How Tai Neua make fermented soy bean paste for Khao soi noodles

Preparing soy beans for tua nao paste
Tai Neua tua nao paste fermenting; essential ingredient of Khao soi and other Tai Neua dishes must ferment for 1 - 2 years
Tai Neua tua nao paste fermenting; essential ingredient of Khao soi and other Tai Neua dishes must ferment for 1 – 2 years

Ever since I first espied the towers of richly deep reddish brown piles of tua nao paste resting in large basins in the Luang Namtha and Muang Sing markets I have wanted to know how to make this essential ingredient of the local khao soi noodles from scratch. I did some internet research and found some information about the fermented soy bean paste made in next –door Yunnan, China, and further away in Korea.  Determined after several years of making my own pork mince and fermented bean sauce using purchased paste I decided it was definitely time to go to Muang Sing, to track down the people who made it all the time for sale in the market as a local ingredient.

Like in a modern day Wild West, we drove slowly down the main street at sundown in our bright red Honda Jazz as town was wrapping up its business. We were about as conspicuous as a whore in a nunnery so to speak. As soon as we got out of the car Kees recognized a former guide who had accompanied him to photograph the opening of the Akha Experience trek for Exotissimo and GTZ. Well, it turned out that his family made tua nao paste, so at 8.30 the next morning we (Kees and I plus ‘intrepid camper in the freezing cold’, Sharon) set off to find that the font of fermentation lay in a Tai Neua village, Ban Nam Khao Hong.

Tua nao paste for khao soi
Tua nao paste for khao soi

Our guide, Than  Sai Kuatong (Kees’ mate’s little brother who needed to practice his English) took us to the village where we met his Mother, Nang Jantee, elder sister and hairdresser, Nang Buawon, Paw and their elderly next-door neighbour who makes the most superb fermented beancurd – but that’s another story!)

This family IS tua nao paste. At least twice a year they make the paste using 100 – 150 kg of dried soy beans, and set it to ferment in ceramic jars and Chinese plastic tubs for 1 – 2 years (up to 4 years). The older the better. They start selling it at 4 – 5 months.

Nang Jantee with tua nao paste
Nang Jantee with tua nao paste

There are only five Tai Neua villages in Muang Sing and only 9 in the whole of Laos, and this paste and the associated dishes is THEIR local dish. They take their noodles and paste down to Luang Namtha to sell at the market. They also tell us that in Luang Namtha they make a different type of rice noodle (round sheets that are then cut) and that the Tai Neua way is the proper way. (Again, that’s another story.)

The night before, Nang Jantee had dry fried 10 kg of soybeans until the outsides started to blacken until nearly burned but the insides were yellow. She then set the dried fried soy beans in a big pot with water on the fire at around 7 pm , where they simmered until the fire went out. Nang Buawon got up early and reset the fire so they continued to cook. By the time we arrived, they had been simmering for about 12 hours. They were soft but whole and certainly didn’t look burned.

Preparing soy beans for tua nao paste
Preparing soy beans for tua nao paste

The next step usually is to set the beans and their liquid aside in a covered pot for 3 days to start the fermentation process. This step produces the best fermented bean paste. Sadly, we didn’t have three days because of commitments in Luang Prabang. However, our demonstrator said you could do make the paste without the 3 days fermentation but it would not be the best although we would be able to learn all the steps involved. Deal. Also, not wanting to condemn all the beans to becoming inferior paste by skipping the three days, we only used a big bowl of beans, probably about 1.5 – 2 kg and gave the rest to the family.

Steaming soy beans, tua nao
Steaming soy beans ready for pounding

Using a dipper, Mother transferred this smaller quantity of beans into a colander to drain and we trouped over to the pounder at the next house to pound the beans while adding the extra ingredients of chilli, and then salt.

Cooked beans in mortar
Cooked soy beans are transferred to the giant mortar for pounding

It took about 25 minutes in total to pound the beans because they had not started their fermentation process. When the beans have been left for 3 days they break up faster and more easily to form a sticky, gooey paste which is darker than the paste in the photos.

Pounded paste before adding broth
Pounded paste before adding broth

After the beans are pounded to initially break them down, chilli powder is added in the proportion of 1 : 10 (1 kg chilli powder to 10 kg dry beans) and pounded throughout the beans.

Nang Jantee adds chilli powder to the pounded beans
Nang Jantee adds chilli powder to the pounded beans
Pounding the soy beans
Nang Buawon pounds soybeans for tua nao paste

Then salt is added, which is done by taste. Some pastes are saltier than others according to personal taste.

Our small tua nao paste sample had half a large packet of salt added (about 500 g), a ratio of 1: 20. The salt was then thoroughly pounded in. Finally three ladles of bean cooking liquor were added, pounding between each so that all ingredients were mixed into a smooth paste. The consistency was a bit wetter than either smooth peanut butter that has been newly opened or a Thai chilli paste.

Adding broth to tua nao paste
Broth from boiled soy beans is added to the tua nao paste

The finished paste was transferred to a bowl and covered with a plastic bag to keep out the air. It had begun its 1 – 2 year journey of fermentation. I now have it in a plastic lidded container in the back seat of the car and we will take it to our home in Bang Saray, Thailand where it can happily ferment away. I learned that although the family say the fermentation process is one to two years, they were using 5 month old paste themselves and had taken some out of a big tub to sell at the market while the paste was still a teenager by tua nao paste chronology!

Tua nao paste after pounding is completed
Tua nao paste after pounding is completed

Here a spoonful of the sample batch we made after a few years fermentation – its much darker than paste made with the traditional 3 days fermentation.

Tua nao paste
Tua nao paste without the three day fermentation period. it is much darker than the paste which is fermented first.

Indigenous food of the Bunong people

ma's mother
ma's mother
Ma’s mother transferring stew from the bamboo in which it was cooked

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.

Bunong food
Bunong food that has been cooked in a bamboo tube

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.

Bunong Trau bpai goray! beltum
Bunong Trau bpai goray! beltum

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.

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Bunong pottery jars for wine and preserves storage

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.

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Bunong fireplace

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.

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Stuffing eggplant into bamboo tube

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.

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Poking the water and eggplant down

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.

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Cooking in a bamboo tube (larm or lahm in Lao)

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.

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Stripping outer layer from the rattan
pumpkin
Slicing pumpkin for Trau bpai goray! beltum
garlic
Smashing the garlic

The second dish, Trau bpai goray! Beltum, was more complex to make, so I’ll list the ingredients:

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

 

Method:

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.

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Slicing spring onions into the bpai being pounded

 

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Adding the dried leaves to the bpai

 

pounding bpai
Pounding the bpai
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Stirring the bpai mixture

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.

prahok
Prahok fish

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.

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Adding the bpai to the stew

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.

Bunong Meal
Bunong meal cooked by Ma and her grandmother

Cooking with Vandara

salad ingredients
Salad

Vandara’s organic garden has a profusion of fruit, herbs and vegetables. In our cook-up Vandara produced a superb salad using firm but creamy avocados as the main ingredient.

Whopping great avocados

Torh ginger buds
Torch ginger petals for salad

To the salad bowl she then added crimson dragon fruit and the inner petals of the torch ginger flower (Etlinyera elatior Zingieracae) which had been soaked in water to keep fresh, rose petals and finely sliced cucumber. For greens, mint (pak hom lahp Mon), Asian pennywort (pak nok, Centella asiatica Hydrocolylacae) and fish-cheek plant (pak khao tong) were tossed in.

salad ingredients
Salad ingredients

Finally, she added butterfly pea flowers (clitoria ternatea Pailonacae).

adding dressing
Adding the spicy dressing

The savory salad dressing was a mixture of finely sliced garlic, salt, lime, ground black pepper and the pulp of a passionfruit which was then spooned over the salad, and hand mixed with the other ingredients. Superb flavours and textures, and so colourful!

soi garlic
Vandara slicing garlic using soi technique

A second dish prepared by Vandara was sa paedek. Vandara very finely sliced fresh young galangal, lemongrass, garlic, traditional ginger and shallots (about 2 tablespoons of each) using the soi technique, while her niece painstakingly removed the pin bones from a piece of paedek fish and shredded it. A large handful of village-raised pork was minced with a cleaver and dry-fried, and two small red chillies were also finely sliced. All these ingredients were combined together and little tufts of dill, finely sliced sawtooth herb and mint leaves and finely chopped puffed pork skin were added as a finishing touch.

salad plate
Salad vegetables for wrapping sa

Accompaniments were a dish of soaked and drained khao poon noodles, and a nicely arranged dish of perilla (pak meng kheng, Perilla fruitescens Lamiacae), wild pepper (betel) leaves (phak nang leut), fish-cheek plant (fish mint) leaves, torch ginger flower, sliced cucumber and chillies.

I cooked an Akha bean dish flavoured with roasted garlic and sesame seeds, Tai dam pork aw, and sa low. Once finished we carted all the dishes down to the riverside sala and dined to the thundering of the rapids and sounds of the forest. Bliss!

Vandara’s Lao organic food garden

Vandara 2
Vandara 2
Vandara holding edible torch ginger flower in her garden

Vandara Amphaiphone is an amazing woman and a Luang Prabang institution who’s creativity and holistic life approach imbues all she does: weaver, culinary expert, guesthouse owner, mentor and organic gardener.  I met Vandara in print in 2005 but it took until 2011 for me to meet her in person at the opening of a photography exhibition at Project Space in Luang Prabang. Vandara  co-authored “Food and Travel Laos”, the first English language Lao cookbook published in Thailand. Now out of print, the Thai edition is still available. She also gives cooking classes at her guest house using her own organic produce.

I was delighted when Vandara suggested that we come to her riverside guest house and have a big cooking/sharing session as we’d both heard of each other and were very excited to get together. I didn’t know about Vandara’s magnificent organic garden so in the morning Kees and I took off to the local market to get vegetables, herbs and meat – which later of course we found out that Vandara had in abundance! But it was fun in the market. What Kees did not realise was that Vandara was actually at the market buying padek fish. I only found out when I was going through his market photos as I did not see her myself.

Vandara with fish
Vandara buying padek fish at the Luang Prabang market
Rapids at Vanvisa 2
Rapids at Vanvisa 2 by the dining sala

We were picked up in town by Vandara in a tuk tuk and made our way to her guest house/ home stay, “Vanvisa at the Falls“, on a river outlet of the Kuang Si Falls. The water was raging when we arrived as it was the rainy season, with water swirling a footstep from where we had our amazing dinner that night. Vanvisa is set in Vandara’s local Khamu village, and she has spent years planting what seems a wild jungle paradise crammed with food-bearing and traditional medicinal plants and trees. Its an ongoing passion – we shared our tuk tuk with bags of cuttings and plants on the way out and stopped off at Vandara’s bigger garden (if you can imagine such a thing) to pick up sweet bamboo.

Sweet bamboo
Sweet bamboo from the big garden, destined for a Buddhist ceremony in Vientiane

The garden is absolutely not in straight rows, everything grows in association with other plants and trees creating little ecosystems. It was hard to walk anywhere because even the ground cover was edible! Not being a botanist or avid gardener I just knew that there was a wealth of expertise and precious species behind this seeming wilderness and I will certainly be taking more time to learn and explore in future.

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Colourful produce from Vandara’s garden

Meanwhile, if you are into food and wild organic gardens and a real Lao experience you MUST visit this place and meet Vandara.

Hand crafted bed

Don’t expect a three star or above hotel experience, this place is basic but so creatively authentic – even the beds, toilet roll holders and shelves are made on site using local bamboo! And the passion fruit juice is freshly made with local honey.

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Vandara picking butterfly pea flowers for her salad
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Building with bamboo on site
Vandara dyeing
Vandara dyeing yarn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below are some photos of vegetables in the garden, but there are many more – papaya, basils, pennywort, avocados, many types of eggplants, plants for dyeing, gingers, galangal, taro etc.

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Sawtooth herb
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Unripe passionfruit
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Freshly picked salad ingredients
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Holy basil with strong cloves taste
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Vietnamese mint

Ginsing
Ginsing leaves and flowers
Perilla
Perilla – phak meng kheng
Avocado
Avocados from Vandara’s garden – HUGE – note her hand in the background!

Food market @ Luang Prabang old city

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Kees wandered about the old town food market while I shopped for ingredients to take out to Vandara’s Kuang Si Falls Guesthouse, where we planned a magnificent cook-up together. More on that later! Meanwhile, here are some of the goodies to be found at the open air market.

Fermented fish sauce ປາແດກ padek, paedek

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Padek (paedek) for sale
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Best quality padek

This extremely pungent, opaque fermented fish sauce incorporates chunks of fish. It is eaten raw or cooked in a variety of Lao dishes; it is used extensively in Thailand’s Isaan province, home to many Lao. It is also made and used in northern and central Thailand. Padek’s odour is so intense that tam mak hoong (papaya salad) made with nam padek (padek liquid) can be detected a room away. When the correct amount of padek is added to a Lao dish, however, the sauce magically transforms it, adding a depth not replicable by substituting fish sauce. The main ingredients of padek are salt, fish and rice bran or rice husks. The addition of other ingredients depends on preference, but is based on scale. The best padek has fermented for at least six months – a year is better – and comes from the North, according to northerners. It should be made in the dry season (around April) when the danger of spoilage is less.

Fresh water fish such as glass fish, Siamese mud carp or giant Mekong catfish, bpaa kao, are commonly used. Padek made from Mekong fish in the South has the danger of containing liver flukes. There are no known ways to remove liver flukes from padek. Boiling it for 15 minutes may kill bacteria but cannot be guaranteed to kill the liver flukes, so it is best to avoid padek from southern Laos unless the fish origin is known to be safe. If using the fish pieces in the sauce, wash the bran or husks off first. Commercially produced padek, such as that sold in Isaan, is rumoured to sometimes have formalin added.

Bottled Lao or Isaan padek or Thai pla ra can be bought from some Asian food supply stores.

Another substitute is anchovy sauce or paste. Do not use one with vinegar. Alternatively, stew tinned or bottled anchovy fillets in fish stock until disintegrated. If desired, this mixture can then be sieved for a finer sauce.

Preserved or fermented fish from various Asian countries also makes a good substitute, for example Filipino fermented or preserved gourami fish.

Here is a recipe for authentic padek from Boutsady Khounnouvong who learned it from her grandmother when she was young.

3 kg of fish/3 portions of fish

1 kg of salt/1 portion of salt

1/2 kg of rice bran (eg, half the amount of salt)

Scale, gut, wash and drain the fish. Put the drained fish in a large bowl and add the salt. Mix together, and then leave to sit, covered, for 12 hours.

After 12 hours, add the rice bran and mix again. Shift the mixture into a pottery or glass jar. Use your hand to press down the contents. A boiled rock may be used to maintain pressure on the fish. Do not fill the jar completely; leave 7 to 8 cm (3 in) at the top as there will be expansion with fermentation.

Cover the jar, and then leave it for at least six months. A year is preferable. During the fermentation, check the mixture. Use a large spoon to turn it and press it down again. It will keep two years in the jar. Store carefully as flies love padek!

Here is another recipe for padek from Madame Ny Luangkhot who devised it using sea fish when she was a graduate student in the Soviet Union.

If you have small fish, the proportion of fish and salt is one to five –1 kg(2 lb) of salt to 5 kg(10 lb) of fish. Mix the salt and fish together, and then leave for a few days. Next add 1 kg (1 lb) rice husks or rice bran. Squeeze the mixture a bit as the ingredients are being incorporated. Transfer the mix to a jar or pot. Put a clean boiled stone on top. Its pressure will create the juice over the next months. Keep the pot well closed for at least a year. If you are making padek with large fish – 7 to 8kg (16 lb) per fish – the proportion of salt to fish is one to three. Before salting, hit the fish firmly several times on both sides so that the flesh can absorb the salt.

Here is how the Kalom (Tai Yuan) people make padek in Luang Namtha.

Big fish are preferred, but small fish are also used. Use 3 kg (7 lb) fish, including heads. Slice fish and bones into 4 cm (1½ in) pieces. Put in a bowl, and then leave three or four days until the fish smells—the smellier the better. Pound a thumb-size piece of galangal and 6 – 10 chillies together and add ½ cup rice bran, ½ kg salt and ½ cup alcohol, such as lao Lao or whiskey. More salt may be used if a very strong sauce is desired. Add the fish, mix and put in a ceramic pot to ferment. Cover with a plastic bag and weigh down. Leave untouched for a year, although it may be eaten after two months. Two-year-old padek is very nice.

Tamarind’s Or Paedek (padek) ເອາະປາແດກ

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Morn cooking or paedek

The Tamarind Restaurant – A Taste of Laos in the Old Quarter of Luang Prabang is one of our favourite Lao restaurants. Besides their scrumptious food and the best cold drinks in Laos, what we love about Lao-owned Tamarind is Joy and Aussie wife and partner Caroline’s philosophy behind its creation and operation. Recently moved to new premises over looking the Nam Khan river, the restaurant has grown in reputation and popularity, yet still retains its essence – making Lao food accessible to people unfamiliar with the cuisine, not by dumbing down the food, but by providing delicious tasting platters and other dishes aesthetically presented in a stylishly simple dining setting. Staff relish the opportunity to explain the dishes when asked, and having observed the scrupulously clean but essentially Lao kitchen, I can vouch that no shortcuts are taken in producing the carefully selected dishes. Tamarind also sells kitchen ware, books about Lao food, and Lao ingredients packaged in a way to not get seized by Agricultural Security in countries concerned about protecting their bio-security. Naturally arising from their philosophy, Tamarind also runs an excellent cooking school set in beautiful lakeside gardens. Not surprisingly, the restaurant is one of the favourite lunch and dinner haunts for local expats.

 

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Tamarind’s Lao kitchen staff

For this visit, Caroline had asked Joy’s sister, Morn, to demonstrate their Or paedek for us so that Kees and I could record the process (and then eat the results for lunch)!  Or padek uses the fermented fish from the padek pot to form a chunky sauce-like dish eaten with sticky rice and simmered vegetables. It has lots of herbs and other favourite Lao flavouring agents, a little minced pork and eggs. The mix sounds odd, but the resultant flavour is salty, hot and redolent of grilled garlic, lemongrass and herbs, buffered by the eggs and pork. Altogether saep lai!  If you are close to an Asian market, it’s a dish that can be made easily around the world, you just have to get your hands on padek or a substitute. This dish would normally be eaten by at least four people with sticky rice and maybe another simple dish.

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Or padek detail

 

Or Padek Recipe

Ingredients

1 large bulb garlic

1 handful brown or red shallots

4 stalks lemongrass

10 long red chillies

1 tablespoon pea eggplants mak keng waan on their stalk

1 cup padek fish

Water

1 cup minced pork

1 teaspoon Knorr stock powder (optional, otherwise use part fresh stock for the water when simmering the fish)

2 tablespoons galangal, (check if grilled)

2 stalks dill

3 sprigs lemon (hairy) basil pak I tou Lao

3 – 5  spring onions (lao size, not the hulking great ones in the West, in which case use only one)

Method

Note: All the steps are shown in photographs on the left. Just scroll down as there are more photos than text.

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    Roasting garlic and shallots at Tamarind

    In a fire or on a grill, roast the whole bulb of garlic and shallots, add the lemon grass to the grill.

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    Grilling lemongrass and chillies
  2. Thread the chillies onto a skewer or toothpick and add to the grill. The pea eggplants only need 30 seconds to grill, just enough to bring out the flavour. Turn as each ingredient slowly roasts and blackens. Remove as each ingredient is softened – the garlic will take the longest. Set aside to cool.

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    Grilled ingredients for or paedek
  3. In a wok, dry fry the padek fish a few minutes until aromatic and then add 1½ to 2 cups of water, stir to break up and mix in fish and simmer for 5 minutes. Sieve over a bowl to remove the liquid.

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    Cooking the paedek fish
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    Morn straining the paedek
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    Dry-frying pork

    Dry fry the pork in the wok until white and broken up and then add the strained padek water. Add the Knorr if using and more water. Simmer while you do the next step, adding more water if needed.

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    Simmering the paedek and pork after water added
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    Skinned grilled ingredients

    Remove the black and blistered shin from the chillies, clean up the lemon grass of blackened outer sheath, and remove the garlic cloves from their blackened papery covering and peel the shallots. Destem the pea eggplants. Rinse by pouring over some water to rinse. Discard water containing the excess blackened bits. (I’d never seen this step done before, but maybe Westerners were alarmed by black specks in their food.)

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    Slicing lemongrass

    Slice the garlic and shallots crosswise and the chillies vertically into strips, removing the seeds. Slice the lemongrass finely from the bottom up the stalk until if feels a bit tough, then stop. Discard the tough green bit.

  7. Slice the galangal, then cut across into 2 tablespoons of finer pieces.
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    Simmering or padek after grilled ingredients have been added

    Add all the ingredients except the chillies to the simmering mixture. Top up with more water if needed.

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    Chopping spring onions, deleafing Lao basil

    Remove the dill and lemon basil leaves from their branched and put in cold water. Chop the spring onions into a bit less than 1 cm (⅓ inch) pieces.

  10. When the or is thickening, add three eggs. Let them sit for a minute then gently mix in. Slowly cook. Add more water and when
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    Morn adding the eggs to the or padek

    simmering add the herbs, then half of the chillies. Stir to mix. Just before serving add the rest of the chillies, then transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with basil.

 Accompanying vegetables

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Vegetables for simmering

Choose a selection of vegetables to simmer for eating with the or padek. Morn used carrot, snake gourd, choko, beans and pak choy (a type of Chinese cabbage with yellow flowers). Zucchini, and wedges of cabbage would also work.

Prepare the vegetables by cutting into pieces suitable for dipping (crudites) and soak in cold water. Add vegetables in order of cooking time and simmer in boiling water until soft but still having a bite. Drain and arrange on a plate.

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Simmering vegetables to accompany op padek
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Finished vegetables accompanying op padek

 

 

Jeow Bong ແຈ່ວບອງ Luang Prabang Chili Paste

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I was wandering along Thanon Sakarin in old Luang Prabang when I chanced upon jeow bong being made on the street. This is the signature chilli paste of Luang Prabang.

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Making jeow bong

Jeow bong is eaten with fried or grilled river algae sheets kai paen or kai phene, grilled dried beef gee sin lod or steamed vegetables. It is also served as an accompaniment to sticky rice or added to stir fries. One type includes simmered finely sliced buffalo or beef skin (traditional) or pork skin which adds a rich chewy texture. The other omits the skin and is more akin to the  sweet Thai chilli paste such as Thai Mae Pranom brand.

I was offered to stir the jeow – it was very thick as it had been slowly cooking for 2 hours. No wonder the young man stirring

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Jeow bong close up

looks knocked out! I also tasted the thickening brew – a wonderful mix with flavours of garlic, galangal root, sugar and chillies predominated. It probably also had chopped shallots and salt.  The skin had already been prepared and the warm salted water had just been poured into the street gutter. I think that had been being prepared for the same amount of time as well, but I’m not sure that I heard the Lao correctly.

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Pre cooked skin for jeow bong

I haven’t got a recipe for the large scale making of this jeow but there are several recipes for making small quantities.

Here is a link about jeow bong:

http://www.seasite.niu.edu/lao/otherTopics/foods/recipe5.htm

Here is my jeow bong recipe

Luang Prabang chilli paste ແຈ່ວບອງ jeow bong

3 large heads of garlic (about 1 cup)
½ cup shallots
1 thumb-size piece of galangal chopped into small pieces
½ – 1 teaspoon salt
1 – 2 tablespoons dark red, roasted chilli flakes
2 teaspoons sugar
Water or fish sauce to thin, if needed

  1. Roast or grill the garlic and shallots until cooked through. Meanwhile, in a mortar pound the galangal.
  2. Peel the garlic cloves and shallots, add to the mortar along with the salt and pound to a paste. Stir in the chilli flakes. Add the sugar and pound to mix. Taste and add water, fish sauce (or soy sauce for vegetarians) or more chilli flakes.
  3. Transfer the mixture to a small frying pan and dry fry on a very low heat for 10 minutes until rich, dark and aromatic. The flavour develops over time.

I need to make this again, because I think that it would be better to make a syrup of palm sugar instead of using ordinary sugar and then cook this down for longer.

Khamsouk’s wedding, Part 4 and final

The bride, groom and family lined up to receive the guests
The bride, groom and family lined up to receive the guests

At the entry, big signs announce the event, and the family and some village elders line up to welcome the guest. A heart shaped box to receive the donations (guests use the envelope with their invitation to donate some money towards the cost of the party).

Guests arriving

The guests started arriving, many of them colleagues of the groom (He is a local police officer).

Groom and bride greeting the guests

Uncles and aunts and cousins from town and villages, some arriving by motorcycle, some by tuk tuk or private truck. They slowly start filling up the many tables, and start eating and drinking. After most guests have arrived, the welcoming party lines up in a half circle under the parachute, for formal photographs.

The formal family group photo

This causes a bit of confusion, since I am the photographer and Khamsouk insists that Dolly and I as ‘adopted grandparents’ join the family group for the photographs.Note that the central spave for this which will later be used for dancing, is a big parachute, decorated with bananaleaves and balloons. The parachute is to keep the sun off the dancers, and still provide some light

Since it is a half circle of about 25 people, this turns out a bit odd anyway.

Weddings are a serious affair!

That out of the way, the band starts and the newly wed couple have the first dance, soon joined by many others.

 

 

 

 

 

Bride and groom leading the first dance

The main dance style at these occasions is the LamWong. To an outsider, it looks like two people dancing together trying hard not to touch each other or look at each other, waving their arms a bit, but as sedately as possible, walking slowly in a circle, looking far away. Not very expressive in my opinion, but that’s how it is.

After a while, the groom and bride start doing the rounds, The bride carries a tray with two tiny cups, the groom fills them with whiskey (Johnny Walker), and offers them to each guest. The guest may take the opportunity to put a few banknotes on the tray, then, bottoms up!

A drink offered to the guest for toasting the couple

This ceremonial round takes over an hour, during which the guests dance, drink and eat.

Enjoing the food and drink

A few hours into the party, it is found that instead of 300 expected guests, about 400 have turned up, and the beer is running low. Uncle who owned the ‘restaurant’ where I had lunch last month (See the post about having lunch with a policeman etc) offers to buy half a dozen crates of beer, and we join in and also add half a dozen more, the party rolls on.

Dancing with the bride

I get a chance to dance with the bride, and get poured some more laolao, washed down with beer. It is now after three in the afternoon, I know the hard line party goers will continue until the last drop of alcohol is gone, probably after dark, but I know I still have to ride our motorbike home, and consider it safer to leave at this stage.

Next morning, we receive an urgent phone call to invite us to the after wedding party, which is another food and drink function in the village, especially for all the volunteers who cooked and worked for the wedding. We are partied out and only stay an hour or two. But the photographs were appreciated by all.

Khamsouk’s wedding, Part 2 The formal ceremony

Khamsouk being made up

We arrived back in the village at a quarter to nine in the morning. Khamsouk was in her shophouse, having her make-up done, while her husband was minding the baby. Her hair had already been done earlier that morning, in a in the traditional cone shape of Lao brides.
A thick layer of make-up made her face almost white, and after finishing the eye make-up, her make-up artist started to apply false eyelashes.

false eyelashes being glued on

All this is not Khmu specific, but generic Lao wedding. Her costume was also traditional Lao style.
I walked around the party site. The villagers had been busy all night cooking up a storm, preparing food for what would turn out to be a party for 400 people.

Ingredients for the salad
Salad ingredients ready to be assembled at the last moment.

The salad ingredients had been prepared but not yet assembled. The eggs were cooked soft, and separated in whites which would be added directly to the salad, the soft yolks mixed with oil, fish sauce, salt and lime juice to form a salad dressing.

The dogs and chickens picked up the remains of the food preparation site

The village dogs and chickens were scavenging amongst the debris from the cooking storm.

The braised pork dish is wrapped in plastic wrap to keep it clean.

The meat dish (I think a pork stew) was ladled into plates and covered in plastic film to keep the flies off – a relatively recent change as at my first weddings in Luang Namtha about 8 years ago they didn’t use that yet.

On the tables I see a pork lahp, the braised pork in gravy, some fresh green leaves (later identified as probably ‘Asian pennywort’) and packages of sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.

The tables ready for the guests to arrive

Salad will be added closer to the time the guests for the reception arrive. With that, a pack of tissues, wrapped chopsticks, spoons, a little bamboo cup for toasting with LaoLao, four bottles of Beerlao, a bottle of water and a bottle of Lao lao (rice whiskey).

The entrance to the wedding site

The entry to the reception area is adorned with a banner announcing the wedding, plenty of balloons, a box to receive the cash gifts. After the more private official baci ceremony, the bridal party will line up here to receive the guests.

The groom, holding his daughter, still in T-shirt during the make-up session

The groom was still walking around in his trackpants and white T-shirt, I suppose guys take a bit less time to prepare. Around nine in the morning, the sound equipment for the band gets delivered and installed.

The groom, ready for the ceremony

Around 9.30, the bride emerged from her house, ready to walk up the hill to her parents’ house,where the ceremony was being held.

The bride, Khamsouk, leaving her house ready for the ceremony

We walked up with her and her husband.

(will be continued as soon as our internet connection allows)

 

 

Hog plum ໝາກກອກ mak gawk, mak kok

Hog plum
Hog plum (mak gawk)

This sour forest fruit is most abundant in the rainy season. It is roasted and used in jeow (a Lao type of dipping sauce) and can be added to papaya salad (tam mak hoong). Substitutes are rhubarb, crab apple or sour plum. It is also eaten as a fruit. It is widely available in Lao and Thai fresh markets.

Khamsouk’s wedding – Pre-wedding ceremony

Khamsouk invited us to attend her pre-wedding ceremony, held around 7.30 pm in her parents’ house on the day before the wedding. The wedding itself was going to be ‘a generic Lao style ceremony’ but the ceremony the night before was going to be ‘according to Khmu culture’.

When we arrived at the little shop near the road, they were just getting ready to walk up the steep hill to her parents house. It was dark, but luckily there were a few torches, because for someone who doesn’t know the path (what path?) its a bit of a challenge at night time.

Khmu house

Entering the house, we found quite a large group of people already there, I’d say a couple of dozen – men sitting around the room in a semi circle, the women congregating in the corner near the kitchen fire, behind the parents. Some discussion went on, mainly between the men, but occasionally input of the women was heard.

The ceremony’s purpose was to make an offering to the parents of the bride and to decide on the remainder of the bride price. This seemed more good hearted to us than the serious deal it still is in India, but as Khamsouk was our only English speaking informant we could not be sure. We’d welcome any comment from our readers on the importance of this for Khmu. The offering consisted of a new sarong for mother, a note of 20,000 Kip (about US $ 2 1/2, five large old silver coins (probably out of the French colonial era) and a small plastic red box, containing a gold necklace.

Offering
Offerings for the parents

The “husband to be” offered the necklace to Mother, and fastened it around her neck. Then the parents were offered a glass of Lao Lao (rice alcohol), which mother drank with slight trepidation showing on her face.
Following that, the debate about the “bride price” continued, the men on the far right producing arguments, the women on the left quietly whispering about it, Dad and the uncle countering the arguments. To my surprise, the other vocal contribution (very vocal at times) was made by the bride. In any earlier bride price negotiations we have witnessed (two so far, one Tai dam and the other with Kalom on one side of the family), the entire negotiations take place between the elders of the two families. The engaged couple tends to sit quietly and let the elders deal with the decisions. In this case, I wasn’t certain if the groom had any family representing him, but it seemed his bride was willing to take on the elders. She is probably the only one in the village with some higher education, and is quite assertive in her own right. When finally a conclusion was reached, everyone relaxed. The women in the far corner seemed to agree about the outcome, and drinks were poured, and food was served.

One of the young women serving the food wore a large white shirt, with lettering in English on it. Kees could read a bit of the centre, but her jacket obscured the rest. He deciphered “Welcome”, and asked her to slightly open her jacket to let me read the rest. She was a bit shy and slinked away to get another dish. Finally, a few minutes later, he caught another glimpse of her and could read the rest. It read in big typeface “You are Welcome’ Then under it in smaller script “If you want, we go straight to my room”.
We are pretty certain the young woman would not understand enough English to be able to read and understand what the shirt said. The only one in the village who would, was of course the bride herself. We wondered where the shirt came from…

A little story about my lunch

How I found myself eating dog for lunch, with a policemen in the local brothel, while listening to the refrain “Don’t wear underpants”

During our many years of travelling to Laos, at some stage we picked up another granddaughter, or maybe more accurately, she adopted us as grandparents. For the sake of this story, I’ll call her Noi.
Noi was a student at University in Vientiane, but she came from an ethnic minority village in the far North of the country. We sponsored some of her studies, and I tutored her in English.

We saw little of her in her last year of study, because we’d moved to Thailand, only occasionally visiting Laos and old friends.

A month or so ago, we were invited to a family meeting, to discuss the date and other details of her upcoming wedding to the Policeman.
She’d suggested a date late in March, expecting we’d come back to Laos as her “adopted grandparents” to take part in the wedding.

But we had a solid commitment that time outside Asia, and would have to leave BKK for that at the latest on March 20. PANIC! “I cannot get married without you there!”
So it was decided a meeting needed to be convened with all interested parties attending, to set a new date.
That morning, we picked Noi up, with mother and baby, and drove to town to the house of Uncle and Aunt. Uncle was mother’s brother. He worked in a government position, possibly reasonable good one, by the size of his house. His wife was a medical professional at the local hospital, and  Noi had left her own home at age 9 to come and live with them in order to go to school. So uncle and Aunt were kind of surrogate parents set Nr 1.

Noi and policeman husband (now in charge of a minor police station and a handful of officers in the same small town), PohMeh and Uncle and Aunt sat down with my wife and I and started the negotiations, while the baby did the rounds amongst the women and the nieces. All of it in Lao of course which I followed for about 60%, occasionally asking Noi to translate a bit I missed.
Most of the problem seemed to be the date because there seemed to be many other events clashing.

Finally date was decided on, to great relief of Noi. Then uncle started to ruminate about the cost of the drink. The food would mostly be paid for by family of the groom, but family of the bride must provide the booze. So when I heard the Uncle suggest a sum needed for the 70 guests, I conferred briefly with my wife, and then volunteered to put up 70% of that amount (Without letting on I’d heard and understood uncle’s 100% figure). PohMeh were penniless, Uncle would have a hard time coming up with 100%. I didn’t offer 100%, since that might have made him loose face, OR  may make him think I was too easy a touch. I thought this was win/win, the amount we needed to contribute was the cost of a couple of nice meals for two in our original hometown.

So everyone relieved, we could now proceed in Lao way to the next main decision, where to go and have lunch to celebrate the successful end to the negotiations.

Uncle Nr 2’s new restaurant!  On a crossroads, just out of town.

We got into the car, with Noi, mum, baby, and the two of us. My wife had to excuse herself, come down with a migraine, she went back to our guest house to sleep. Noi’s husband to be and the uncle and dad would follow on motorbikes.

We arrived at the restaurant, a brick building with porch, two open walls with wooden lattice to provide airflow through, next to the older wooden structure. We entered and found six young women sitting around, listening to music, aged between 17 and 25 (rough guess.
“Oh, Noi, I didn’t know, if this is your uncle’s restaurant, these must be your nieces.”
Noi turned to me and gave me a small wry smile. “Not my nieces, they work here”.
She then handed the baby to mum and walked outside to the car. She’s forgotten something, turned around and gestured to me for the key. I walked to her, unlocked, and went to the boot to get my camera.
She stood next to me and said “They are here to give service”

Then : “They sell”……………….. “Beer”

In the back of the restaurant there was a low slung brick building, with five separate doors next to each other. Five tiny short time rooms, as they are called in neighbouring Thailand.

I turned to Noi and said “Never mind, I have been here for long enough to understand, no worries”. She smiled again and went back inside to arrange for the food.

The girls coo’ed over the baby, then gradually left us alone. They looked a bit sad.

When the meal was served, I was alone at the table with Policeman-Husband. Noi and her mother, baby and one niece were sitting at the next table. Our table was served a nice cabbage soup, two types of fried meat, sticky rice and some fresh vegetables. And a couple of bottles of Beer Lao. I tried to engage Husband in conversation by telling the story how on the way to the village that morning, I’d been pulled over by two policemen, who wanted to see my documents and asked where I was going. I’d answered them in Lao, they complemented me on my language skills, and asked me how long I’d been coming to Laos. Off and on 13 years.  They seemed very young. They greeted me and waved me through. This time, they didn’t even ask for money. I complemented their boss on their politeness. He smiled at me.

Meanwhile, the stereo system was crooning in Thai style pop music, but sung in Lao or Isan language. The last line of the refrain was “Bo Chai Khangkaeng Nai”.
In my understanding that means “Don’t wear (or Put on) Underpants”.
I looked surprised, repeated the line, and asked my table companion if I heard that right.
He smiled again, and nodded.

Meal over, I was full, and was offered some watermelon. Then Noi said I must drink more beer. “I cannot drink too much when I have to drive a car, I think Lao police doesn’t like falang get drunk and drive”. Husband, gave me a little smile this time. Great conversationalist!

The dish in the centre "Dog"

“By the way ,Noi, what was that second meat dish?”

“Dog”

Still, it was very tasty. Then I remembered hearing earlier how the Policeman had been called out early morning, to help negotiate the outcome of an accident, car hit motorcycle, in which a dog had died. I wondered.

One of my more surreal meal experiences, eating dog in a whorehouse with a policeman while listening to “Don’t wear Underpants”
Laos is a country full of surprises.

Media welcomed into Khmu (Khamu) family

Media's baci
Media"s baci

Khamsouk’s child recently had her baci where she was named, and welcomed into the wider Khmu family in Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha Province. The Khmu have merged Lao and their own earlier traditions for the ceremony which is held after 28 days following birth, during which mother and child remain in the house, resting on a bed close to a fire. This is thought to contract the uterus, and also gives mother and child time together rather than mother going straight back to work. The offerings part of the ceremony calls the wandering khwan (the 32 guardian spirits that are part of every person) back into the person, restoring equilibrium. This needs to be done for a new baby and mother because birth is traumatic and the new family are setting off on a new life journey.

Baci for Media and her parents
Baci for Media and her parents
Baci for Media
Baci for Media and her parents

The tying of strings on the baby’s and parent’s wrists is accompanied by a set of blessings wishing good fortune, long life etc. It is a wonderfully positive process where everybody bestows their good wishes on baby and parents while tying the strings. I find myself with a widely beaming smile and a loving peacefulness and openness every time I attend a baci.

Khamsouk's mother
Khamsouk's mother tying strings on her daughter

Feast following Media's baci
Feast following Media's baci

Feast
Khmu baci feast in Ban Chalensouk

The baci was, of course, followed by a feast. (I bet you thought I’d never get to the food!)
There were people eating both inside and outside the house; the photo on the left is of the senior men. Khamsouk’s mother is holding Media.
You may have noticed the offerings on the table in the second photo (above) for calling the spirits. They include a boiled chicken and a cooked egg, which was slightly peeled during the ceremony (the chick has successfully hatched?), rice, khanom (crackers and other treats), fruit, lao Lao (a rice spirit of the alcoholic persuasion, not a khwan!), the strings for tying later, money, etc. It is especially important that the chicken and egg are eaten by the main participants, it is “strong food” laden with blessings and power. The chicken stock is made into a soup. There is also a fish soup, grilled fish and accompanying pounded spices for seasoning and sticky rice.