This is not Lao food, but this post describes how to cook food in a bamboo tube, as was common in Laos. While in Mondulkiri province, Cambodia, we were lucky enough to visit a Bunong village about 12 km from Senmonorom. Here Ma and her mother demonstrated two indigenous Bunong dishes for Birgitte (a local social anthropologist), Bill Tuffin (our dear friend), Kees and I.
The first was Trau prung plarn (food bamboo eggplant), in which chunks of eggplant and pieces of pork stewed in a long piece of bamboo (a process called lahm in Lao). I’ve always wanted to see this style of cooking but these days many Lao simply use a pot, as do the Bunong and other Cambodians.
The other dish, Trau bpai goray! Beltum (bpai is pounded soaked rice, goray! is rattan and beltum is pumpkin)) featured prahok, the fermented salted fish so beloved in Cambodia. This flavoured a thick soupy stew of rattan, beef and ripe pumpkin, thickened with soaked rice which was pounded with a variety of aromatic greens, chillies and garlic.
Both dishes can also be made with fish, but in this case the fish is cooked first and the bones are removed before adding to either dish.
The kitchen of the house was separate to the sleeping and living building. Most of the floor was a raised platform where large jars of rice wine and spirits, and fermenting preserves are stored. The home-made alcohol is used in traditional ceremonies and there is a strict protocol about what is used when.
Food preparation is done on the platform, where of course no shoes are worn and it is kept spotlessly clean. Above in the rafters are bamboo baskets and other objects kept in the smoky atmosphere for preservation, and some ceremonial objects that must also be kept in the kitchen. The single cooking fire was on the dirt floor in a corner. Water was kept in a big pot on the platform, refreshed from well water daily.
When we arrived Ma set to washing and preparing the vegetables and meat for both dishes.
For the Dtrau prung plarn, Ma peeled strips of skin off three long eggplants and cut them into wedges and put them to soak in some cold water along with 11 de-stalked green birds eye chillies. I didn’t see any salt get put into the water, but I think it was quite possibly added. Normally, apple eggplants would be used instead of the long eggplants, but there were none in the garden or market that day. Ma stuffed about two thirds of the cut eggplant down the bamboo tube along with the chillies, thumping the tube to get the eggplant to slip down to the bottom. She then finely sliced a palm-sized piece of pork tenderloin with a little fat and stuffed this down the tube. Ma also did not have gee salabob, a green leaf that normally goes into this dish so she added two pounded cloves of garlic instead on top of the pork. She said that finely sliced spring onion and lemongrass can also be added at this stage. Ma then topped up the tube with the remaining eggplant.
Once full, she took about a cup of water and poured it slowly into the tube, using a long stick so that it could pass by the pork and eggplant pieces.
After topping up the tube with water, her mother placed it slanting over the fire propped up by a y-shaped stick.
There it simmered away. After about 20 minutes, a long thick stick was inserted into the bamboo and the eggplant was pulped and pork mixed in. It was left to continue cooking and was removed from the fire when it was making a sizzling glopping noise.
The second dish, Trau bpai goray! Beltum, was more complex to make, so I’ll list the ingredients:
1 cup rice, soak in water for at least 20 minutes
3 cups of peeled and deseeded pumpkin or orange coloured gourd (like a butternut)
1 bunch of rattan (or one jar of Thai rattan)
3 large cloves garlic or two finger-widths bunch of spring onions
1 handful of forest leaves (salek rannyow)
2 T lemongrass leaf or 1 T of fresh stalk (to be finely sliced)
5 green bird’s eye chillies
2 cups beef leg meat with some fat, sliced into 1 cm pieces
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons msg
1 tablespoon prahok fish
To prepare the vegetables: Strip the rattan and add the soft inner core to cold water to prevent from discolouring. Cut the rattan into 2 cm pieces. Slice the pumpkin wedges into the water. Finely slice the spring onions and pound two garlic cloves, and set aside for the bpao. Drain the vegetables.
In a pot, cover the vegetables with fresh water to one finger joint and set on the fire to simmer.
Drain the soaked rice and add the green leaves (salek rannyow), I have not been able to identify the scientific name. They are also called bpao leaves, and are becoming scarce as the forests are chopped down. Ma used dried ones that had been given to her by a friend that still had access to the right sort of forest. Transfer to a mortar, and finely cut in the spring onions and lemongrass leaves.
Pound, then add the chillies and two whole garlic. Pound until well blended. Remove to a bowl big enough to also add 1 cup of water to the mixture. Stir to mix and remove any lumps. Leave to swell.
The final touches: After the vegetables have softened add the meat, salt and msg. Simmer, skimming any scum as necessary.
Put a small piece (about 1 T) of prahok in a bowl and add half a cup of water.
Pour off the water to remove saltiness. Add some of the vegetable broth to the fish and squash the fish to make a sauce. Set aside.
Stir the rice mixture into the stew and keep stirring until well mixed. Cover with a lid. Simmer, but stir often so the rice does not burn on the bottom while thickening.
Finally stir in the liquid of the prahok, holding back the fish sediment. Discard the sediment. Let the stew sit for a few minutes and transfer to dishes to serve.
Serve with plain rice.