Sauces and salads at Vientian Asian Grocery.
A stroll through Vientian Asian Grocery at 6059 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Columbia City is a


A Lesson in Laos at Vientian Asian Grocery

Sauces and salads at Vientian Asian Grocery.
A stroll through Vientian Asian Grocery at 6059 Martin Luther King Jr. Way in Columbia City is a crash course in the food and language of Laos. The small store, stacked to the gills with groceries and goods, is unapologetically Lao: save for a few dusty canisters of Nescafe, there's no all-American fare here, housemade foodstuffs aren't labeled for outsiders, and the pleasant women who work there will only speak English when it's an absolute necessity (as it is when I'm in there). On past visits, I've seen everything from golden-robed Buddhist monks browsing the CD and movie selection to matriarchs picking up produce for dinner, though never another non-Lao or non-Thai person.

I must admit, I'm a little more personally connected to Laos than most--my mother-in-law was born there, cooks up amazing renditions of traditional dishes, and chatters at me in both Lao and Thai (the two languages are very similar) in an effort to get me to understand. To me, the flavors found at Vientian Grocery are the flavors of home--definitely not the one I grew up in, but one I've come to love.

That said, even if you're unfamiliar with Lao cooking and have no idea what to do with the tubs of pork blood, giant green papayas, and small, potent chilies found in the market's limited produce selection, you'll find plenty of ready-to-eat food--particularly if you go on weekends, when the assortment of packaged food to go is best.

During my latest visit, my husband and I stopped by to pick up a basket--for holding sticky rice, that delightful glutinous rice you eat with your hands that's an essential part of Lao cooking--that we'd only seen at Vientian. (If you're looking to try your hand at sticky rice at home, they also carry 50-pound bags of the rice, and the steamer pots required for cooking.) We wander the aisles for other things we may want: jars of shrimp paste, bottles of fish sauce, bushels of cilantro, cans of sweetened soy milk, homemade pork sausage full of lemongrass, and bags of crispy fried pork rinds.

Usually it's a bad idea to go shopping hungry, but here it pays off in big ways. It's a Saturday, so the market has its best assortment of housemade prepared foods--some in a refrigerated section by the produce, but most set up front by the register to tempt you on your way out. We shell out just $20 and end up with enough food for a couple of meals: nam khao (a sort of fried rice salad made with leftover sticky rice, fermented pork sausage, chopped herbs, paper-thin sliced pig skin, and a lot of lime), kanom krok (sweet/savory rice flour pancakes made with coconut milk), sien savanh (slightly sweetened beef jerky), and jeow mak len (a cilantro-heavy dipping sauce made with tomatoes). I decide to pass on a muddled sauce of eggplant, a tub of bamboo-shoot soup, sliced green mangos pickled in chilies, and a dessert I love featuring sticky rice and custard.

Vientian doesn't have any restaurant-style seating like some other bodegas do, but the flavors are worth the inconvenience of eating in your car--which we do with the kanom krok, taking advantage of the fact that they're still warm in their unfortunately Styrofoam package--or waiting until you get home. We warm up the nam khao for dinner that night, though it's also common to eat it at room temperature, and are thankful for the bag of lettuce leaves and fresh herbs that come with the dish. The pairing of the soured pork and rice with the crunch of cool lettuce that you wrap it in to eat just screams of humid Lao summers, even though it's a cold, rainy Seattle winter.

My advice: Be brave. Go in willing to try some flavors you may have never tasted, try communicating in a language you likely don't know, and pick up some ingredients you may not really know what to do with. If you're not planning a trip to Vientiane the city any time soon, Vientian the market will certainly do. And if you want to really capitalize on the drive that far south, go to nearby Viengthong restaurant in Rainier Valley for the only Lao food in town that even remotely compares to my mother-in-law's cooking.

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