A small, rainy season gourd, it is used for soup or eaten steamed with jeow. It needs to be peeled.
Lemongrass is used in many Lao dishes including moke, soup, chicken sa and op (braised) dishes. Use the freshest stems available and discard any dried parts. Bruise the stems with a blunt object to release the flavoursome oils before adding to soups and stews. When finely slicing lemongrass to be used raw, as in a lahp or sa, discard any stem where the knife meets resistance. Lemongrass is also a traditional medicine for colds and sore throats.
Rattan from Luang Namtha province is large and succulent; it is only mildly bitter. It is called naw boun (shoot of rattan) in Vientiane and yawt wai in Luang Namtha. Rattan from the South and Isaan, the Thai province with a large ethnic Lao population, is thin and often extremely bitter. Strip and use the steamed inner core for awm wai (rattan purée) or add pieces of uncooked core to stews such as aw lahm and gaeng bawt. Another way of preparing rattan is to char the rattan sticks in a low fire, strip the outer skin from the inner core and use the cooked, inner flesh with chilli paste, ginger and/or barbecued fish.
In Phongsaly province, also in Laos’ north, it is made into an aw lahm with dried beef. In Luang Namtha, rattan is used in a dish with dried squirrel. It is exported dried to the US from Boung Pao village in Toulakom district.
A substitute for fresh rattan is Thai bottled rattan which has been soaked for half an hour in cold water to which a squeeze of lime juice has been added. Remove from water and steam until soft. For a substitute, try parsnip or turnip; they mash similarly to rattan and hold their shape in stews. Use an apple corer with these substitutes to create rattan’s cylindrical shape.
Long eggplant, long aubergine ໝາກເຂືອຍາວ mak keua nyaow
Grilled until soft, this variety is used in jeow. It can be stuffed.
A wonderful way to prepare aubergine is to cut the vegetable in 1 cm (⅓ in) slices across the waist. Partly slit and stuff each section with pork mince. Dip in a tempura batter and deep-fry. We sampled this dish in Vieng Phoukha, an ecotourism centre in Luang Namtha province.
Apple eggplant, Thai eggplant ໝາກເຂືອ mak keua
These small, round or slightly ovoid eggplants are green, white or green and white striped. Do not use overly mature ones. They are best while still pale cream inside, nutty and almost sweet. Left to get large or a few days older, apple eggplants turn bitter and the seeds go brown. In Laos these eggplants are grilled until black, pounded and added to jeow. They are also used in aw lahm and other stews. Simmered and then pounded, they are used as a thickening agent in stews and soups. They are eaten raw with lahp. They can also be finely sliced and added to lahp or sa. There are bitter yellow eggplants which are made into an eggplant sa or added to green papaya salad. There is a small white variety which perhaps gave this vegetable its ‘egg’ name.
Eggplant, pea ໝາກແຄ້ງຫວານ mak keng waan
Eggplant berry ໝາກແຄ້ງຂົມ mak keng kom
These are used in bamboo soup, aw lahm, phan miang bpaa and curries without coconut milk. They are also steamed and eaten with jeow. The bitter variety, mak keng kom, is eaten with lahp.
There are over 504 varieties of basil, including many hybrids, so identifying those used in Laos can be confusing. Lao like to use small, young basil leaves whereas Thais seem to prefer larger, more mature basil.
Lao basil ຜັກອີຕູ່ pak i tou
The most common basil used for cooking in Laos, rather than for eating raw, is pak i tou. This basil has been identified definitively as Ocimum africanum.Lour. by Dr Somrun Suddee in a full revision of the tribe Ocimeae subtribe Ociminae (S. Suddee, personal communication, Jan 20, 2009; Suddee et al, 2005). This basil is most commonly put in Lao gaeng (soups) and aw (stews), such as gaeng bawt, aw lahm, pumpkin soup, fish moke and stuffed bamboo shoots. For soup, add at the end of cooking. The nutlets (seeds), which produce mucilage when wet, are used for making soup or a sweet dessert. In this website, Lao basil is referred to as pak i tou Lao to distinguish it from the variety in Laos called pak i tou Tai (sacred basil, holy basil or krapow in Thai) or pak boualapha (sweet basil, Thai basil or pak horapha in Thai). Pak i tou Lao has green leaves and stems and white flowers, but the leaves and calynx, which cups the flower, may have a purplish tinge. Raw pak i tou Lao does not have a strong taste; the flavour emerges upon cooking. The stems are slightly hairy. The basil may, but not necessarily will, have a slight citrus smell, but not taste. This basil species is of hybrid origin, derived from a cross between Ocimum americanum and Ocinimum basilicum (Paton & Putievsky, 1996). It freely hybridises with O. basilicum in cultivation; intermediates are not uncommon. In the Thai language, pak i tou Lao is one of the basil varieties called maenglak. A mild lemon basil or Western sweet basil may be substituted.
Holy basil, sacred basil Ocimum tenuiflorum, Ocimum sanctum ຜັກກະເຜົ່າ pak kapow, ຜັກສະເຜົ່າ bai sapow, ຜັກອີຕູ່ ໄທ pak i tou Tai
There is a big, bushy red variety with purple-pink flowers. It has a peppery clove or allspice taste. Freshly picked, it can be tongue-numbing. The green-stemmed variety with green leaves tinged with red is most commonly used in Laos. When put in soup, it is added at the end of cooking. It is used for Thai stir fries; pork with basil leaves is a common dish. In Lao dishes, it is stir fried with ginger or onion as a flavouring component. This basil is called bai krapow, or simply krapow, in Thai.
Sweet basil, Thai or sweet basil, Asian Ocimum basilicum ຜັກບົວລະພາ pak boualapha, pak boulaphe
This basil has an anise or licorice taste. It has purple stems and flower heads and long, narrow leaves. It is the most common basil accompanying lahp and Lao noodles. In Laos it is rarely used cooked. In Thailand, however, it frequently appears in green curries and other sauced dishes. This basil is called horapha in Thai. It is used as a medicine for dizziness. Pak boualapha (Lao) may also be used to identify Ocimum gratissimum called niam in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Mashed soybeans and a grain (usually rice or wheat) are mixed with natural bacterial and fungal cultures to create this flavouring sauce. Traditionally, it is brewed to yield a thin, dark brown sauce, high in free glutamates which trigger the umami taste. It tastes very salty. Cheaper varieties may be made with hydrolyzed soy protein and have additives, such as caramel colouring, to give the liquid a dark colour. In Laos soy sauce is sometimes used in stir fried dishes. However, fish sauce is commonly used in preference. The Boat Landing substitutes Chinese light soy sauce for fish sauce in pure vegetarian dishes. Dark soy sauce has molasses added to it and is used for Chinese red cooked dishes.
Local Lao sesame seeds are small and brown rather than cream-coloured, but the cream-coloured seed is an acceptable substitute. Black sesame is smaller, more fragrant and expensive. They are an important ingredient in soop pak. In northern Laos, roasted black sesame seeds are mashed with a clump of sticky rice and eaten for breakfast or snacked on by children. Seeds and processed oil are exported. The oil is used to treat sprains.
Sawtooth herb is used in jeow, eaten fresh and added to stews. It goes well with fish. It can be eaten raw as an accompaniment to papaya salad and with lahp. The Akha are partial to it. Use as a substitute for coriander leaves and some basils. Coriander leaves (cilantro) may be substituted for sawtooth herb. The herb is usually available in places where Vietnamese ingredients are sold. It grows in clumps, and is easily propagated by plant division.
Sticky rice accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the rice consumed in Laos. It is opaque rather than semi-transparent like plain rice. High in gluten, it is the staple diet of many Tai and Kmhmu’ people. In the uplands, much work goes into polishing the rice which is unfortunate as many essential vitamins and minerals lacking in local diets could be provided if the bran were left on the grains. There are many varieties, both old, traditional seeds and new, higher-yielding ones. The latter have improved food security in subsistence economy villages and added income when yields are large enough for a portion to be sold. However, they may need more chemicals and be less resistant to drought, disease and pests.
Sticky rice is the most important crop for subsistence economies in the hills of northern Laos even when it is not traded.
It is grown dry on steep, upland slash and burn fields, interplanted with crops such as maize, cucumber, chilli, taro and sesame. Other sticky rice varieties are grown in wet paddy fields.
The rice must be soaked before steaming. It is usually cooked in a traditional bamboo or wooden steamer above a special aluminium pot. Once steamed, the rice is allowed to breathe by being stirred and turned over with a wooden paddle. Turning, allowing the steam to escape, prevents an overly sticky rice. A special woven bamboo basket is used for storing and serving sticky rice. The rice is eaten with the fingers. The diner presses the rice in the right palm to form a small ball to scoop up accompanying food. Dip the ball into chilli paste or use it, along with the thumb, to grab a piece of food. See recipe for Sticky rice for full cooking instructions.
Sticky rice is available in supermarkets and Asian suppliers. Buy young rice which requires less time to cook. Overseas Lao prefer Japanese sticky rice to the long grain Thai sticky rice because the Japanese variety has smaller grains like that at home.
Honeycomb mushrooms ເຫັດນ້ຳເຜິ້ງ het nam poeng
Small pieces are added to salads including a sour salad containing carrot, lime, pickled garlic, white mushroom, sliced chillies and slices of Vietnamese pork sausage. They are also included in sin dat, a Lao hot pot similar to Mongolian hot pot, stir fried dishes and soup.
Mouse ear mushrooms, wood ear mushrooms ເຫັດຫູໜູ het huu nuu
Fry in oil before adding to bamboo soup or chicken curry. Sliced, they may be used in fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. With pork or chicken, they make a stir fry.
Oyster mushrooms ເຫັດນາງລົມ het nang lom
A moke of these, red onion, garlic, lemongrass, fish sauce, lemon basil and salt, which is then wrapped in banana leaves and grilled, is delicious. Use in vegetable soop. Barbecue them for a jeow. Add to stir fries and fish soup.
Straw mushrooms ເຫັດເຟືອງ het feuang
Make a moke with these. Barbecue and use in a jeow. Use in stir fries and in any Lao sour fish soup or the Thai fish soup, tom yum bpaa.
Tsi mushrooms ເຫັດສະມອດ het samawd
Ahum tsi (Akha) or het samawd (Lao) are very small beige mushrooms that grow in profusion during the rainy season. The Akha gather them to eat for themselves or to sell locally. The mushrooms can be eaten fresh or dried. To reconstitute dried mushrooms, soak them in cold water for 10 minutes, drain and squeeze dry. They are then ready to stir fry. They may also be combined with aromatic ingredients and steamed in banana leaves.
Steam and serve with jeow or use in stir fries. They are used in Akha bean salad and any soop and can be substituted for long or yard-long beans.
Peel and use in curries and stir fries. Young ginger is best for grating and pounding. The leaves are added by the Kmhmu’ to their stews and soups. Ginger is used medicinally to cure chills and colds, to improve digestion, to stimulate circulation and to ease rheumatism.
Young rhizomes have the best flavour and are more tender. Peel, and then steam or boil small ones. Eat with jeow. The root is used in daily cooking – in noodle soup, soop and lahp. The steamed flower is eaten. Leaves are used to wrap fish before grilling or steaming. The seed is harvested in January and February; it is traded with the Chinese who use it as a traditional medicine. The root is also mixed with neem leaves and lemongrass, and then pounded, soaked and strained. The resultant liquid is sprayed as a pesticide. It is a natural food given to improve a mother’s health in the first month after birth.
Galangal shoots ຍອດຂ່າ nyot ka
These long, creamy shoots are steamed and eaten with poon bpaa and other fish dishes.
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. Investigators from Singapore and Thailand have discovered new bile duct cancer-associated gene mutations that are caused by a type of parasitic flatworm (liver fluke) infection. Boiling padek 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.