The dominant brand of instant stock used in Laos is Knorr. A Unilever company, Knorr makes and sells instant flavouring products for the Asian market including broth cubes and powders, fish sauce and soups. At the time of writing, all Knorr broth/stock products sold in Laos contain monosodium glutamate (msg). These products are extensively marketed. Many restaurants and wet markets prominently display Knorr posters and banners. Knorr stages road shows and cooking contests to promote its brand. This extensive advertising could be seen as having shaped attitudes of local cooks, thereby influencing the flavouring of food in Laos. As in the rest of the country, in northern Laos Knorr stock cubes and powder are widely used in both restaurants and households. Even if a restaurant customer requests “no MSG”, it is still very likely a dose of Knorr stock powder will be in the food. The products keep well, are cheap and add flavour to meals where ingredients are often few. Purists may advocate the use of a good vegetable or meat-based stock rather than powder or cube, but that is not viable for cooks who seldom have meat because of scarcity and expense and who often have limited vegetable supplies. Knorr is a very attractive addition to rural kitchens.
The use of Knorr has been hotly debated at The Boat Landing and among those interested in Lao cooking. Its use is a relatively new practice, Knorr having been widely introduced only within the last ten years. The use of monosodium glutamate is an older, far more widespread practice.
So what is authentic Lao food? Is it what most people cook at home now or what was done BK (Before Knorr)?
The Boat Landing has decided not to use Knorr products or MSG. It has done this, first, because not using them is more traditional and secondly, guests at an ecolodge expect as many aspects of their stay to be as natural as possible. Most importantly, The Boat Landing restaurant can afford not to use Knorr because its kitchen uses very tasty meat (such as black leg chicken and locally raised, free-range pork) and lots of herbs, which make any stew, soup or stir fry rich and delicious. Thus, The Boat Landing serves what locals would consider banquet-standard cooking for its restaurant customers.
However, for day-to-day cooking in the local villages, Knorr (and/or MSG) is still widely used. If you cook with commercially raised chicken or pork (which has come to have so little flavour), limited herbs and/or no fresh stock, don’t be afraid to do what the local Lao do – add a small spoon of powder or a stock cube to a recipe.
Half a large 10 g Knorr stock cube or one small 5 g stick cube equals 1 teaspoon Knorr stock powder and makes one strong 250 ml (8.5 US oz) cup of liquid stock. A substitute for half a cube is ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon sugar or salted, liquid chicken stock. But, it is important to note, these substitutes do not replicate the Knorr flavour as the MSG in Knorr casts a full, 3-D taste around the top of the mouth which can’t otherwise be reproduced.
Knorr chicken stock powder without MSG is available outside Laos. An excellent non-MSG substitute is Puyking instant seasoning, a product from Thailand. Details are available from the Internet.