Kou Lee prepares egg rolls at Phooj Ywg Lee's Market in Marysville. (Lisa Morehouse/KQED)
On the edge of the Yuba County town of Marysville, there’s an Asian market that’s bursting with so many ingredients, the inventory could rival that of similar stores in big cities. Four shelves of coconut milk, four more shelves of hot sauces, a whole corner dedicated to rice, an entire aisle of noodles, green papayas from Mexico, and specialty vegetables and herbs from local Hmong farmers.
It’s called Phooj Ywg Lee’s Market.
“In my language it’s called Friendly’s Market,” says Kou Lee with a laugh. “I’m not sure we’re friendly, but we try.”
If you wind your way through the candy aisle, next to the water-filling station, you’ll find a small, bustling kitchen in the back corner, Lee’s domain. That’s where she prepares an extensive menu of made-to-order dishes and popular to-go plates — deep-fried chicken, spicy Lao sausage, pork ribs paired with sticky rice.
“This is a steamed fish, Lao style,” she says, pointing to another dish stuffed with spicy pepper, cilantro, dill, lime leaves, ginger and garlic.
On a recent Thursday, the market’s doorbell and phone seem to be going off constantly. There is a steady stream of in-person and phone customers. Lee says she and her helper, Nana, prepped 60 or 70 takeout items that morning, and by noon, they’d already sold out.
In a huge pot, Lee makes khaub poob, a chicken curry soup with noodles. She prepped the curry paste the previous night, after customers were gone. “It took almost three hours just to do the paste,” she says. She says slow cooking is what results in all the “red, yummy stuff.” That batch of curry will last her a couple of days.
“We have a combination of Thai, Lao and Hmong foods,” says Lee, whose family is from Laos. “We share Laos food. And Laos and Thailand share a border. Lao and Thai are similar, they are almost like family.”
A lot of what people in the U.S. think of as Thai food originated in Laos, or is cooked by Lao chefs.
“Because, I guess, Thai are more — I’m not sure ‘popular’ is the word — they are more well-known [than Lao or Hmong],” Lee says.
She explains that traditional Hmong food is more home cooking — dishes like pork ribs with mustard greens, and chicken with herbs like mugwort and Okinawa spinach.
Lee’s Market is a family affair. Today, her husband works the front counter.
“It just keeps us both on our feet all day long,” Lee says.
A few of her 10 grandchildren poke their heads in to say hi, or deliver a phone order.
Her grandson cries when he sees a reporter holding a microphone in the kitchen. Lee immediately reaches a paddle into one of the 20-cup rice cookers she uses to keep her steamed sticky rice warm. She squeezes a bit into her palm and hands it to him, and he's soothed.
A childhood in the shadow of war
Lee says she’s been eating sticky rice all her life. She remembers during her childhood not having anything to accompany it. “Just hot sauce and sticky rice,” she says.
That’s because Lee grew up in the middle of a civil war. She was born in Laos in 1967, she says, “in a difficult time. We had to escape from place to place.”
The people of Laos, including Hmong, were deeply divided between communist leaders and those loyal to the royal family. North and South Vietnamese military forces participated in the fighting, too, and Laos became a Cold War battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union. The CIA recruited and trained 30,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, to fight communists. And in covert missions, the U.S. dropped 2 million tons of cluster bombs on parts of Laos.
Lee’s family moved a lot. She says her dad was in the military, working for the CIA, but she’s hesitant to talk too much about the past.
“I don’t want to go into that story because I might say something wrong. I was just a little girl! A lot of people out there know a lot more,” she says.
She does remember there wasn’t much food — just that sticky rice and hot sauce, “mustard greens soup, regular rice.” She has a sweet tooth, and recalls that the only sweets available were things like sugar cane, papaya and sweet potato.
When the communists won the war in 1975, Lee’s family, like a full quarter of the country, became refugees.
A new life and business in California
Lee says she was 8 or 9 years old when her family went to a refugee camp in Thailand, then to Michigan. In the '80s, she got married, came to California, and started her own family. Her husband’s brothers own stores in Fresno and Sacramento, and so, the couple decided to open Lee’s Market in Marysville.
“There’s a Hmong population here, and not too many markets,” she says.
After the war, refugee resettlement policy was to disperse Hmong people all over the U.S., sometimes in small towns, away from others in their community. But many families later moved closer to each other, to places like Detroit, Merced and Stockton, for support. Hmong neighborhoods grew in agricultural places like the Sacramento Valley, too.
When they first opened, Lee had no intention of serving made-to-order food. She just wanted a little kitchen to prepare some takeout food, like sausage and sticky rice. But word of mouth spread, and Lee expanded her menu and put in some seating for customers.
“At first it was more like the Hmong population, the Cambodian population, but right now it’s become everybody’s store,” she says.
Lee says she honors each customer’s made-to-order requests.
“Some people, they will tell me exactly how they want it. This is not like you make a hamburger, [and] everything is just the same,” she says.
When longtime customers like Alexis Heflin and her sister Hailey order the papaya salad, Lee makes much of the dish on the spot, calibrating the spiciness level to suit their taste.
She pounds ingredients in a mortar and pestle, beginning with tomatoes and a sauce made from crab, shrimp paste and anchovy. She adds salt, sugar, garlic, pepper, peanuts and green papaya, which she shredded the night before.
“We’ve been coming here since we were, like, 5,” says Alexis. “And I’m 16 and she’s 20 now.”
Alexis has had papaya salad at other places, but she says it doesn’t compare to Lee’s, the one she grew up on.
“She puts a special touch in it,” she says.
Bryce Moody calls his regular order the trifecta.
“You gotta get the beef laab, papaya salad and sticky rice,” he says. “That’s the holy trinity right there.”
Moody has been a loyal customer of Lee’s for more than 15 years.
“We’ve watched each other’s kids grow up,” he said.
He says when his sons were really small, they weren’t interested in trying these dishes, so he’d pick up fast food for them before stopping at Lee’s Market, saying, “I’d eat the food here and they’d eat their Happy Meal.”
But Bryce says now they’re hooked on Lee’s cooking, too.
A career she wouldn't have expected
When Lee was a child, she never would have believed that food would be her livelihood. She didn’t really learn to cook until she got married, and got a lot of help from her sister-in-law. And she kept learning, visiting Thailand, making curries with a Thai employee. Lee says that, growing up, she learned some basics from her mom.
“If you’re born to be a girl, you need to learn how to cook, no matter what,” she says.
But she says that, when she was young, she didn’t like it. She preferred to play with her brother.
“I wasn’t a good girl like how my mom wanted,” she says. She says she was a naughty girl, with an independent streak.
And with that, Lee is done talking about herself. She brings out an order of khaub poob — the chicken noodle curry — and turns back to the stove, to take care of all the orders coming in.
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