Since the 2003 debut of the pumpkin spice latte, Starbucks has sold more than 200 million of the drinks, affectionately known as PSLs. But when a flavor trend spans from Pringles and pasta sauce to dog treats and cat litter, it's gone five steps too far. So, as the weather chills and the leaves change this fall, I'm craving another sort of pumpkin spice: curry.
Bida Manda opened in 2012 as the Triangle's first Laotian restaurant. It remains one of the few Laotian eateries in the States. The cuisine of Laos compares to Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese in its ingredients and techniques, though it features flavors and styles all its own.
Take the pumpkin curry: Traditional Thai and Indian curries showcase a spicy sauce, to which a protein is added. Laotian curries more closely resemble a rich, slow-cooked stew. In this particular dish, the starchy root vegetables help create a spoon-coating, bright orange broth. Recently, as I ate a bowl, Vansana Nolintha, who opened Bida Manda with his sister Vanvisa, explained how it's done.
Chef Lon Bounsanga begins with a big wok of hot oil—Nolintha stretches his arms wide to show the size—and adds galangal, kaffir lime, garlic, paprika and shallots. The kitchen adds the curry paste early to impart a vibrant color and smoky flavor. Next comes coconut cream, pureed and chopped pumpkin and alternating produce from Blue Sky Farms. Typically, the dish includes parsnips, turnips and sweet potatoes; this visit's batch incorporated oyster, cremini and portobello mushrooms. The end result is exotic and comforting, bracing and humble.
"Every dish on our menu is exactly what we grew up eating," the Nolinthas write on their website. I ask Van how this dish tastes like home.
Vegetarian dishes are very popular in Laos, he explains. His mom—Bida Manda translates to father and mother in Sanskrit—cooked a similar curry when he was growing up. She would sometimes add mango or jackfruit for a sweet contrast to the bold spice. Indeed, the restaurant's version, with autumn pumpkin and milky coconut, offers sweetness and warmth. Even though I'm blowing my nose every few minutes, the dish's sauce is soothing.
By the time we conclude, my sloping white bowl is empty, save a few carrot-colored streaks and smears. I have only one question: How about a "venti" curry to go?
Eat This is a recurring column about great new dishes and drinks. Had something you loved? Email email@example.com.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Pumpkin, spiced"