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.
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.
Several edible varieties are used in Laos. The photographs show bamboo species naw lan (Sirundinaria microphylla) and naw van (Dendrocalamus hamiltonii) on sale in Ban Khone market in Luang Namtha.
Fresh shoots need to be boiled and shredded before frying with meat, most commonly pork. Add them to soups and stews. Some shoots can be bitter. The addition of yanang leaf juice to a recipe reduces the bitterness.
Fat, new shoots that have been teased apart with a needle may be stuffed with pork. Shoots can be pickled with salt. After fermenting, they are used in soup with fish and pork. Villagers boil and sun dry shoots to sell to restaurants or companies for export. It is one way the forest provides cash income for subsistence farmers.
When preparing fresh bamboo shoots, wear gloves to avoid their spiky hairs while removing the outer leaves. A twisting motion helps pull off in one
piece. What remains is the fresh, cream-coloured shaft. If the shoot base is dry, chop it off. Cut the bamboo in vertical sections. Put in a pot, top with water and bring to the boil. Let boil for 5 minutes, then remove the bamboo. Throw out the water which will be bitter from the shoots’ hydrocyanic acid. Repeat twice. The bamboo is now ready for use. Certain types of shoots do not need this priming when they are fresh, very young and fast-growing with a low acid content. They can be cut to size as required by the recipe and used straight away.
For tinned bamboo shoots, it is best to buy whole or halved shoots rather than pre-sliced, which have been exposed to more processing. Rinse well and cut in pieces to suit the recipe. Both blanched and tinned bamboo can be stored in the refrigerator for a week covered with water in a closed container, providing the water is changed daily.
Bamboo shoots, large, sweet ໝໍ່ໄມ້ຫວານ naw mai waan
Treat as above. These bamboo shoots are mild and sweet-tasting.
This is the sterile male organ at the end of the banana bunch. The bunch grows from the female, self-fruiting flower above the male flower. Two species of banana flower are commonly used for cooking, one a green flower, the other purple. The long green flower is better as it does not go brown when cut, whereas the less expensive purple flower discolours very quickly.
To prepare the flower for a sa, lahp or kao poon (a Lao noodle dish), remove the tough, outer petals and any large stamen until the creamy, inside leaves are exposed. Finely slice from the tip across the width of the flower directly into a bowl of water that has a little bit of salt or lime juice added. If using in a soup or stew, simply hand shred the leaves into pieces and immediately add to the pot. Do not use the outside stamen, but the inner ones may be cooked. Banana flower is also a traditional medicine for maternal health care as it encourages lactation. Belgium endive may be substituted.