Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/thedirt/article/Taste-of-Laos-in-Richmond-school-garden-4298443.php#photo-4220806
Joe Eaton and Ron Sullivan
Updated 1:13 pm, Friday, February 22, 2013
This is the third in an occasional series on urban farmers working to preserve their cultural foodways by growing heritage crops in the Bay Area. For previous installments, go to http://bit.ly/QCQKM9.
The Verde Elementary School Partnership Garden is a reclaimed treasure in urban North Richmond, a flourishing melange of row crops and ornamentals, fruit trees and butterfly plants. On our first visit 14 years ago, we saw Southeast Asians and Central Americans swapping chili peppers and beans. A Mien woman used the school kitchen to make sweet corn pancakes to share.
Since then, changes in demographics and funding have reshaped the garden; it’s still producing and teaching under the care of Bienvenida Mesa, who works for the Richmond nonprofit, Urban Tilth. Alongside her projects there’s a plot or two to spare, and Saeng and Kert Dohngdara, a Lao couple in their 70s keep up the tradition of raising Southeast Asian crops in the exotic soil of West Contra Costa County.
Laos is a complicated little country, and not all Laotians are ethnic Lao. The Lao are or were a majority of the population, mostly settled farmers along the Mekong; before the Pathet Lao took over, the ruling class was Lao. But they’re relative newcomers, having displaced the Khmu, who have ties to the Khmer of Cambodia. Farther into the highlands lived groups like the Hmong and the Mien, swidden farmers and hunters. Subgroups exist within these, based on language and customs: for example Green Hmong and White Hmong. Several groups, including Lao, Khmu and Mien, have settled in Richmond since the conflict in the former Indochina ended in 1975.
Food bridges some of the ethnic gaps. Every cook has a recipe for laab (or larb), the minced-meat salad also popular in northern Thailand. Sticky rice is a staple. The corn pancake the Mien woman made is included in the first English-language Hmong cookbook, “Cooking From the Heart: The Hmong Kitchen in America” (University of Minnesota Press). The Lao use herbs like dill, uncommon in Southeast Asian cuisine. Unexpected ingredients like rattan (only the shoots), water buffalo hide (yes, hide) and giant water bug (reputedly tastes like gorgonzola) turn up. Bottled essence of giant water bug is an acceptable substitute for the last. You can buy that locally nowadays, and the Dohngdaras can buy their seeds and plant starts, though like their predecessors here they still save some of their own.
They visit the school twice a week to tend their section of the garden. The harvest goes to their extended family and others in the local Lao community. Their plot includes two dry-land taro patches (“One variety for the leaves, another for the root,” Kert Dohngdara explained), dill, three kinds of basil, small incendiary bird chiles and bitter green eggplants, the aromatic knotweed that he calls pachpal and the Vietnamese call rau ram. There’s Malabar spinach, whose arrowhead-shaped leaves are cooked with meat. Some familiar plants play unfamiliar roles in Lao cuisine: “You cook the roots of lemongrass like onion, with shrimp.”
We also saw an unfamiliar herb with a perfoliate, scalloped little leaf. “I don’t know what it’s called,” Kert told us. “I didn’t plant it. The root is used for fever.” We looked it up; apparently it’s a pennywort. The Hmong call it lauj vag and treat coughs with it. Other hillfolk in Thailand apply it to cuts and wounds as a poultice. We couldn’t find its Lao name. The plant may be a holdover from the time of the Mien or some other ethnic group.
Maybe Saeng Dohngdara could have told us more about it if we could have worked through the language barrier and her shyness – she did communicate that she’d steep the root, like tea. Herbal medicine among at least some Laotian peoples is women’s province. A few years back Jan Corlett, Ellen Dean and Louis Grivetti of UC Davis interviewed Hmong women involved in a community garden in Sacramento. They reported that the older participants grew more medicinal plants than the younger ones – another case of traditional knowledge fading away as the first immigrant generation passes.
The Dohngdaras have been involved with the school garden for 17 years. Kert’s family grew rice in the Mekong Delta. He left Laos in 1980 and lived in Atlanta and Boston before relocating to the Bay Area, where he had relatives, and worked as a machinist before back problems forced him to retire. Dohngdara sometimes recruits his children and grandchildren (his oldest son is 55) to help weed and harvest, but he and Saeng keep their hands in: “It’s better than sitting at home watching TV.”
Urban Tilth’s Verde Partnership Garden page: www.urbantilth.org/gardens/verde-partnership-garden