Laos Meets Raleigh: Vansana Nolintha

Along Blount Street in Raleigh resides one of the city’s newest and most exciting restaurants: Bida Manda.

While walking through the doors of this Laotian restaurant, you’ll notice distinctive, decorative twigs from Western North Carolina that were hand tied by Vansana Nolintha, the restaurant’s owner, and 55 others. Van seeks to educate people about his first home, Laos, and he also acknowledges his new home, Raleigh, with touches like this. The tables are made from old church walls and barns from Durham.

Van is passionate about bringing people together through food and drink at Bida Manda. Our interview with him demonstrates and describes the beautiful concept of Van’s restaurant, but know that it – the food, the space, the culture – is something you must experience in person.

Starting with the basics:

Occupation: Owner of Bida Manda. Where are you from?  Luang Prabang, Laos. When did you move to North Carolina? I moved with younger sister, Vanvisa, to the United States in 1998.

 What do you love best about North Carolina? It’s interesting because I have lived and traveled in so many places – 30 different countries, actually. Other than Laos, I only consider Raleigh home, and that’s because of my time at NC State. Those five years I spent studying there formed my understanding of the world and the way I see things. So I think the people in Raleigh are what I love about this community, and a lot of those people happen to be from NC State.

I went to Europe after NC State to get my masters at Trinity College in Dublin. After I finished, I was looking for a job all over the world; coming back to Raleigh was a transitional thing. I just wanted to say hi to my mentors, but right when I got back, it felt like a new city – vibrant and engaging – and I knew instantly that I wanted to be a part of this revolution. It’s a different energy around here, and it doesn’t matter what your profession is. People are genuinely optimistic about where the city is going.

What type of music do you listen to when you’re cooking in the kitchen? I love soul music; I love sappy love songs. I listen to Delilah every night, and some Top 40. I wish I liked more alternative stuff, but I just love the sappy love songs. “At Last” by Etta James is one of my favorites. At Bida Manda, I play music that makes people move and slow dance throughout their meal.

Top 5 favorite foods? (anything goes) (1) I love Mediterranean, like Neomonde; (2) Local food; (3) Breakfast – it should be its own type of food, not even based on nationality. Just breakfast; (4) Brunch, especially with friends; (5) I absolutely adore Asian cuisine. I think it really honors a different palate and different ingredients – especially herbs.

What is your comfort food? I love Pho; it takes me right back to being a little kid again. Mom and I always ate Pho for breakfast. We would wake up really early on Saturdays; shops open at 6:30 and only stay open until 8 or 9 am. And now that we are so far from home, from my parents and family, when I get home after a stressful day, I just want a big bowl of Pho. It always brings me back to Laos.

Are there any foods you won’t eat/try? I eat pretty much everything, but I absolutely do not like yogurt. It jiggles a little bit. Same things with mayonnaise. And I’m lactose intolerant. And I think chocolate is gross.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve eaten recently? Recently, I would say brunch at Capital Club 16. It was me and five friends. We got together around noon on a Sunday, and Jake, the owner, made fantastic fish. Normally, it’s brunch so we are pretty tired, but the whole table was just alive. Everyone talked about their week, and we ended up talking about how we’d like to see the city change. We talked about Raleigh’s growth and how we want to be a part of it. I think there’s something meaningful and profound about a group of young kids getting together to talk about their city. It got me really excited about our city, our era, and it got me excited that people really do care about Raleigh.

The ingredient you currently can’t stop using is: Pork Belly. It’s my favorite thing to play around with: the techniques you use when treating the belly. And we are also playing around with sweet potato, pumpkin and apple a lot for the fall menu.

You have a day with absolutely no obligations. How do you spend it? Right now, if I could just have a day, I would drive to the mountains. I would drive to Blue Ridge with my friends and just hike. Fall is my favorite season, so I try to spend as much time outside as possible, especially when the leaves are changing. I haven’t painted in a while either, so I would bring my paint set and canvas.

What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I ferment a lot of stuff. I love fermented pork. I ferment sausage that I don’t think Bida Manda is ready for yet. Mom has taught me how to ferment food since I was really small. A lot of places in the world, you ferment meat to keep it for a long time. Fermented fish is one of my favorite dishes. It means some sticky rice, raw garlic  salt… put it in a Ziploc bag and leave it for a day.

What are some cooking challenges or techniques you would like to tackle? I’m not a dessert person, so I want to be more intentional and put more of it on the menu. Especially at an Asian restaurant, not many think, “Oh, I want an Asian dessert.” So it would nice to provide them with options.  

Who is one person you’d love to cook with? I would love to cook with Andrea Reusing [from Lantern in Chapel Hill]. My mentor gave me her book, “Cooking in the Moment”, when we started thinking about Bida Manda. I just love her understanding of food in relation to people and this land. I would love to be her novice and follow her around for a day, and see how she sources her food and prepares her dishes for her guests everyday. Her book is awesome, because it doesn’t just talk about food but also cooking in the moment and eating seasonally. As a Buddhist, it’s all about cooking in the moment. We learned a tremendous amount from her about being natural in food selection and about Laotian essence.

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