot to be satisfied, and vegetables are tasteless so no one wants to eat them. I thought that if the meats and vegetables are properly flavored with fresh herbs and spices, people will feel satisfy and not eating too much. I also would like to introduce my Lao food to others.
My goal on my cooking show SIMPLE LAO CUISINE:
- Show Americans how to cook with less meat and a lot of fresh herbs to flavor the vegetables. Lao food is naturally healthy and flavorful. I have improved the recipes that I learned from my mother and grandmothers to be healthier and easier to make, while maintaining the authentic flavor.
- Explain the correct combinations of herbs, and the sequence in which they are added. Every Lao dish is defined by the herbs you use.
- Use a lot of green leafy vegetables, which Dr. Oz says is very good for you.
- Suggest restaurants and stores that offer authentic Lao/Southeast Asian food.
- Introduce Lao/Southeast Asian food and cultures to America.
- Recommend where to find the best and freshest Lao/Southeast Asian ingredients; most of them are grown in Florida.
- Travel to Lao/Southeast Asia to explore local food, ingredients and life.
- Travel to Lao/Southeast Asian temples to explore music and cultural practices.
- Show people that using my techniques will make cooking simpler, and less intimidating.
- Show the Lao/Southeast Asian Buddhist temples in every state. On holidays we give alms to the monks in order to gain merit. People come from all over the country to bring their authentic food for the monks and share it with each other. We gather and celebrate with traditional food, music, dancing and cultural practices. I would love to share this with the rest of America.
- I make cooking fun and easy. I show people simple short cuts to complicated processes in the kitchen. I provide clear instructions and information while delivering silly entertainment. I am organized, personable, and I have a cheery personality.
In Lao cooking it’s very important to know the right time to add ingredients and use correct combination of fresh herbs. Every Lao dish is defined by the herbs that you use.
There are many Lao immigrants in the US. Almost every state has a Lao Buddhist temple. On holidays everyone bring their authentic food to the monks and to share with others. We also use it as a gathering place and social event for Lao food, music and culture. I would love to share these with America.
After spending the first 17 years of my life in Laos, and then immigrating to life in America I have a unique balance of both cultures in my personality, humor, expressions and outlook on life. I think my heritage, the uniqueness of my food, and the experiences of my youth make for an interesting story that needs to be told.
Laos has one of the last pristine ecosystems in the world. Most people are unaware of the benefits of Lao culture and food. My Lao recipes are unique because: My food is so fresh, healthy and delicious. Traditional Lao recipes are time consuming. Women spend all day cooking. I have modified these recipes to be less time consuming while maintaining the authentic flavor. I think America is ready to discover a new adventure in Lao cuisine.
My first cookbook SIMPLE LAOTIAN COOKING has 172 recipes with some basic Thai recipes because I teach Lao and Thai cooking. The book allowed only black and white picture of few recipes.
My second cookbook Healthy Lao Cuisine has color picture for every recipes and ingredients. Traditional Lao cuisine is naturally healthy and concentrated only on flavor but not the looks. I recreated the traditional recipes to be healthier and easy to make. Because we have access to colorful vegetables; I make sure that every dish looks as good as it tastes.
I have taken healthy recipes passed down through my family’s generations and has recreated them, perfectly capturing the simple, fresh, and authentic flavors of these natural dishes. Any home cook would be proud to serve these delicious yet healthy recipes to their family and friends. The variety of fresh ingredients used in Lao cooking gives each dish a unique and explosive flavor and texture that tantalizes the taste buds. These recipes are very simple, healthy, and tasty. All the recipes are perfectly seasoned, exotic but not overpowering to scare first-timers, just fresh and clean.
(Enjoy your meal.)