Towards the end of our stay in Laos, my family asked me to make something “American” for dinner. I was happy to oblige, especially considering they had been feeding me for nearly three months. Feeding me too well, in fact – I think I gained at least 10 pounds during that visit eating mainly noodles, tilapia, shrimp, and vegetables.
I’m not exactly sure how I stumbled across the idea of making spaghetti. I just remember thinking that no one in Dong Palan had ever tasted it, and that it happens to be a weekly staple for me back in America. I won’t lie – in my house, the sauce usually comes out of a jar, and I am perfectly fine with that.
As you can probably imagine, finding a jar of Ragu in Laos is like a unicorn sighting. I’ve made marinara from scratch a few times, not following any particular recipe, just throwing things into a pot and seeing what happens. I knew this method would be more challenging in Dong Palan, but I had a willing chauffeur who knew where to get just about any ingredient.
My cousin Lan zipped from fresh market to fresh market with me clinging to the back of her motorbike, shouting descriptions of ingredients in her ear. We found onions pretty easily but no bell peppers. The only tomatoes available were of the cherry variety, so I bought several kilos of those. I even found some (maybe oyster?) mushrooms. Garlic is common but we had to substitute Thai basil for sweet basil, and just forget about oregano.
Lan knew of one place that might have pasta noodles. She said she once saw a booth with packaged American goods at this particular night market. Her memory served us well, only the packages were very small and I had to buy several.
Back at my grandfather’s house, I turned on the propane burner and got to work. In the largest pot I could find, I combined all the fresh ingredients with some salt, pepper, and a little sugar. The concoction stewed for some time before I boiled the noodles.
When I was finally satisfied that the flavors were as close to marinara sauce as I was going to get in that hemisphere, I served everyone a bowl. Mom – the only other person present who has eaten spaghetti – said it was pretty good.
I watched as my uncle, Loung Thone, squeezed a slice of lime on his portion and bit into a fiery chili pepper between bites of spaghetti, as he would do with a bowl of pho.