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I didn’t know what I was expecting before I opened my takeout container of Ah Nang Kitchen’s Lao tapioca dumplings, sakoo yat sai. It certainly wasn’t, in the order that I registered them, the perfectly circular sheet of banana leaf, atop of which lay the generous “single serving” of 20 dumplings, and the powerful waft of fried garlic, which hit me while I was in the middle of counting. I was still in my car, parked in the quiet Lakewood suburb from which owner Tina “Ah Nang” Pow runs the pick-up catering business, but I couldn’t pull away before popping one of the bites, whose sheath stiffens as it cools, in my mouth. I mean, where else would I find something like this?
In fact, Ah Nang’s Kitchen is the Denver metro area’s only food business serving predominantly Lao food.
If the ghost kitchen locale doesn’t already indicate as such, it’s still a humble operation. A self-described homemaker, Pow started Ah Nang’s Kitchen as an empty nester project after her youngest daughter started college in August. “I needed something to keep myself busy without going crazy missing her,” she says. “Off and on, my friends have ordered food from me. They were like, ‘You love cooking, and we love your food. Why don’t you start sharing?’” By October, the business was on its feet.
To understand Pow’s love of cooking, though, you have to know her story from the beginning. Pow was born in Laos in 1969. By that time, a civil war had raged in the country for a decade, but the growing power of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is what pushed her and her family to move to Nong Khai in the neighboring Isan province of Thailand. They split up between a refugee camp and Pow’s grandparents’ house—Pow is half Thai on her mother’s side—and although they had escaped communist persecution, food was still scarce. Pow, as the family’s eldest daughter, was often in charge of feeding her siblings. Her very first memory is of making a fire to boil rice. If she had access to an egg, a relative luxury, she’d split it in four.
When Pow was 11, her family was sponsored to move to Wichita, Kansas. There, in the company of a small but mighty Lao community, she was able to eat—and cook—the food of her culture more than ever before. “For any celebration, all the ladies would get together and we would cook enough to feed the whole crowd,” Pow says. “My mom would always bring me to her friend’s house, and I would peel the garlic or wash vegetables. Then I moved on to stir frying…. When I hit my teens, I was in charge of cooking for everyone.”
Those experiences feed into her big-batch cooking for Ah Nang’s Kitchen today. Her menu includes a few well-known Thai dishes, such as pad thai and pad see ew, but the Lao specialties are basically impossible to find elsewhere in Denver: crispy rice salad with soured pork, Lao-style sausage and pork jerky, a platter of grilled whole fish with Southeast Asian veggies like yard-long beans and fish mint.
The sakoo yat sai, though, is the must-order. The sweet-salty pork and peanut filling, fragrant from a base seasoning paste of garlic, white peppercorn, and cilantro roots, is flecked with two different kinds of preserved radish garlic. Pow hand-rolls balls of the cooked filling in soaked tapioca pearls, which turn soft and chewy when steamed. Punchy garnishes—cilantro, green onion, fried garlic, and super-hot Thai chiles—ratchet up the flavor. While you’ll be tempted to eat them all, the dumplings are very filling; Pow recommends resteaming the dumplings if you don’t finish them the day of.
Ah Nang’s Kitchen also has a rare-in-Colorado catering service just for new mothers. Pow makes meals for postpartum confinement, a tradition in many parts of Asia which entails, among a host of other practices, eating a special diet to help rejuvenate the mother’s body. Pow appreciated having a “confinement nanny” herself when raising her first child in Malaysia, where she lived from 1995 to 2013, the year she moved to Colorado. Always the caregiver, she’s now paying it forward here on the Front Range, cooking up meals infused with ginger, jujube, and Chinese medicinal herbs and establishing personalized schedules to suit each family’s needs.
In the future, Pow dreams of starting a food truck. Although at her age, she’s unsure she has the energy to do so. For now, customers will have to haul themselves to Lakewood for a taste of her cooking. That is, unless you want to take a stab at making Pow’s sakoo yat sai yourself.
Tina Pow’s Sakoo Yat Sai
Pow says that working with the tapioca is the hardest aspect of the recipe, and it may take a few tries to ensure the dumpling wrappers don’t break during the steaming process. While most of the ingredients are available at local Asian grocery stores, Pow sources cilantro roots from Lao Market in Westminster.
For the fried garlic and garlic oil:
1/2 cup garlic, minced
1/2 cup cooking oil, preferably avocado
For the dumplings:
1 1/3 cup dry tapioca pearls
10 cloves of garlic
1 tsp. whole white or black peppercorn
1/4 cup cilantro roots or stems
2/3 cup ground pork
1/2 cup preserved sweet radish, chopped
1/2 cup salted radish, rinsed and chopped
2 medium shallots, chopped
4 Tbs. palm sugar, crushed
1/2 Tbs. light soy sauce
1/2 tsp. dark soy sauce
3/4 cup unsalted roasted peanuts, ground
Reserved garlic oil
Banana leaf (optional)
For the garnish:
Fresh or deep-fried Thai chile peppers
- To make the fried garlic and garlic oil, fry the minced garlic in the oil until golden brown. Remove the garlic with a sieve and reserve the garlic oil separately.
- Prepare the tapioca pearls by soaking them in room temperature water for 15 minutes then letting them drain for 20 minutes. Place them in a shallow bowl.
- Make the seasoning paste by pounding the garlic, whole peppercorn, and cilantro roots or stems together in a mortar and pestle.
- Make the filling. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of the reserved garlic oil to a wok or large pan over medium heat. Add the seasoning paste and stir fry until aromatic. Then add the ground pork and continue to stir, breaking the pork up into small pieces. When the pork is almost fully cooked but still a little pink, add the shallots and stir fry until the shallots are translucent. Add the sweet and salted radish, palm sugar, light and dark soy sauce, and roasted peanuts and continue stirring until everything is well combined. Remove the filling from the pan and allow it to cool completely.
- Prepare the filling by rolling it into small balls, about 1 teaspoon each.
- Coat the balls in the tapioca pearls one at a time, gently rolling them in your hands to make the pearls adhere and coat the entire dumpling. Set them aside on a plate or sheet tray.
- To cook the dumplings, bring a large pot of water to boil and line a metal steamer with a banana leaf to prevent sticking (wax paper or foil also work). Arrange the dumplings on the steamer so that they are not touching and place the steamer in the pot. Steam the sakoo yat sai for eight minutes or until they are translucent.
- Transfer the dumplings to a plate and brush each one with garlic oil to prevent them from sticking to each other.
- To serve, garnish the sakoo yat sai with the fried garlic, cilantro, scallions, and Thai chile peppers. Enjoy as-is or wrapped in lettuce.