“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:
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.
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.
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!
I’ve been mulling about how people without access to fresh blood products such as blood cake can get the taste and colour of the fresh stuff without the food safety risks and general “yuk” factor for the faint of heart. Blood pudding – that Scottish and English breakfast standard should do the trick nicely. I’m off to my local UK food supplier, Yorkies, in Jomtien, Chonburi, Thailand to get a couple, and have a go cooking two Lao recipes using blood pudding instead of blood cake or blood, namely Akha pork balls and northern Lao khao poon. I’ll keep you posted on the experiment.
Update: Yes, it works! Not the same, but it gives colour and that rich blood flavour to the Akha meatballs. OK, so bits of black pudding floating in your Khao poon is culturally weird, but its the closest you’ll ever get to the taste of blood cake in the land of “sanitized” pork products!
Pak la have long fronds and are used in Lao recipes as a bitter ingredient, such as in bamboo soup. They may be chopped and fried into an omelette. Another variety of acacia with shorter fronds, pak ka, may be substituted. Outside of Luang Namtha, the long fronds are also called pak ka. Acacia fronds are readily available year round in Laos and Thai wet markets.
A very spicy (peppery and chilli tones), woody vine with a lingering aftertaste used in Northern Lao food. It is slightly numbing to the tongue. Used in Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha provinces in aw lahm, it enhances a dish’s flavour. It is also added to some river weed and taro (bon) dishes. It is an appetite stimulant. It is sold in lengths of very thick vine trunk. Smaller sections – 3 cm x 1 cm (1½ in x ¼ in) – are chopped from the whole with a cleaver immediately before adding the bits to an aw lahm. If not used immediately, it will either dry or go black very quickly. Choose mai sakahn that is not dried out and which is insect-free. Mai sakahn can be kept in the freezer.
The closest substitute for a 3 cm (1½ in) mai sakahn piece is a combination of 1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns, 5 Sichuan pepper berries (or the local version, mak ken), plus 1 dried red chilli and 1 bitter leaf, such as celery, placed together in a tea infuser and submerged in the stew. Remove the infuser and its contents before serving.
This herb is widely used in Lao recipes. The small-leafed, short plant is the Lao version; the variety with larger stems and leaves grows from Chinese seed. It is a standard raw accompaniment for lahp and sa. Use the plant, root removed, as a salad vegetable. The leaves are added to soups just before serving. Use in young chilli pepper jeow. Lao do not cook with the seed.
A common ingredient in Lao recipes, a wide variety of gourds are grown in Laos. The gourd, leaves, flowers and tendrils are all eaten.
Angled gourd, silk melon ໝາກໜອຍ mak noi
Use in soups and fry with pork. Sometimes it is used in bamboo soup. It is steamed in northern provinces and eaten during the rice harvest ceremony.
Gadawm gourd ໝາກກະດອ່ມ mak gadawm
A small, rainy season gourd, it is used for soup or eaten steamed with jeow. Substitute any small biter gourd.
Sponge gourd ໝາກບວບ mak buab
This gourd is very similar in appearance to zucchini (courgette). Its skin is dull, not shiny. Steam and eat with jeow. Zucchini is a suitable substitute. The leaves, ຍອດໜາກບວບ nyot mak buab, can be stir fried in the same manner as morning glory. Steam the leaves and eat with tomato jeow. Add to soup.
Water gourd, bottle gourd ໝາກນ້ຳ mak nam
Fully grown water gourds are dried and used as water-carrying vessels. Small, 10 cm (4 in) long, immature gourds are eaten steamed with their skin on with a jeow or added as a vegetable to a soup or stew. They are quite bland. Substitute scallopini (patty pan squash).
Pumpkin is prepared and eaten in many different ways in Laos. Chunks are used in soup recipes, especially when the whole is small and immature, or pieces may be fried or steamed. Custard is steamed in small, whole buttercup pumpkins, and cooled slices are served as a sweet. This is a classic sold by street vendors specializing in sweets. The dessert is also popular throughout Thailand.
Pumpkin tendrils, young Pumpkin tendrils, young ຍອດໜາກອຶ nyot mak eu
Add to bamboo shoot soup just before serving. Boil or steam young leaves and tendrils and eat with jeow. Use cut young leaves to fry with eggs or pork. Steam and use in soop pak along with other vegetables. The flowers can be stuffed with a minced pork mixture, dipped in either beaten egg or tempura batter and deep-fried.
In Lao recipes, shallots are much more commonly used than are onions. They are used sliced in stir fries and raw in salads. They are also pickled whole. Small ones are finely sliced vertically into lahp and are roasted and pounded in jeow. They are pounded with garlic and added to moke and grilled taro leaf parcels. Shallots are also finely sliced, shallow or deep-fried until golden and crisp and then used as a topping for soupy dishes such as boiled rice soup (kao tom) and green bamboo stew (naw hian).
The garnish can be purchased, or make your own.
Peel and finely slice 1 cup shallots. Heat 2 cups oil. Add the shallots and fry on a low heat until golden brown. Remove with a wire strainer and drain on paper towels until completely cooled. Use immediately or store in an airtight container. The oil can be reused for fried rice and noodle dishes.
‘Kaffir’ is now considered racist. It was used by European settlers in southern Africa as an insulting term for native Africans. There is no consensus on a replacement term. Use fresh in soup, aw lahm, Thai curries and rice noodles. Finely sliced leaves are sometimes used in lahp. Dried leaves are exported.
Three types of mint are grown in Laos. They look and taste fairly similar, unlike the Lao basils which taste completely different from each other. All are eaten in lahp, as a salad vegetable served with lahp and with Lao noodles. Mint is also sometimes added at the last minute to stews and soups.
• ຜັກຫອມຫໍ່ pak hom hor is a small, mild variety, with long stems
• ຜັກຫອມລາບມົນ pak hom lahp mon is also a small, mild variety, but is short-stemmed
• ຜັກຫອມລາບ pak hom lahp, ຜັກກ້ານກຳ pak kancam is a large, mild variety with long, dark purple stems
Often erroneously called ‘lemons’ in Laos, the lime is a small, green-skinned citrus fruit used as a souring agent in many dishes. Lemons, confusingly, share the same Lao name, mak naow. Lime juice compliments chicken, pork, duck or fish sa and beef lahp. In Luang Namtha it is not used in other lahp or beef sa. It is also added to fish or fowl soup. Wedges of lime are often used as a garnish allowing the diner to flavour food to taste. Lemon juice or tamarind juice is a substitute. Limes are also used to make a deliciously refreshing drink sweetened with sugar cane syrup.
Use fried and finely chopped over Vietnamese salad or in a Vietnamese sauce for fresh spring rolls, both of which are popular in Laos. Use in Chinese soup with pork leg. Peanuts are boiled in the shell and eaten as a snack. Also they are boiled, shelled and then fried for a garnish. A popular sweet is peanut/sugar cane toffee. Cooking oil is extracted from the nut. It is an export crop, planted twice a year. Peanut chilli sauce is served with fer, a noodle soup. Peanuts are also used in various miang, a snack of fried peanuts and morsels of ginger, dried shrimp, shallots and lime wrapped together in a pepper leaf (also called betel leaves).