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Her spicy papaya salad would make you cry - in a good way

Viengpasong Luangsouphom cooked for 14 years at her restaurant in Seminole.
Viengpasong Luangsouphom making noodles from scratch with her son, Phillip. "She believed if there’s not enough spice, it’s not good enough."
Viengpasong Luangsouphom making noodles from scratch with her son, Phillip. "She believed if there’s not enough spice, it’s not good enough." [ Courtesy Phillip Luangsouphom ]
Published Oct. 19, 2020
Updated Oct. 19, 2020

In her Clearwater kitchen or her Seminole restaurant, Viengpasong Luangsouphom smiled as she worked. Even if she was so busy you better not talk to her. Even if she had enough time to talk but just to tell you to do it her way.

“She loved it, but it was exhausting,” said daughter Alisha Luangsouphom. “At times, it was just her. But she loved it.”

Ms. Luangsouphom cooked from experience — childhood in Laos, adolescence in Nebraska, adulthood in Florida. Food takes patience, she taught her children.

And flavor.

While eating her spicy papaya salad, “if you’re not crying and laughing about it, it’s not good,” said son Phillip Luangsouphom.

Ms. Luangsouphom spent much of her life savoring food and feeding people.

She died Sept. 17 from liver cancer. She was 53.

Viengpasong Luangsouphom, left, with Anne Rose Muskin, and right, in college, showing the spunk she was known for. "She brought so much joy to so many people," Muskin said.
Viengpasong Luangsouphom, left, with Anne Rose Muskin, and right, in college, showing the spunk she was known for. "She brought so much joy to so many people," Muskin said. [ Courtesy Mary-Beth Muskin and Phillip Luangsouphom ]

In 1980, Ms. Luangsouphom’s family joined tens of thousands of refugees who fled communist Laos for the United States. They landed in Utah, and soon moved to Nebraska to be close to relatives.

As a teenager, Ms. Luangsouphom learned English quickly in Mary-Beth Muskin’s classes. The Muskins became a second home, one where she babysat, found structure and was sent when she got in trouble with her parents, who didn’t know what to do with their headstrong and newly American child.

Ms. Luangsouphom, whom everyone called Vieng, was a good student and curious about everything in America. She translated for her parents, picked up quickly on American humor and found work in the school’s office to save money for a prom dress. She grew up learning how to move easily between Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity.

And like her mother, she learned early to show love through food.

When Muskin was in the hospital while pregnant with her oldest, Ms. Luangsouphom showed up and told her it was Lao New Year. Hospital food would not do.

“She unzips her coat, and she pulls out sticky rice and larb and all of these wonderful foods.”

Viengpasong Luangsouphom in the kitchen of her restaurant, Bangkok Cuisine. At the end of a work day, she'd pour a glass of wine and close up by herself, said her daughter. "She enjoyed it so much. You could just tell."
Viengpasong Luangsouphom in the kitchen of her restaurant, Bangkok Cuisine. At the end of a work day, she'd pour a glass of wine and close up by herself, said her daughter. "She enjoyed it so much. You could just tell." [ Courtesy Alisha Luangsouphom ]

After college, a move to Florida, marriage and starting a family, Ms. Luangsouphom worked a number of jobs, including serving food at a strip mall Thai restaurant on Park Boulevard in Seminole.

When the owners wanted to sell and move, Ms. Luangsouphom bought Bangkok Cuisine in 2006 and learned the dishes from the head chef. Her kids worked at the restaurant after school. After a divorce, she ran things by herself.

She put in grueling hours at work and made her kids sit through long Sunday church services. But she knew how to have fun. She took them with her to friendsparties, was the first on the dance floor and always ready for karaoke.

For Lao New Year every April, she’d roam gatherings with a bottle and a shot glass, Alisha said.

“There was no saying no to her when she offered you a shot.”

At left: Phillip Luangsouphom, Ms. Luangsouphom and Alisha Luangsouphom. Right: Ms. Luangsouphom with her granddaughter, Soriya, and daughter.
At left: Phillip Luangsouphom, Ms. Luangsouphom and Alisha Luangsouphom. Right: Ms. Luangsouphom with her granddaughter, Soriya, and daughter. [ Courtesy Alisha Luangsouphom ]

Like her children, Ms. Luangsouphom’s granddaughter, Soriya, grew up at the restaurant and often came home smelling of fried food. The 5-year-old is stubborn just like her Nai Nai, loves sticky rice and was learning to speak Laotian.

In February, Ms. Luangsouphom was diagnosed with cancer. Her restaurant closed the next month because of the pandemic. But her legacy, and her recipes, aren’t gone.

Phillip, now a chef himself in Tallahassee, spent the last 10 years recording his mom’s dishes in a notebook he calls “the book.” Alisha, a pre-school teacher, has her mom’s journal, which includes several recipes.

Here is one of them, translated from Laotian. Like Ms. Luangsouphom, be patient and generous with flavor.

Vieng’s peanut sauce

1 can coconut milk

1 can Panang sauce

1 cup sugar

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon MSG

½ can large peanuts, ground

Simmer in a small pot and stir.

Ms. Luangsouphom loved to eat, drink and travel. She's pictured on the left trying trying rice beer on a visit to Laos and on the right, enjoying a lobster boil.
Ms. Luangsouphom loved to eat, drink and travel. She's pictured on the left trying trying rice beer on a visit to Laos and on the right, enjoying a lobster boil. [ Courtesy Alisha Luangsouphom ]

Poynter news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: Ms. Luangsouphom first came to Utah when she arrived from Laos. An earlier version of the story contained incorrect information, provided by a source.

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