Lao children learn how to prepare food by watching and doing from an early age. In the villages they help their elders with fetching water, gathering vegetables and foraging, catching insects, field crabs and fish. Learning starts with imitation of older children and adults, often their carers, and as the young person’s skills develop, their assistance becomes an important contribution to the household. Namthip, Joy and Sompawn’s daughter, lives at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha, so instead heading off to forage she is more likely to be in the kitchen – the heart of extended family action!
Namthip is now nine and already competent helping in the kitchen, which she does informally and for fun. While Kees and I were recording a recipe for Poon Pa, Luang Namtha -style, Namthip wandered into the kitchen and got in on the action. Her presence was immediately accepted and incorporated into the pace of the kitchen by Peng and the other kitchen staff. She started off stirring the occasional pot while the cooks were otherwise occupied, then moved on to stringing chillies for the Poon Pa.
When she put the chillies on the grill Namthip noticed larger chillies and garlic were also grilling for another jeow (spicy dipping sauce).
Namthip took over the chopping of these grilled chillies for young sweet chilli jeow using the same technique as is used for chopping meat or fish for lahp or sa. She’d obviously done it many times before.
As Namthip demonstrates, the most comfortable position for mincing (lahp) is to work at floor level while sitting on a low stool. When mincing grilled chillies or meat, cut the ingredients into small pieces first, then finely chop with a small cleaver or knife on a wooden or plastic chopping board. Work from one side of the ingredients to the other, and use the knife to fold the minced ingredients back to the centre. Also do fold the ingredients at right angles, so everything is evenly minced. Namthip shows these moves:
This herb is widely used in Lao recipes. The small-leafed, short plant is the Lao version; the variety with larger stems and leaves grows from Chinese seed. It is a standard raw accompaniment for lahp and sa. Use the plant, root removed, as a salad vegetable. The leaves are added to soups just before serving. Use in young chilli pepper jeow. Lao do not cook with the seed.
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.
Add to soup just before serving. It can be eaten fresh with lahp or added to gaeng and stews at the end of cooking. Dill is an essential herb for aw lahm. It is used in fish moke and fish soup. Fennel leaves, which look similar to dill, are not used in Lao cooking and taste completely different.
Most are grown to about 15 cm (6 in) but sometimes are left to grow twice that size. Smaller, dill pickle-size cucumbers are also available in Laos. The main varieties in Laos have a thin, edible skin. Stuff with pork and put in a mild soup. Stir fry with meat or tofu. Eat raw as a salad vegetable with lahp. This is a frequent garnish and accompaniment for many other dishes. In the uplands, large, juicy apple cucumbers are grown and eaten raw or in soup. They can grow as large as pomelo, a local citrus larger than a grapefruit. Lebanese cucumbers or telegraph cucumbers make good substitutes.
This is a kitchen staple. Both the green tops and bulbs are eaten as salad. Fry cloves in oil at the beginning of a stir fry or soup. Use cloves in lahp when young. Heads of garlic are roasted over a fire, and then the cooked cloves are pounded as one of the ingredients for jeow and other dishes. Lao garlic, which has very small cloves, is used raw in jeow and other recipes.
The larger Chinese garlic is more commonly available now than the smaller Lao variety.
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.
This is used as a texture and flavour enhancer in lahp and sa preparations and as a thickener in stews and moke. To make it, dry fry 2 tablespoons uncooked sticky (or plain) rice in a pan on medium heat until lightly brown. Remove and pound until fine (or use a coffee grinder). Make plenty because it stores well in a screw-top jar without refrigeration. Some Lao roast the rice until it is dark grey which creates a charred flavour. This is best done outside using an old pan. The Boat Landing roasts its rice until the grains are golden brown. Use sufficient powder in mixing lahp to create a roasted, nutty taste and to produce a slightly gritty texture.
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.