BOISE — On Saturday, Palina Louangketh stood her in kitchen and plunged her gloved hands into a pound of ground pork, rice noodles and vegetables; it was the start of her traditional Lao egg roll recipe.
Louangketh taught 28 people how to make her recipe over a Zoom call that night. The class was the pilot episode in the cooking series, Cross-Culinary Kits and Classes, by the Idaho Office of Refugees, Global Gardens and the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora, a new project founded by Louangketh, a former refugee from Laos.
The cooking class series will be five parts, and people who register will get a kit for the recipe and a link to join the Zoom class. Louangketh’s class, the first in the series, sold out.
The series came together as a way to connect people during this time of social distancing.
“We were trying to celebrate Welcoming Week and trying to celebrate refugee and immigrant neighbors without being able to leave the house,” said Kara Fink, outreach and partnership manager for the Idaho Office of Refugees.
Welcoming Week is a project by Welcoming America that asks individuals and organizations to take time, from Sept. 12-20 to affirm the importance of welcoming and inclusive places for refugee and immigrant communities.
For Fink, the cooking classes are a way to show the different refugee and immigrant backgrounds of families in Boise.
“You can see it through food,” Fink said. “There is a shared loved of food throughout cultures.”
Louangketh fled Pakse, Laos, with her mother and older brother when she was 3 years old. Her mother was in her 20s and fled the country when her husband was sentenced for execution because he was part of the military. Louangketh said members of the military were often sentenced to death in the 1970s in Laos.
In 1979, when the family decided to flee, Laos had experienced bombings at the border with Vietnam at the hands of United States during the Vietnam War — known as the American War in Laos, Louangketh said. The bombings ended in 1973, but the country remained in chaos because of the communist takeover of the country. Under communist rule, Louangketh said people in Laos were being sentenced to death, were killed and many simply disappeared.
“We walked over to our family’s home one day in 1979 to have dinner and we knew that it would be the last dinner we would have with our family in Laos,” Louangketh said.
Louangketh and her small family traveled through Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand. The trip was risky because the family relied on two men to serve as their guides across the border. Louangketh said she had heard stories that the guides often did terrible things to women and children.
The family eventually arrived at the refugee camp in Thailand and after several months were moved to Boise.
Though Louangketh was too young to remember most of her immigration journey, she chokes up every time she tells the story.
“The person I am today is all because of mom,” Louangketh said. “She is my truest hero, my inspiration.”
Inspired by her mother’s story and her own immigration journey, Louangketh founded the Idaho Museum of International Diaspora. The museum is still in the design phase, but its goal when it is finished is to be a space to highlight the lives of diaspora groups from within Idaho and around the world.
Louangketh said food will be a huge part of what the museum will offer because of the role food plays in the lives of immigrants and their families, and in her own life.
Louangketh said when she arrived in Boise, she immediately noticed how different she was.
“As a child, you want to fit in, and how you fit in is by being an American,” she said. “In Idaho, it is about being a white American.”
Louangketh said she grew up trying to be a white American — she wanted to have white friends and eat at McDonald’s and KFC. Most of all, Louangketh said she was embarrassed by her mother’s accent when she spoke English.
“I saw how people reacted to her and I was embarrassed, as a child,” she said.
Eventually, Louangketh learned of her mother’s struggles to get her family out of Laos, and the accent never bothered her again.
As she got older, Louangketh also learned to embrace her Lao culture through food.
“I started to surround myself around kids who looked and talked like me,” she said. “I started to wrap egg rolls with Lao people and prepare large family meals together and the laughter and positive spirit that surrounded the food, that was what was important to me.”
Louangketh brought the same laughter and positive spirit to her egg roll cooking class on Saturday. Though everyone was viewing it over Zoom, people were quick to laugh and to show their bursting egg rolls off to each other; couples spent time in the kitchen together and children followed along, shadowed by a parent or two.
To find out more about the cooking classes and to register for upcoming classes, visit the Idaho Office of Refugees website: idahorefugees.org.
Fink said the rest of the classes have not been organized yet, but people can expect to see a Kenyon dish and food from Central America.