Five minutes with Becky Khanthavongsa, Zaab

Michelle Rowe 30 July 2021
Zaab owner Becky Khanthavongsa

Zaab owner Becky Khanthavongsa infuses flavours from her Lao heritage into the menus at Zaab. Photo: Zaab.

Who is Becky Khanthavongsa? I’m the owner of Zaab restaurant and bar in Braddon.

Best recent dining experience: Bar Rochford in the city during Good Food Month was my most memorable dining experience in Canberra. All aspects were amazing – the food, the drinks, the vibe. And the degustation menu at Les Bistronomes in Campbell is also excellent. Owner and chef Clement Chauvin never disappoints.

Most embarrassing pantry item: Tins of curry paste. I like cooking a curry when entertaining friends, but I cheat and use the tinned stuff to save time.

Clement Chauvin at Les Bistronomes

Chef and owner Clement Chauvin at Les Bistronomes. Photo: Michelle Taylor.

Must-buy ingredient: Fish sauce. I use it in everything. This, combined with fresh lemon or lime and palm sugar, provides the base and balance to all my Thai/Lao salad dressings.

Next big thing: Zero waste. At Zaab, we try to minimise food waste as much as possible, but converting scraps into usable ingredients does take a bit of patience and creativity. We use things like strawberry heads and mint stems, which would normally be thrown away, as edible garnishes, and make flavourful liqueurs and wines from leftover lemon husks.

Zaab, Braddon

Zaab’s bar is a cool place to hang out in Braddon. Photo: Zaab.

Favourite place for breakfast in the ACT: Gather in Braddon for healthy and tasty food.

My Canberra food secret: Malatang Zhangliang on No Name Lane in the city. I’ve only been introduced to malatang – a Sichuan soup or hotpot – in the last couple of years, but for a cheap and cheerful hit of spice and warmth, it’s great.

Biggest culinary influence: My parents. My mum for traditional Lao food, the cuisine I grew up eating. A lot of the dishes currently on the menu at Zaab are influenced by these flavours. My dad worked in Thai restaurants before opening his own restaurant back in 2003. He is a master at balancing flavour with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But as much as I try, I can never get a recipe out of these two!

Winter Gather bowl

Pop in to Gather for healthy and delicious food made from locally sourced ingredients. Photo: Supplied.

Favourite cookbook: I’m not huge on cooking but am a master at eating out, so I don’t have a favourite cookbook. If I have any questions, I’ll just call one of my parents.

Who I admire on the Canberra food and wine scene: There are so many. Andy Day from Rizla, who is so approachable and has given good and honest advice, which I appreciate. I also admire Lucy Pallett-Jones from Spirits Platform, who is pushing hard to put the Canberra bar scene on the map.

Andy Day

Andy Day, owner of Braddon’s Rizla bar and restaurant. Photo: Ash St George.

What’s on the menu this week: Our bar manager and head chef produce weekly experimental cocktails and dishes. Signature cocktails include the Crazy Coconut with Wyborowa vodka, lemon, strawberry and coconut, or a choice of four seasonal negronis. Team drinks with betel leaves with roasted coconut, peanuts, ginger, lime, onion and dried shrimp paste, or a beef massaman.

Where I’m going next: Pilot for its seven-course degustation menu. I’ve not been back in a while and I think it’s time.

Zaab restaurant Fried Egg Tofu

Tasty snacks include fried egg tofu served on a betel leaf. Photo: Zaab.

Death row meal: Tum mark hoong, also known as Lao papaya salad, made by my mum. I never get sick of this dish.

My COVID-19 response: We took it back to my family business roots and provided takeaways and home delivery. It was a very nostalgic feeling driving around delivering food. I used to do this for my family restaurant when I got my P-plates.

During the first stages of lockdown, and as soon as takeaway cocktails were allowed, we developed the “Date Night In” pack, which consisted of food and cocktails in a bag for a great price. This, honestly, kept us alive during lockdown.

Since re-opening, we’ve had the opportunity to restructure the business. Our dine-in experience has focused more on modern cuisine with influences from the classic Lao dishes I grew up with. This will allow me to create a separate space for more traditional dishes … watch this space! And takeaway is here to stay.

Pilot restaurant

Pilot restaurant in Ainslie offers an impressive, multi-course menu. Photo: Pilot.

My really simple recipe tip: A simple but stunning dressing for a Thai beef salad. Combine fish sauce, fresh citrus and palm sugar as the base marinade. Add chilli (both fresh and Sriracha), coriander, mint, shallots, cherry tomato and cucumber to the dressing.

Zaab restaurant and bar in Braddon serves authentic South East Asian street food alongside creative cocktails, beers and local wines. It’s open 5:00 pm until late, Monday to Sunday. For takeaway orders, visit Zaab Station.


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