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.

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.

  1. _MG_8663
    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

 

 

Poon Pa (Pun Pa) Luang Namtha-style

I was shown a new recipe for pun pa at the Boat Landing on our last visit. This is spicier than the one in the Cookbook and also contains mashed simmered apple eggplants. If these are not at hand, use cubes of purple eggplant.

Pun pa
Poon pa, Luang Namtha-style
Simmering fish and eggplants
Simmering fish and eggplants
Pounding
Peng pounding the fish and egpplants
Pun Pa 1.5
Pounding grilled ingredients
Pun pa 2
Peng adds pounded grilled ingredients to fish mixture
Cooking pun pa
Cooking poon pa

Poon Pa (pun pa) Luang Namtha-style, cooked by Peng

Ingredients

7 apple eggplants (or one purple eggplant, cut in 3 cm (1′) cubes
1 bulb garlic
3 shallots
5 green chillies (long and thin) threaded on a toothpick
1 small fish (cat fish, slippery stuff removed,  or tilapia)
2 C water
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised with the back of a knife
½ t salt for broth and another ½ t when frying mixture
1 T oil
1 T garlic, chopped
2 T soy sauce
Small handful mint and coriander leaves, chopped
Small handful spring onions, chopped

Vegetable accompaniment

1 thick wedge cabbage
2 wedges pumpkin or gourd
1 bunch Chinese greens (pak kaat kieow)

Method

  1. Grill the garlic bulb, shallots and chillies over a charcoal fire, gas ring, barbeque or electric over grill, turning regularly.  Each ingredient will have a different cooking time. The garlic bulb, shallots and chillies are ready when blackened on the outside and softened on the inside. Remove ingredients to a plate when ready.
  2. Heat the water in a wok or frying pan and add salt and lemongrass. Bring to the boil and add the fish and eggplants. Simmer for 7 minutes and then remove from the stock when ready and set aside. (Be careful not to cook the fish for too long or the stock will gel. If the eggplants are not yet soft continue to simmer them after removing the fish.) Transfer the stock to a bowl for later use.
  3. In another pan set the vegetables to simmer in salted water. They should take about 15 minutes on a low heat once brought to the boil.
  4. Put the cooked eggplants into a mortar and pound to a pulp. Remove the skin and bones from the cooled fish and add it to the mortar. Pound.
  5. Peel the garlic, shallots and chillies and in a separate mortar, pound them to a fine paste. Add this paste to the fish mixture.
  6. Rinse the wok, reheat and add oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the chopped garlic and sauté until aromatic. Then add the fish mixture and soy sauce. Fry for a minute and spoon in some of the broth. Continue to fry the mixture on low heat for about 5 minutes in total. Taste and add salt and more soy sauce if needed. Mix in the chopped mint, coriander and spring onions. Taste and make any final adjustment to the flavours.

 

Braised minced pork with fermented fish sauce ອົບປາແດກ Op padek

Boat Landing doyenne, Joy Khantisouk, was taught this dish by her mother, who is a great cook from Luang Prabang. The dish doesn’t use much of anything, but the combination of tastes melds into a perfect savoury accompaniment to simmered vegetables and sticky rice.

Op padek
Clockwise from top left: Op padek, mushroom lahp, simmered vegetables and ginger, egg and ivy gourd leaf soup
Joy and Dolly
Joy and Dorothy with food from the missed demo at the Boat Landing

Kees and I missed Joy’s demonstration of the dish because we did not know it was happening, although she was doing it solely for us and we were in the room next door. You have to have worked or associated with Lao people before you can understand how this sort of thing happens – which is often!
So far, the biggest occasions we have missed are Khamsouk’s graduation, for which we came to Laos especially, but her College Director asked her to attend an early ceremony (she couldn’t refuse him and didn’t want to disturb our plans), and Kees missed out on our own farewell baci from the Rural Research and Development Training Center in Vientiane because it was a well kept surprise; a huge affair two months in the planning. Kees had a prior engagement in Luang Namtha, seven hours drive away, but could have made it by driving down from Luang Prabang at 4 in the morning if he had realised the true purpose of the occasion. Unfortunately he had been told repeatedly that it was a house warming for someone else and thus he gave repeated notice that he could not attend. We should have listened between the lines! Why were they repeatedly asking what they knew already? Duh, thick falang!
Anyway, we ate the superbly flavoursome op padek dish with Joy, plus a delicious mushroom lahp and a ginger, poached egg and ivy gourd soup (whose demonstration, of course, we also missed). The happy news is that Peng later demonstrated the op padek dish for us so we can share it with you.

Two notes to this recipe: The original dish is very strong and salty but not at all fishy from the amount of padek used, so if this is your first time using padek as a main ingredient or you are concerned about salt consumption take it easy on the padek at first and then increase the amount tasting it and leave the Knorr stock powder out. For die-hard padek lovers, a greater amount of padek will get you swooning with joy. Secondly, in the tropics the herbs would be cut just before adding to the dish so that they don’t wilt in the meantime. In cooler climates, its OK to pre-chop them.

Here is the recipe:

 

Braised minced pork with fermented fish sauce ອົບປາແດກ Op padek

Ingredients

4 large garlic cloves
3 red or brown shallots
7 long green chillies
2 T lemon grass, finely sliced (a fine bladed mandolin works brilliantly)
1½ T raw garlic, chopped
2 T vegetable oil (or pork fat)
½ t Knorr seasoning powder or stock cube (optional, omit or otherwise add salt, or soy sauce depending on the saltiness of your padek)
2 T lemon basil (pak I tou Lao or maenglak Thai), chopped
2 T coriander (cilantro), chopped
2 T spring onion, chopped
4 whole leaves Kaffir lime, torn
1 large duck egg-sized handful minced pork
2 eggs
¼ – ⅓ C fermented fish sauce (padek), or use Isaan/Thai nam pla or other substitute. If you are tentative about the strength and saltiness of your sauce, try 3 T (45 ml) first, and adjust the quantity after tasting.

Vegetable accompaniment

2 wedges of cabbage
1 bunch of Chinese greens (pak kaart som) or other stalky leafy green
4 apple or small Japanese eggplants or pumpkin
5 C water

Method

  1. Grill the garlic cloves, shallots and chillies over a charcoal fire, gas ring, barbeque or electric oven grill, turning regularly. Use a wire rack or a frying pan which can sustain heat. Each ingredient will have a different cooking time. The garlic, shallots and chillies are ready when slightly blackened on the outside and softened on the inside. Remove ingredients to a plate when ready.
  2. Heat a wok or deep frying pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the chopped garlic and sauté it for one minute until aromatic. Then add the meat and seasoning powder, stir frying to mix. Add the padek (or substitute) and the torn lime leaves. Simmer on low.
  3. In another pan, set the vegetables to simmer in five cups of water. Turn occasionally. They should take between 10 to15 minutes on a low heat once brought to the boil depending on how thick the cabbage was cut and how soft you like the vegetables.
  4. If you cut down on the padek, now is the time to taste and add more so the padek has a chance to absorb into the meat before adding the eggs.
  5. Peel the grilled garlic and shallots and cut into small rough slices. Scape any blackened skin off the chillies and slice them the same size.
  6. Finely chop the basil, coriander and spring onions if not already done.
  7. After the pork mixture has simmered for about 5 minutes, add the eggs and stir fry until the mixture thickens. Add the sliced lemon grass, shallot and garlic slices. If the mixture gets too thick, thin with some of the vegetable stock. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. It should have a salty, spicy punch with a rich under-taste. Add the chopped herbs, turn off the heat and mix together. Transfer to a serving bowl.
  8. Remove the vegetables from the cooking water and transfer to a serving plate. If you like, save the cooking water for stock for another dish such as the base for an accompanying mild soup – gaeng jeut, just add 2 T soy sauce, some sliced Chinese greens, daikon (white Japanese radish) and pepper. Serve with sticky rice. For non traditionalists, op padek is particularly good with brown jasmine hom mali rice.

What to do with leftovers – heat up and serve with corn tortillas, add to fried rice.

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's birthday feast
Noodles for Nang Noi's birthday - plus a few extra dishes of course!

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

Namthip practises beer serving
Namthip practises beer serving but Peng doesn't drink alcohol!

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.
 

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)

Food preparation by the men
Food preparation by Ban Chalensouk men

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

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 sa (a Northern-style 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 sa
Rice noodles for lahp
Rice noodles for sa

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 sa meat
Pounding cooked minced pork for sa

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 sa
Cutting noodles into the sa

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 sa

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), sa moo (pork sa) 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, with (from left) soop pak, sticky rice, pork sa and bamboo shoot & pork soup.

Sour pumpkin soup with mushrooms ແກງ ໜາກອຶໃສ່ສົ້ມແລະ ເຫັດເຟືອງ gaeng mak eu leh het feuang sai som

Here’s a Lao recipe for a refreshing soup that goes well when a deep-fried dish is part of the meal. Soups (gaeng or keng) are eaten as the same time as other dishes, not served first.

Sour pumpkin soup with mushrooms
Sour pumpkin soup with mushrooms

Ingredients

½ small chicken, chopped into soup pieces (or thigh and wing piece)
1 l (5 C/ 2 pt)  water
2 C green pumpkin, cut into bite-size chunks (substitute any firm squash)
1 C straw mushrooms (or torn oyster mushrooms, button mushrooms)
4 chillies
3 cloves garlic
1 t salt
2 stalks lemongrass, cut into 10 cm (4 in) lengths and roughly bruised to release flavour
2 – 3 slices galangal
5 small kaffir lime leaves
3 limes, juiced
2 – 3 T fish sauce (or to taste)

To finish

3 small spring onions, washed and trimmed of old leaves
3 small coriander plants, washed and trimmed of old leaves

Method

  1. In a medium pot, bring the water to the boil. Add the chicken pieces and return to the boil. Skim scum. Lower the heat and simmer the chicken for 5 minutes. Add the pumpkin, lemongrass, galangal and the kaffir lime leaves. Continue to simmer gently.
  2. In a mortar, pound together the chillies and the garlic. Stir into the soup. Simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. Add the mushrooms. Continue to simmer until the chicken is tender and the pumpkin is cooked. Add the lime juice and fish sauce. Taste and adjust flavourings, adding possibly more salt or lime juice. The predominant taste should be sour with a contrast of sweetness from the pumpkin and nuttiness from the mushrooms.
  4. Remove the pot from the heat. Chop the spring onions and coriander together and stir them into the soup. Transfer the soup to a bowl and serve.