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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, if you are into food and wild organic gardens and a real Lao experience you MUST visit this place and meet Vandara.
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.
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.
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.
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. Boiling it 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.
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.
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.
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.
Essential to the flavour of Lao food, and the first step in many Lao recipes is the preparation of flavouring ingredients. Most jeow (chilli dipping sauce) recipes call for the roasting of such produce as whole bulbs of garlic, shallots, apple eggplants and chillies, and maybe additional flavourings such as ginger, lemon grass, water beetles etc.
I’ll share the traditional way of doing this first, followed by how to do it in a Western kitchen. Either way, the goal is smoky flavoured, cooked until soft ingredients that are easy to pound or mash.
Traditionally, unpeeled heads of garlic, shallots and apple eggplants are roasted in embers (jee) or grilled (ping) before they are pounded to make jeow, Lao dipping sauce. They must be turned occasionally until the outer skins are thoroughly blackened. After cooling, peel or break off the burnt skins. Don’t bother about removing all the burnt skin as its smoky flavour is valued.
Thread chillies on a toothpick or sharp strip of bamboo and lay on a wire rack or splatter guard over a charcoal stove or gas flame. Grill until charred, but not completely blackened. After cooling, remove the burnt pieces of skin before pounding the chilli pulp.
There are a few issues with these methods. First, with the charcoal stove, there is the hassle of waiting until the embers are subdued enough not to immolate your garlic and other goodies. You want things black, yes, but you are not aiming for a job as a charcoal burner! Controlling the embers is not a problem for most Lao within the Lao PDR where a charcoal (or wood) stove is used for everyday cooking.
Second, with a gas flame, bits of charred garlic skin often float around the kitchen causing alarm to others, and chillies slide off the wire rack and into the gas flame to become totally burnt offerings that then need to be fished out through the wire rack, causing alarm to the cook.
A piece of tinfoil or a splatter guard under the goodies foils (sic) the escaping chillies but doesn’t do much to contain the floating fragments of skin. The answer is to place the ingredients on either tinfoil, a rack or vegetable barbeque tray and grill the ingredients in a toaster oven or oven grill, while turning occasionally (the ingredients, not you!). Don’t cover them in tinfoil because you want them to blacken for the smoky flavour, not stew. Of course, firing up the gas barbie is the obviously outdoors answer to these modern problems!
Kees and I are off to Laos on Saturday. Can’t wait! We’ll arrive in Vientiane on Sunday evening, then on Tuesday head up to Luang Prabang. We also hope to go to Luang Namtha, depending on road conditions in the rainy season. Evidently roads are pretty bad up there right now, with landslides in the mountainous countryside. The rainy season is great for food though, with a profusion of young bamboo shoots, gourds, mushrooms and other delights!
On 7th October Kees, Khamsouk and I will be doing a presentation on food from northern Laos for the WIG Cultural Studies group. We will use Kees’ photos, Khamsouk’s demos and talk about Northern Lao ingredients and types of dishes, then concentrate on Akha, Kmhmu’ (Khamu) and Lanten food within their individual cultural contexts. The presentation and book signing will be held at Monument Books, in Vientiane. They will also be stocking the book. I’ll post information about time etc of the presentation as soon as we know. Posters will be up around town soon.
The delectable food of northern Laos is given its full due by the people of The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant who have distilled Luang Namtha Province’s culinary highlights into a menu that presents the rich flavours and aromas of local food.
The recipes from this ecolodge’s kitchen have been shared by Patsanee (Joy) Khantisouk, Nouanchan (Chan) Khantisouk, Kulamany (Tuey) Kulavady and their colleagues with culinary researcher and dedicated foodie, Dorothy Culloty, who presents them in Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook.
Packed with regional culinary detail and photographs taken in local kitchens, the cookbook records the restaurant’s salute to the special cuisines of a number of the area’s ethnic groups as well as recipes from local villages. These little-known recipes make the most of natural resources from Luang Namtha province’s mountain forests and lush riverine valleys.
Luang Namtha is one of the most Northern provinces of Laos, bordering on Yunnan province of China and Burma. It is home to the largest variety of ethnic groups in Laos. Preciously fairly isolated and difficult to get to, recently the province was made more accessible to tourists and traders by the opening of a new road from the Thai border and a new airport.
Nestled on the bank of the Namtha River, the ecolodge is the pride of the Khantisouk family who are of Tai Yuan ethnicity. The cookbook, which tells their story, shines though Kees Sprengers’ vivid photographic portrait of the province and its ethnic groups. Although food holds pride of place in this volume, it is also a loving and learned record of northern Lao who preserve their culture through their kitchens.
Eighty-eight recipes form the core of the book. Included are special dishes from Kmhmu’, Tai Dam, Tai Yuan, Tai Lue and Akha cuisine. Each recipe documents how it is prepared locally. Clear and simple directions will let readers replicate the dishes in non-Asian kitchens. The stunning food photography throughout, taken as recipes were being prepared in a village or at The Boat Landing, show the dishes in their indigenous setting.
Aspiring cooks and armchair travellers will find further assistance with
An illustrated glossary of ingredients and substitutions (28 pages)
A directory of Lao preparation and cooking techniques (10 pages)
An explanation of traditional cooking equipment (3 pages)
A bibliography, including web links (2 pages)
A comprehensive index in English, Lao transcription and Lao script (18 pages)
The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant is a Tai Yuan ecolodge on the banks of the Nam Tha River, in Luang Namtha province, Lao PDR. It was set up, owned and run by a young local family, Sompawn (Pawn) and Joy Khantisouk, with lots of involvement from their extended families and Bill Tuffin, a visionary American development worker, who has a long-term friendship and mentoring role with the young couple. The Boat Landing has a warm family atmosphere, green and keep-everything-local values, along with a proud desire to expose outsiders to the region’s cultures and natural wonders (www.theboatlanding.com). To help guests who are limited by time and lack of familiarity, The Boat Landing’s restaurant has distilled Luang Namtha Province’s culinary highlights into a menu that presents the rich flavors and aromas of local food in a way that is easily understood and palatable. This is one of the over-arching goals of The Boat Landing Guest House: to present local culture in a way that is accessible. The local villagers initially laughed at the ‘peasant’ dishes that The Boat Landing offered. Naturally, they wouldn’t go to a restaurant to eat their own ordinary food; they would want something more exotic like Thai or Chinese food. But sophisticated and worldly foreigners do indeed appreciate northern Lao ‘peasant food’. The food looks and tastes delectable!
The cookbook arose from Bill Tuffin’s vision and Joy’s desire to make Luang Namtha’s cuisine more widely known and valued for its rich cultural diversity and to disabuse people of the notion that Lao food is but a poor stepchild of Thai cuisine. Laos has a culinary tradition that is vibrant, distinct and unique. It can easily stand on its own and deserves recognition.
Since 2002, Kees and I have worked to help make this dream happen. In that year, we (Kees Sprengers and Dorothy Culloty) arrived on the local scene and were soon welcomed into the embracing arms of The Boat Landing. Our initial visit resulted in deep involvement with regional friendships, photography and cuisine which now exceeds seven years. Since then, Kees has photo-documented the everyday life and rituals of the local ethnic groups and much of the rapid, on-going social change in the province, gifting many printed photographs to the villagers. I have worked with Joy, her restaurant staff and local villagers to record the food of Luang Namtha. For half of these last seven years, I also worked as an advisor with the Rural Research and Development Training Center, Vientiane, Lao PDR. For Kees and I, it was important to document the local ingredients, preparation and cooking techniques, and recipes as they are prepared locally, and to make this cultural knowledge available to people interested in South East Asian food. This has meant documenting local produce and suggesting substitutes where ingredients are not available, without compromising flavour. I also wanted to use Lao script, Lao transcription and indexing as well as English so that Lao and English readers could use the book as a communication tool – this information is not readily available in Laos. The book is intended as a tool for Lao and Lao expats as well as for the international market. All recipes have been tested in my Western kitchen and the measurements, ingredients and methods translated into clear instructions for this book. Both US and international measurements and terminology are used.
Since the tragic kidnapping of Sompawn in 2007, from which he still hasn’t returned, a shadow has fallen over The Boat Landing. Heart-sore and deeply concerned for his friends’ wellbeing, Bill made the reluctant decision to leave the country that had been his home for seventeen years. Joy and the family in the meantime continue to run the guest house and restaurant.