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Apr 14, 2012 03:20 PM

Chowdown Report: Lao New Year Festival @ Wat Lao Saysettha (Santa Rosa) (2012)

Three chowhounds rallied this morning for Day 1 of the Lao New Year Festival at Wat Lao Saysettha in Santa Rosa. I’d known about this celebration for a few years but never remembered in time to attend. Happily, I checked with the temple yesterday in the knick of time to take part today.

The official start time for the Saturday food service is Noon. However, the cooks who’d been prepping since last night set up early this morning and were ready before that hour to serve. Here’s the menu:

First up, a warming bowl of khao piak sien, $3, or handmade rice noodles with chicken soup and pork blood. Or at least it should have cubes of pork blood alongside the slices of chicken. Intensely chicken-y stock with slippery noodles, slices of poached chicken breast, fried garlic, and scallions made for a comforting and non-challenging start to the day.

I pointed out to our non-Asian ‘hound who ordered this one that we’d been shorted the real deal. In true ‘hound fashion she marched back up to the counter with her bowl to ask for her full measure. She scored some points with the Lao church ladies who demurred, saying, “Americans don’t eat the blood.” When I suggested that she try adding some shrimp paste to the chocolate-colored cubes as a condiment, she earned even more respect points from the natives.

Then we buckled down to business to start purchasing in earnest. I’d been watching the lady manning the pavement-level frying station turning out golden brown chicken wings stretched out on skewers.

An order of wings came to 3/$5 or $2 each, if ordered singly. Perfectly juicy with crispy unadorned skin, seemingly unseasoned, but jumping to life when dabbed with the smoky homemade chili oil condiment.

The papaya salad, $5, was made to spec. We asked for medium-spicy, which translated to the addition of three dried red chile peppers, three fresh green bird chiles, and one raw garlic clove. Thai-style or Lao-style is available, we opted for Lao. The Lao-style gets a dose of this murky blend of tamarind and shrimp paste. Not as odoriferous or dark as my previous encounters with Lao-style, this suited me more.

This young woman sliced in cherry tomatoes, and pounded everything together with the mortar and pestle.

The final result was served up with some cabbage on the side. I could have gone a bit hotter . . . one young man told us about a legendary teenager who orders hers with 13 chile peppers. I especially liked the faintly bitter note from crushing the lime rind in the mortar. Very delicious enjoyed with sticky rice.

The beef laap, $10, was especially good with thinly slivered fresh chiles, book tripe, fresh beef, and bountiful greenery in the form of fresh mint, rau ram, and butter lettuce.

Here’s a closer look at the thin strips of tripe and the toasty garlic.

A donation of roast duck was a last minute addition to the fundraiser, a $5 plate shown here. But this turned out to mostly skin and bones, best destined for the stock pot and it went home to one chowhound’s kitchen.

The food festival continues until about 7 or 8pm tonight. Donated dishes were arriving, including several desserts, as I was leaving. If one has the time, the way to make the most of the festival might be to spend the whole day here keeping an eye on what people are bringing in. For example, I noticed some fat links of Lao sausage defrosting and learned that they’ll be grilling them later today. Some ladies were working on trimming banana leaves for a special coconut dessert that will be part of the offering tomorrow.

For tomorrow, the fundraising side of the food program will include fried chicken and some desserts. Home cooks and donations from local restaurants will supply a diverse potluck of Lao dishes. These are shared at no-charge as an offering to the temple but donations are encouraged and the monks will extend their blessings.

Thank you, chowhounds, for coming out on short notice!

All photos

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  1. What a great experience! If anyone wants a little vacation in Laos I highly recommend this New Year Festival. It was a little disconcerting at first because the proceedings were conducted in the Lao language and most the conversations around me were in Lao also. Fortunately many people came up to me to make me feel welcome and told me about the temple and the celebration. By the time I left (with a full happy belly) I felt very much at home.

    Melanie did a great job at describing the food. If you like Thai and Vietnamese food you'll like Lao food. Blood is pretty tasteless (this was the first time I'd had it) and one of the most fun parts of the day was the reaction when I went back and demanded blood in my soup!

    Thanks Melanie for organizing this and guiding me through the unfamiliar cuisine.

    3 Replies
    1. re: jackiecat

      Good to meet you in person. The community at the temple did indeed make us feel very welcome and were eager to share their customs (and food) with us. Wondering if anybody made it to the Sunday festivities?

      For anyone who is interested in helping organize future meet-ups, more info here.

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Thank you for coming by our temple.
        We put some pictures from Saturday and Sunday as well as some video at our page on Facebook

        1. re: hounnam

          Thank you for making us feel so welcome and sharing your cuisine and culture with us.

          I noticed that the next event on your calendar is Visakha-Busaa on Saturday, May 12, Buddha's birthday. Is this also celebrated with food?

    2. The photos are so beautiful -- to me, papaya salad is one of the most picturesque dishes in any cuisine. I'm envious.

      1 Reply
      1. re: Dave Feldman

        At the papaya salad-making station, a couple jars of dark-colored crab paste were sitting on the counter but I didn't see any go into our salad. I wonder if that's what made my previous run-ins with Lao style papaya salad so smelly.

        I had also considered returning to the Thai temple in Fremont last Sunday for Songkran. Have not been back since FeldmanFest. But I was sated with the food and celebration in Santa Rosa and decided to stay home.

      2. Saturday April 13 this year? A quick search came up with their Facebook page which didn't seem to have any info.

        4 Replies
        1. re: Pius Avocado III

          Here's what I found about the 2013 festival:

          The Facebook page for the Santa Rosa Lao Temple shows the New Year food festival is on Saturday the 20th: Here's some info from the Temple's New Year Facebook page ((they have a separate page for the New Year event.

          April 20 at 11:00am until April 21 at 2:00pm

          Sat - food sale fundraising, entertainment, preparation day Sun - traditional ceremonies ofthak baat, Nang Sangkaan parade, baci Sukuūn, folk dance, and food sale.

          Wish I could attend but we have an out-of-town commitment that weekend... One of these days (sigh).

          1. re: RWCFoodie

            Thank you so much for mining that- I couldn't find it amidst all the pictures.

            The 20th works better for me; I just may make it.

          2. re: Pius Avocado III

            Sorry, we haven't put up anything beside the date. The whole community is going through a very tough time, we lost two of our founders last week in a freak car accident, where a truck driver choked on his food, passed out, crossed the middle divider to hit head on the car where our two beloved founders.

            We will have more information up after this weekend after the funeral.

            1. re: hounnam

              Saw this on the Facebook page - my sincere condolences to the family and community...