World Award for runner up Asian Cookbook

STOP PRESS

Just found out we’ve been awarded the runner up award, second prize in the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards – “Best Asian Cookbook” – in the World. Earlier Gourmand awarded the book “Best Cookbook for Lao PDR”.

It is an honour for us and for our cooks in Laos who shared their knowledge and assisted us in recording this wonderful food.

Thank you Joy, Chan, Toeuy and all the other people who assisted us. This prize is as much about you and your great food preparation skills.

 

Breakfast at Ban Chalensouk

It was the day Khamsouk’s baby had her baci, the formal ceremony in Khmu culture (and slightly differently in Tai culture) where the baby girl is named (Media, yup, as in communication), accepted into the family, and wished a good life; and her parents, Khamsouk and her husband, are acknowledged and “blessed” in their new role. If Media is anything like her mother she’s well named!  This ceremony is held approximately one month after the baby has been born. For the previous 28 days the mother follows a traditional form of resting close to the fire, eating a restricted diet, and the baby may have a tenuous hold on life. Khamsouk followed this practice. My next post will share the ceremony and the food which followed, but here is a snippet to whet your appetite – our breakfast before the baci ceremony. We arrived at 10 am and we were going to have another feast at midday after the baci! We were late because our tiny car had two flat tires achieved getting to Luang Namtha from Luang Prabang.

Breakfast at Ban Chalensouk
Breakfast for two at Ban Chalensouk (the huge banana-leaf-wrapped parcels of sticky rice not shown)

From top left: Khmu (Khamu) yellow eggplant sa (this is very bitter), lemon grass dipping sauce, jeow houa sikai , simmered bitter bamboo (naw mai kom, which don’t taste bitter at all when young like these ones), a gelatinous pork dish from the market was unfamiliar, it may be made from pig’s trotters and only tasted so-so, yummy freshly grilled tilapia fish stuffed with lemon grass, ping pa, and in the centre, a pork lahp with sliced innards, again from the market.

Bitter bamboo shoots
Simmered bitter bamboo shoots
Lemon grass jeow
Lemon grass jeow

Bitter bamboo shoots are available in the dry season when other shoots are no longer abundant. One peels off the skin of a shoot, breaks off a piece and dunks it into the lemon grass jeow, which makes a stunning accompaniment. The jeow contains finely sliced galangal root and lemon grass, as well as garlic. These are pounded with salt and lime juice is then added. Finally chopped spring onion greens are stirred in. I think that the jeow would be just as delicious using ginger root and such a substitution would be consistent with Khmu culture because they often use small traditional ginger (which is more pungent than commercial ginger) in their dishes where other Lao would use galangal.

Nang Noi’s birthday rice noodles

Kees and I arrived at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha after a long bumpy drive in our fire-engine red Honda Jazz from Luang Prabang. This car in SE Asia is considered a teenager’s car but in New Zealand, its a Nana-mobile.  OK, I’m a Nana and Kees has teenage tendencies – so its a good fit for us, even if it is not really suitable for travelling in Laos. We thought we might have to lift it onto a barge at one stage! Still, it, like us, coped with anything, even though the trip cost us two shot tyres!

No sooner had we checked into our bamboo “chalet” by the river, and showered off the dust than we were summoned to Nang Noi’s 20th birthday celebration.

Namthip and Nang Noi
Namthip and Nang Noi at Nang Noi’s 20th birthday

Nang Noi (Little woman) had been looking after Namthip as an after school activity since she was about 12 years old. Now Namthip is 9. As you can see it was cold in Luang Namtha!

Everyone gathered outside the Boat Landing kitchen around three low bamboo tables, which had the makings for a version of Lao hotpot sin dat (without the meat as fish was used instead). A huge aluminium bowl of green vegetables, herbs and bean sprouts had been washed and torn into manageable pieces and fine dried rice noodles had been soaked and drained. A rice serving bowl holding delicious spicy home-made chilli sauce was at hand and two electric hot pots filled with stock bubbled away.
The vegetables were piled into one pot of stock – loads of them and simmered. Meanwhile, the fish pieces poached in the other pot. To serve, vegetables were removed with chopstick to a soup bowl, rice noodles and a bit of broth added, topped with fish. The diners added sauce to their liking and mixed up everything together. Accompanied with Beer Lao, this is a great way to celebrate a birthday with minimal work and maximum fun and informality.

Nang Noi serving a bowl of noodle soup
Nang Noi serving a bowl of noodle soup

The leisurely meal and socialising took several hours, but we toddled off to bed early after catching up with everybody. 7 hours on the road takes its toll! However, the road is much improved from November last year, when it took us 11 hours in a van.

Namthip learns to cook

Lao children learn how to prepare food by watching and doing from an early age. In the villages they help their elders with fetching water, gathering vegetables and foraging, catching insects, field crabs and fish. Learning starts with imitation of older children and adults, often their carers, and as the young person’s skills develop, their assistance becomes an important contribution to the household. Namthip, Joy and Sompawn’s daughter, lives at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha, so instead heading off to forage she is more likely to be in the kitchen – the heart of extended family action!

Namthip is now nine and already competent helping in the kitchen, which she does informally and for fun.  While Kees and I were recording a recipe for Poon Pa, Luang Namtha -style, Namthip wandered into the kitchen and got in on the action. Her presence was immediately accepted and incorporated into the pace of the kitchen by Peng and the other kitchen staff. She started off stirring the occasional pot while the cooks were otherwise occupied, then moved on to stringing chillies for the Poon Pa.

Namthip learning to cook
Namthip learning how to string chillies for grilling
Namthip stringing chillies for grilling
Namthip stringing chillies for grilling

When she put the chillies on the grill Namthip noticed larger chillies and garlic were also grilling for another jeow (spicy dipping sauce).

Grilling chillies and garlic
Grilling chillies and garlic

Namthip took over the chopping of these grilled chillies for young sweet chilli jeow using the same technique as is used for chopping meat or fish for lahp or sa. She’d obviously done it many times before.

Namthip mincing chillies for jeow
Namthip mincing chillies for jeow

As Namthip demonstrates, the most comfortable position for mincing (lahp) is to work at floor level while sitting on a low stool. When mincing grilled chillies or meat, cut the ingredients into small pieces first, then finely chop with a small cleaver or knife on a wooden or plastic chopping board. Work from one side of the ingredients to the other, and use the knife to fold the minced ingredients back to the centre. Also do fold the ingredients at right angles, so everything is evenly minced. Namthip shows these moves:

Mincing chillies
Mincing chillies 2
Mincing chillies 3
Mincing chillies 3
Mincing chillies 4
Mincing chillies – moving chillies to centre
Mincing chillies 5
Mincing chillies 5

Lao Breakfast at Rattanakone

Khao Tom

While in Luang Prabang we have been staying at this great little guest house – the Rattanakone Guest House – in Ban Thongchaluean, very close to the peninsula and the Mekong, also a hop, skip and a jump from Joma. Apart from a comfy bed, powerful hot shower and happy laid back family staff, they sport wonderful breakfasts – khao tom and noodle dishes. There is no menu, everyone gets the same, whatever has been chosen for the day. Showing intense interest in tasting you favourite dishes does definitely influence the cook though! Here is the khao tom, which is rice soup, with little meat balls, garnished with Vietnamese sausage, finely sliced omelette, spring onions, coriander (cilantro) and deep fried garlic. Its served often served with lime wedges, sugar, pepper, dried chillies fried in oil, fresh chillies, ginger, pickled turnip, fish sauce, Knorr or Maggi seasoning sauce and occasionally crullers – the Chinese style deep fried dough that look like reproducing mitochondria ??!! where did I get that idea?  Anyway, it tasted yum, and sets you up for the day.

Khao Tom
Khao tom – rice soup

It took me a long time to get around to eating khao tom (stupid me) because rice soup sounded unappetizing to my Western sensibilities. I finally came around while flatting with Malaysian Chinese students in the 1970’s. I think it was the fermented turnip that put me off at first! It has a very powerful smell.

Another breakfast served here is nem  kao (neem khao), folded and rolled squares of steamed rice pasta, stuffed with a fried mixture of mildly spiced pork and finely chopped cloud ear mushrooms. The stuffing  is only added on one side towards the end of the roll. Accompaniments include pounded fresh chilli sauce, a sweetened soy sauce, lime juice and ground peanuts. Rice noodle rolls originally come from China (Cantonese cuisine) and Vietnam. The version served at the Rattanakone probably is Vietnamese influenced, given the prominent business role the Vietnamese play in Laos and its use as a breakfast rather than as dim sum.

Neem Khao rice noodle rolls
Neem khao, rice noodle rolls

Food and photos in Luang Prabang

Last week Kees was coaching young botanists (new grads form NUOL) and other staff from the Pha Tad Ke Garden in Luang Prabang. The garden isn’t open to the public yet as it is still being landscaped and plants take a long time to grow, but it should open in a couple of years time. The garden is on the opposite side of the Mekong River to Luang Prabang so getting there every day involved a tuk tuk ride followed by sliding down a steep river bank, into a very skinny, very long boat (shake shake…) and across the river. Early mornings the mountains and river banks were shrouded in mists. Two pullover temperature. Then the morning exercise came – clambering up the bank (the river is very low!) We did this for five days.

Botany staff and Kees
Photography workshop

After a morning’s work we’d eat lunch, cooked in the local village. Here is a sample of the dishes:

Soop pak
Soop pak

The sook pak had both ginger and sesame seeds and lots of succulent long beans. This was accompanied by sticky rice and a chicken lahp which had beautifully balanced flavours.

Chicken lahp
Chicken lahp

Another day we ate aw lahm, which sported the whitest, freshest pieces of sakharn I’ve ever had and lots of  black mouse ear mushrooms.

Aw lahm
Aw lahm

A very mildly spicy, mildly sweet-sour chicken dish incorporated finely sliced lemon grass. It also had Kaffir lime leaves and lots of onion.

Fried chicken with lemongrass
Fried chicken with lemongrass

Of course, one day flash-fried kai pen (river weed) was served:

Kai pen
Kai pen river weed

While Kees and The young botanists were using the big Canon cameras I tripped around the botanical garden with my little “slip in your purse” Fujifilm Finepix with auto disabled. I haven’t got around to examining the photos in fine details, but here’s one of the inside of a sida flower (guava)

guava flower
Bee’s view of a guava flower

And this is torch ginger flower:

Ginger flower
Ginger flower

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 ingredients 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

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!

Our Lao cookbook wins a Gourmand World Cookbook Award

The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards have just announced the best cookbook of the year, 2010,  for 57 countries, and Food from Northern Laos – The Boat Landing Cookbook (Galangal Press) won the award for Laos. We are very happy, as the book contains heaps of Lao recipes, descriptions of ingredients etc and has Lao script, so such recognition hopefully will promote Lao food throughout the world. One of these 57 books (chosen from around 8,000 entries) will be the « Best Cookbook of the Year ». The shortlist will be announced in January, and the « Best in the World » will be proclaimed March 3, 2011 in Paris, in a glamorous awards event at the Theatre Le 104, within Le 104, the new Artistic Center of the City of Paris. In January we think they will also announce the Best Asian Cookbook award and other categories, so, fingers crossed! Whoppee!

Read about it here: Press Release, December 14, 2010 Cookbook Winners!

Visit their website Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Khmu khao poon

Khao poon (also spelt kao poon or kao pun) is a noodle dish widely made and consumed throughout Laos. This Khmu version with fermented soybean paste and minced pork was cooked by Khamsouk Philatorn, who used to make and sell it at the Luang Namtha Chinese market as a part time job while attending secondary school. The instructions below should make enough for about 30 people. Family and friends in Ban Chalensouk helped with all the chopping and shredding of the ingredients and with eating the finished product!

A serving of khao poon has four components:

  • Finely chopped or shredded vegetables, which are placed in the bottom of a big soup bowl
  • Hanks of soaked and drained khao poon noodles or rice vermicelli, which are added to the bowl
  • A spicy soup, ladled over the top to warm and partially cook the other ingredients
  • Condiments such as soy sauce, chilli sauce and lime which are added to the individual’s taste.

The whole lot is mixed together and eaten with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon.

Ingredients

1 large bunch yard-long beans

1 large bunch spring onion tops

1 large bunch mint

1 kg boiled bamboo shoots

1 big bunch coriander (cilantro)

2 – 4 banana flowers, outer petals removed

6 limes (2 for acidulating the banana flower water and the rest for individuals to add to their soup bowls)

3 -5 pieces  galangal root (big handful – the smaller rhyzomes are hotter and spicier)

3 heads garlic

One half to one handful of red chillies

2 onions

Khao poon noodles or rice vermicelli

1 C oil

1 kg coagulated blood or use 2 black puddings instead

1 kg minced fatty pork (You can use more mince pork if you like and cut down on the blood)

Generous half cup of fermented soybean paste (or make your own, see fermented soy bean paste)

Knorr (stock) powder and/or msg.

Prepared Khao poon vegetables
Prepared Khao poon vegetables

Step 1: Vegetable Platter preparation

(Get as many people to help as you can)
  1. Finely slice the bunches of yard-long beans and spring onion tops and  arrange beside each other on a big tray.
  2. Take 1 kg of boiled bamboo shoots, remove the tough outer leaves from the shoots and tease into fine shreds with a toothpick. Add to the tray.
  3. Chop the bunch of coriander (cilantro) and add to the tray.
  4. Pull the leaves off the mint and add to the tray.
  5. Finely shave the inner part of several banana flowers into a bowl of water to which a couple of squeezed limes have been added. Squeeze dry and add to the tray.
Pounded mixture for soup
Pounded mixture for soup

Step 2: Preparation of ingredients for the soup

  1. Finely slice several roots of galangal.
  2. Peel and finely slice the cloves of 3 heads of garlic.
  3. Finely chop  one half up to a handful of red chillies.
  4. Slice 2 onions vertically.
  5. Put the garlic and chilis in a mortar and pound thoroughly to a rough paste.
Preparing the noodles
Preparing the noodles

Step 3: Preparation of the noodles

  1. If you are using dried noodles, soak the khao poon noodles or rice vermacelli in warm water until soft. (khao poon noodles will need hotter water and will take linger than rice vermacelli.)
  2. When soft, use a chopstick to line up and remove a small hank of noodles from the water. Let drain, then use your hands to make into a tidy oval hank. Repeat, lay one hank overlapping the other to form a circle in a colander lined with banana leaf. Set aside. This step can be done while the soup is simmering.
  3. If using fresh noodles already in hanks, pour some warm water through them to refresh them, arrange them to suit on a banana leaf-lined sieve, and let drain until serving time.
Adding pork to the soup
Adding pork to the soup

Step 4: Assembling the soup

    1. Heat 1 cup of oil in a big pot.
    2. Add the pounded chili mixture and fry until golden and smelling sweetly fragrant.
    3. Add the galangal and onions and continue to brown.
    4. Add the minced pork and fry until it is well mixed, then add the fermented soybean paste. Brown all together, then top the pot up to two thirds with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste, and add Knorr and msg to suit. Continue to simmer for 30 more minutes.
Adding the blood to the soup
Adding the blood to the soup
  1. Cut the coagulated blood or blood sausage into 3 cm (1 1/4 in) cubes and add to the soup. Simmer for 10 – 15 minutes more until the blood has changed to a dark colour.

Step 5: Serving

  1. To serve, for each diner, place a small amount of all of the vegetables in the bottom of a deep soup bowl. Add one or two hanks of noodles. Spoon over the soup, making sure some of the minced pork and blood product are included.
  2. Make soya sauce, chili sauce, msg, salt and ground white pepper are available on the table so people can adjust their portion to suit their own taste.
    (N.B.: The family made their own weak soy sauce by boiling salted black soya beans in water, mashing them and decanting the liquid).
Khamsouk's younger brother eating khao poon
Khamsouk’s younger brother eating khao poon

Bamboo shoot stew with pork ແກງ ໜໍ່ໄມ້ ໃສ່ຊີ້ນໝູ gaeng naw mai sai sin moo

This is one of three recipes for gaeng naw mai from the cookbook “Food from Northern Laos”. It uses fresh bamboo shoots and yanang juice. The recipe was recorded in ant egg season (April – May), so ant eggs and acacia fronds were added. The recipe is perfectly fine without the ant eggs, and you can add a mix of beans, mak buab (or zuchini), squash tendrils, Lao basil and sawtooth herb (or coriander) cut in  5 cm pieces instead of the acacia fronds or leave the greens out entirely.  Up to you!

N.B. One of the other recipes, gaeng naw mai som uses pickled bamboo shoots and the other, gaeng naw mai sai padek uses a piece of fermented fish from the padek pot as well as your choice of meat.

Serves four to six.

Ingredients

500 g – 1 kg  (1 – 2 lb)  fleshy pork bones chopped into small pieces (3 cm [1 in])
1 – 2 large handfuls yanang leaves to taste (or half a tin or more of yanang extract)
Water for soaking yanang leaves
3 T oil
5 cloves garlic
1 small white or red onion, chopped into thumb-size pieces or several shallots
5 T padek, boiled for 5 minutes to sterilize (or less to taste, or add some fish sauce at the end)
10 – 12 long reddish chillies
1 thick bamboo shoot, pre-cooked, finely sliced lengthwise and blanched (or about 2 cups tinned bamboo shoots)
2 C oyster mushrooms
2⁄3 C cloud ear mushrooms
1 bunch acacia fronds (pak la) (or your choice of greens)
1 C red ant eggs (optional)

Method

  1. Put yanang leaves into water and soak. Rub, squeeze and collect the liquid (or use tinned yanang extract).
  2. In a large frying pan or wok, add the oil. When hot, add the garlic, stir briefly and then add the onion. When the onion is transparent, add the pork pieces, frying until sealed and succulent looking (about 5 minutes).
  3. Put the yanang juice in a large pot along with the padek and chillies. If using yanang extract, add sufficient water to create a soupy stew. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pork and simmer for 5 more minutes. Stir in the bamboo shoots and simmer a further 5 minutes. Lower heat if needed and add the oyster mushrooms. Stir to mix gently.
  4. Line up the fronds, so they face the same direction. Curl them on top of the stew; do not mix in. Leave to simmer for a few minutes, and then slip in the red ant eggs and cloud ear mushrooms trying not to disturb the fronds. Simmer for a few minutes more. Take off the heat and serve with steamed sticky or plain rice.

Kmhmu fish dishes (Khmu)

Fish grilling over embers

This article describes various Khmu fish dishes prepared by the men of Ban Chalensouk the morning after the party.
The farmed fish used are small tilapia – a sweet tasting freshwater fish much used in Laos and bought from the market that morning.

Three dishes were prepared and served with sticky rice – grilled fish flavoured with local herbs and chilli, a sour fish soup and a stew of spicy fish innards. The only thing not used from the fish were the scales. One bowl of fish thus served 20 plus people generously.

Fish for lunch
Tilapia – enough for 3 Kmhmu dishes

The fish were first of all scaled and gutted. The quantity was divided in two, one half to be grilled and the other half to be made into a soup. The guts were set aside for the stew.

Seasoning fish for grilling
Seasoning fish with pounded herbs for grilling

The fish to be grilled were plastered on one side with a pounded mixture of lemongrass, green chillies, galangal, lemon (hairy) basil (pak i tou Lao) and finely chopped spring onion. Salt and msg were added. After seasoning, each fish was folded crossways to enclose the filling and secured between two pieces of split bamboo (mai heep neep) ready for traditional grilling over the open wood fire.

Fish ready for grilling
Fish secured in mai heep neep ready for grilling
Fish grilling over embers
Fish grilling over embers, Kmhmu-style

The second portion of the fish was made into a mild sour fish soup (gaeng som pa) which had lemon grass, a few green chillies, onions, tomato, salt and msg added.

Sour fish soup
Sour fish soup and grilled fish Kmhmu-style (eyes included)
Preparing innard stew
Adding pak i tou Lao to stew

The guts were made into a stew flavoured with pak i tou Lao (bai manglaek (Thai),  lemon or hairy basil), chopped galangal, garlic, chillies, spring onions and fresh mak ken (a local version of Sechuan pepper).

Herbs all added and mixed together
Herbs all added and mixed together

Small cubes of coagulated pork blood were  added later.

fish dishes
Grilled fish, innards stew and sour fish soup

In all three dishes, msg and salt were the flavour-enhancers rather than fish sauce and Knorr stock powder, which are more recent influences. The food was delicious – the best grilled fish I’ve tasted!

Fish lunch in Ban Chalensouk
Fish lunch in Ban Chalensouk

Baci at Ban Chalensouk

Baci at Ban Chalensouk
Baci at Ban Chalensouk

In my last article I described the preparation of Khmu food before the baci ceremony, held in October 2010 at Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha province in Northern Laos. Kees and I were happy to be honoured guests and to help our ‘grand daughter’, Khamsouk, celebrate her graduation from college and triumphant return to her village.

The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees
The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees

Spiritual and ritualistic practices are important to most Lao people. The baci, also called sou khuan, is an ancient pre-Buddhist ritual traditionally conducted by Tai speakers, now widely practised by other Lao citizens, including Kmhmu, who have their own spiritual beliefs and way of doing things. The baci is the most popular Lao traditional ceremony celebrated at special events, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, a welcome or even to help cure sickness. Tom Butcher and Dawn Ellis, in their book ‘Laos’, London, a wol book: Pallas Athene, 1993, describe the baci ceremony in detail. This particular baci was held in Khamsouk’s new shop/house. It’s wired for electricity ready for when the power is hooked up. That won’t be for some time yet, though.

Tying strings
Kees trying strings on Khamsouk

The baci ceremony includes the ritualistic tying of cotton threads to ensure blessings of the spirits on specific persons, activities, or places. It is also an important gesture of reconciliation and is believed to restore the natural order of things (Source: LNTA).

After the baci, we adjorned to the tables outside for the feast and lamvong dancing to a local (highly amplified) live band. Lamvong is a circular folk dance, with the women on the outside of the circle and the men on the inside, and each couple dances slowly around each other while progressing around the main circle.

Dancing the lamwong
Dancing the lamwong at Ban Chalensouk
Young people dancing
Khamsouk and friends dancing lamvong

Its certainly not hip-hop.  Messages are far more subtle. But it IS a dance of courtship and building of social relationships (without looking at each other or touching, however). It certainly holds people’s interest, old and young – the dancing went on for 7 hours, mainly lamvong, with maybe half an hour of line dancing interspersed! Its a bit risky doing line dancing in Laos for too long!

Lao hai Kmhmu
Lao hai Kmhmu

In the afternoon the lao hai was opened and we imbibed. This is home made Lao rice wine fermented in a pottery jar (hai). Its very tasty and never drunk alone, always at least two people suck the equivalent of 2 glasses full from straws (or these days, IV leads). The jar is then replenished with the same amount of water, and two or more other people take over the drinking. The people who get first crack at the jar get the strongest alcohol, because the water dilutes the brew over time. Occasionally it is stirred with a stick to mix in the water.

Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk 2
Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk – Khamsouk’s Dad on the right
Lao hai drinking
Dolly and friends enjoy Lao hai. Both men touch the IV line so the drink is shared.

With Beer Lao, toasts of Lao lao and Lao hai, it is very difficult to remain vertical after a while. Naps are highly recommended throughout the festivities, which gaily continue regardless of where the guests are for a while!  Starting at 11 am, the band packed up at 7 pm. So a slow fade out on this article The next blog will cover making khao poon, Kmhmu style ‘the morning after’.

Party at Ban Chalensouk
Party at Ban Chalensouk – still doing the lamvong at 6 pm!

Pork and bamboo shoot soup and other feast food at Ban Chalensouk

The next few posts will be about the party in Ban Chalensouk, a Kmhmu (khmu, kamu, khamu) village about 20 km south of Luang Namtha township in Northern Laos on Route 3 to Bokeo. This is Khamsouk’s village and she was organising a big celebration after returning from her successful Vientiane studies. In part, it was held to honour us as her study sponsors, but also I think, to make a statement to others that Khamsouk was returning to her village well educated and grown up – the first university graduate of village with her own local shop and a baby on the way. It was a two pig celebration (having encouraged her to spare the cow). I have a soft spot for cows, coming originally from a New Zealand dairy farm. (I didn’t know until my 20’s that the beef we ate could be female as well as male – I’d always thought after a life of giving milk, cull cows were sold for pet food – duh!).

We arrived by motorbike around 9 am, and the bamboo shoot and pork soup was already bubbling away. The bamboo shoots were from the forest and the pigs – well, they had been dispatched early in the morning and were sliced and diced well before we arrived. For details of this process, at an earlier celebration a few years before in the same village, visit Kees’ website in PBase.

Here is the outdoor kitchen, with the soup brewing:

Pork and bamboo soup cooking
Pork and bamboo soup cooking on wood fires

And inspecting the soup:

Pork and bamboo shoot soup
Pork and bamboo shoot soup

Upstairs, which is usually the village official meeting place, the other dishes were being assembled by the women:

Preparing soop pak and lahp for 60+ people
Preparing soop pak and lahp for 60+ people

For the soop pak (steamed vegetable salad with galangal and sesame seeds), freshly picked and steamed vine shoots, flowers, berries, leaves and gadawm gourds (mak gadawm or mak noi) formed the main ingredients:

green vegetables for soop pak
green vegetables for soop pak

Pounded finely chopped galangal (tasting it I think that there was a fair wallop of Knorr or salt added to help the breaking down process), freshly pounded roasted chillies, msg and pounded roasted local sesame seeds were added and everything was mixed together:

Mixing soop pak while the other women make lahp
Mixing soop pak while the other women make lahp
Rice noodles for lahp
Rice noodles for lahp

The sa (spicy pork salad) meat had already been chopped finely and lightly fried with a bit of oil in a wok then left to cool. Rice vermicelli had  been soaked and drained and banana flowers finely shaved. The amount of shaved banana flower was roughly the same as the amount of cooked minced pork.

Pounding cooked lahp meat
Pounding cooked lahp meat

One woman pounded the fried minced meat to a finer consistency. I’d never seen this done before. I tried it a few days ago making lahp for some visitors and it gave a lovely fine texture to it (although I like it coarse as well). Also, two handfuls of medium-sized green chillies were finely sliced. Salad herbs were prepared – a mix of finely shredded spring onions and small coriander leaves (cilantro). Now came the assembly process. First the pounded pork and banana flower were thoroughly mixed and kneaded together with the sliced chillies and some of the meat juice.

Cutting noodles into the lahp
Cutting noodles into the lahp

The rice vermicelli (or maybe the noodles were bean threadsit wouldn’t matter which, but bean threads wouldn’t break up as much) was cut into smaller pieces about 4 – 5 cm long (2″) and lightly mixed in. No pounded roasted rice or lime juice was added, but salt and msg were. The herbs were added last of all and everything lightly mixed together, then served up  garnished with more herbs on small plates at the table.

Mixing the lahp
Mixing the lahp

Here is our breakfast, with the soop pak and sa made from the feast ingredients. A soup (gaeng) is also added and the banana leaves contain freshly steamed sticky rice, grown locally.

Breakfast, the one after breakfast and before lunch
Breakfast, the one after breakfast and before lunch! gaeng gai (chicken soup), soop pak (steamed vegetable salad), lahp moo (poork lahp) and khao niao (sticky rice)

And one table of the post baci feast, before eating:

One table of feast food
One table of feast food

Animal from the forest

“What are you eating, Khamsouk?” “Animal from the forest!” I peer at her plate of brownish stew with sticky rice accompaniment. Unidentifiable, I muse, but maybe barking deer. Best not to enquire further. Khamsouk, Kees and I were in a roadside restaurant in Pak Mong at 11 in the morning having lunch on our way from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha. We were eating early because the road between here and Oudomxai (60 km) was so bad we would not arrive at Oudomxai for lunch before 2 pm, a potential disaster for all those Lao with clock-work tummies set at mid-day for aharn tian (lunch). Kees and I had ordered fer, a Vietnamese-inspired noodle soup ubiquitous throughout Laos. We hadn’t had a chance to eat fer on this trip so we were hanging out out for it. In the rush to get our “fix” we had missed the trays of pre-prepared dishes lurking in the shopfront glass cabinet. But Khamsouk hadn’t! Oh well, I thought, peeved at missing the opportunity to sample bush tucker, at least fer is the best dish for not getting the trots while travelling! (Such considerations are necessary on a long, steep and winding road with no loos and lots of exposed cliff faces). In Khamsouk’s opinion, the unidentified meat was too spicy so she didn’t finish it, but she was delighted to identify the other dishes in the display cabinet for us.  Here they are:

Frogs
Tasty frogs (kop) with crunchy bits
Animal from the forest
Animal from the forest
Jeow padaek
Dry fermented fish relish, jeow padek
Bamboo larvae
Dry fried bamboo larvae

The shop also served vegetable soop, an aw lahm (spicy stew), steamed local vegetables pak neung, two different kinds of insects, smoke dried meat siin yang (source unknown) and grilled baby fish. After finishing the photographs and buying snacks for the journey we got back on our way, with one stop to pour water on the brake linings at a local village, where Khamsouk showed us the local guava mak sida – very delicious. New leaves from the guava tree behind her are finely chopped and put in Akha pork balls.

Khamsouk and guava
Khamsouk holding local guava mak sida by tree

She also showed us a wild vegetable growing close to the local water source – pak hart. It is steamed to be eaten with a jeow, and added to stews (both aw and gaeng). It has a numbing effect on the tongue.

pak hart
pak hart

We arrived in Oudomxai at 3 pm and finally in Luang Namtha at 8 pm – 11 hours and 308 km from setting out from Luang Prabang. Goodness, we needed that Beer Lao when we arrived at The Boat Landing!