Preparing ingredients for jeow

Essential to the flavour of Lao food, and the first step in many Lao recipes is the preparation of flavouring ingredients. Most jeow (chilli dipping sauce) recipes call for the roasting of such produce as whole bulbs of garlic,  shallots, apple eggplants and chillies, and maybe additional flavourings such as ginger, lemon grass, water beetles etc.

I’ll share the traditional way of doing this first, followed by how to do it in a Western kitchen. Either way, the goal is smoky flavoured, cooked until soft ingredients that are easy to pound or mash.

Roasting ingredients in embers
Roasting garlic and shallots in embers

Traditionally, unpeeled heads of garlic, shallots and apple eggplants are roasted in embers (jee) or grilled (ping) before they are pounded to make jeow, Lao dipping sauce. They must be turned occasionally until the outer skins are thoroughly blackened. After cooling, peel or break off the burnt skins. Don’t bother about removing all the burnt skin as its smoky flavour is valued.

Grilling ingredients for jeow
Grilling ingredients for jeow pa (fish jeow)

Thread chillies on a toothpick or sharp strip of bamboo and lay on a wire rack or splatter guard over a charcoal stove or gas flame. Grill until charred, but not completely blackened. After cooling, remove the burnt pieces of skin  before pounding the chilli pulp.

Grill chillies to this level of "doneness"
Grill chillies to this level of "doneness"

There are a few issues with these methods. First, with the charcoal stove, there is the hassle of waiting until the embers are subdued enough not to immolate your garlic and other goodies. You want things black, yes, but you are not aiming for a job as a charcoal burner! Controlling the embers is not a problem for most Lao within the Lao PDR where a charcoal (or wood) stove is used for everyday cooking.

Second, with a gas flame,  bits of charred garlic skin often float around the kitchen causing alarm to others, and chillies slide off the wire rack and into the gas flame to become totally burnt offerings that then need to be fished out through the wire rack, causing alarm to the cook.

Garlic grilled over gas - just about ready
Garlic grilled over gasflame - just about ready

A piece of tinfoil or a splatter guard under the goodies foils (sic) the escaping chillies but doesn’t do much to contain the floating fragments of skin. The answer is to place the ingredients  on either tinfoil, a rack or vegetable barbeque tray and grill the ingredients in a toaster oven or oven grill, while turning occasionally (the ingredients, not you!). Don’t cover them in tinfoil because you want them to blacken for the smoky flavour, not stew. Of course, firing up the gas barbie is the obviously outdoors answer to these modern problems!

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