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.
Chopped dried chillies are sprinkled over noodle dishes or added to a recipe to increase its hotness. In jeow bong, the flakes impart a deep red colour. Purchased chilli flakes are often old and have lost their colour and flavour.
To make fresh flakes, select deep red, almost burgundy dried chillies that smell of chilli and have no shrivelled yellow or brown tint to them. Choose ones that are either approximately 8 or 15 cm (3 or 6 in) long. Either dry fry or briefly shallow fry them until dark and crisp. Remove and cool. Break into pieces and remove seeds if desired. Pound or use a spice mill to create flakes. They store well for several months if the container is tightly sealed.
Chilli leaves ໃບໝາກເຜັດ bai mak pet
Use fresh, frozen or dried leaves of any chilli plant as flavouring for gaeng and aw (soups and stews). Substitute a chilli if leaves are not available. Alternatively, grow a chilli plant in your garden or in a pot.
Chillies, dried ໝາກເຜັດແຫ້ງ mak pet haeng
Medium-size dried red chillies are served deep-fried with kao poon or the noodle soup, kao piak. Large dried chillies are boiled for 15 minutes and minced finely for jeow and kao soi sauce. Drying is a simple way to preserve chillies.
Bird’s eye chillies, scuds ໝາກເຜັດຂີ້ໜູ mak pet ki nuu (‘mouse droppings’)
Very small and hot, these may be used for kao poon, chicken and pork curries and green papaya salad. Fry for pak bong fie daeng. Use in any lahp or sa.
Chilli peppers, large ໝາກເຜັດໃຫ່ຍ mak pet nyai
These long green or red chillies may be fried with pork or used in other stir fried dishes. Use in jeow and raw as a garnish. Peppers are dried and deep-fried as a garnish. The dried peppers are also soaked and finely chopped to make a spicy kao soi topping.
Hot chillies ໝາກເຜັດ mak pet
The most commonly used chillies in Laos, they are bigger and less hot than bird’s eye chillies. They are picked and sold at all stages of ripening – green, orange, turning red. Eat with kapi (shrimp paste) and noodles. They are added to aw lahm, jeow and many other dishes. Frequently they are strung on a strip of bamboo or a toothpick and grilled or roasted on hot ashes before using.
Pale green sweet chillies ໝາກເຜັດໃຫຍ່ mak pet nyai
These are often stuffed with fried minced pork or filled with a mixture of pork, lemongrass and rice or rice vermicelli and then steamed. Sliced in diagonal pieces, these chillies are used in stir fries.