River weed or rock algae, Chlorophyta spirogyra ໄຄ່ິກ kai hin (raw); ໄຄແຜ່ນ kai paen, kai phaen, khai paen (dried sheets)

River weed or rock algae

Long strands of river weed grow in flowing Lao rivers. In Luang Namtha province they are collected by the locals and served up either as a thick, simmered, spicy sauce or dried in thin sheets which have been sprinkled with tamarind and ginger juice and other aromatics such as sesame seeds, tomato and garlic. The dry sheets are cut into small squares and flash shallow fried for a tasty drinks snack. Kai paen can also be toasted over a fire or in a microwave oven.

Here is the process of collecting and preparing river weed for consumption and sale in Luang Prabang, shared by Joost Foppes via Facebook. Thanks, Joost!

© Food From Northern Laos | Galangal Press

Ginger, garlic and fermented soybean jeow

Ginger, garlic and fermented bean paste jeow (Tai Neua style)
Ginger, garlic and fermented bean paste jeow (Tai Neua style)
Ginger, garlic and fermented bean paste jeow (Tai Neua style)

This Tai Neua jeow was prepared for us in Ban Siliheuan and bursts with flavour. The sweetness of the sugar and the sharp tang of the ginger and garlic are softened by the spicy umami flavour of  fermented soy bean paste.

Mak lod berries
Mak lod berries

It is served with very sour berries (mak lod ໝາກລອດ) wrapped in spring onion leaves and coriander (cilantro). The berry tree grows in the forest and around the homes of Tai Neua people. The berry ripens and yellows until it is too sweet to eat. Crab apples, cranberries, unripe plum slices or cape and ordinary gooseberries would easily substitute for the mak lod  – the sourer the fruit the better.

Ingredients

1 knob ginger, the size of three fingers
6 big garlic cloves
15 small dried chillies, not bird’s eye chillies
3 – 4 tablespoons (2 rounded Chinese soup spoons) fermented tua nao paste or substitute such as miso or Korean fermented bean paste
3 tablespoons raw cane sugar
1 tablespoon MSG
Salt, added depending on the saltiness of the khao soi paste

Method

Pound the garlic in a mortar with half a teaspoon of salt for a minute and then add the ginger. When the paste is well integrated and squishy, remove it to a bowl and set aside. String the chillies on a skewer and roast over the fire or gas flame or under an electric grill until semi blackened but not immolated. Deskewer into the empty mortar and pound until well mixed and broken up. Then add thefermented  bean paste and pound again. Put the ginger and the garlic paste back into mortar, pound a bit and add the sugar and MSG until all is well mixed. Taste and adjust the levels of salt, sugar and MSG to suit your own taste.

Wrapping mak lod in spring onion and coriander prior to dipping the morsel into jeow
Wrapping mak lod in spring onion and coriander prior to dipping the morsel into jeow

To serve, take a mak lodt berry (which is VERY sour) and remove the pit with a sharp knife. Wrap the sour fruit with a piece of coriander (cilantro) and spring onion leaf, then dip the little bundle in the jeow and pop into your mouth. A taste explosion will ensue. Any very sour berry could be eaten this way, such as gooseberry, a slice of crab apple etc.

© Food From Northern Laos | Galangal Press

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!

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.

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.
 

Namthip learns to cook

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.

Namthip learning to cook
Namthip observing how to string chillies for grilling
Namthip stringing chillies for grilling
Namthip stringing chillies for grilling

When she put the chillies on the grill Namthip noticed larger chillies and garlic were also grilling for another jeow (spicy dipping sauce).

Grilling chillies and garlic
Grilling chillies and garlic

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.

Namthip mincing chillies for jeow
Namthip mincing chillies for jeow

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:

Mincing chillies
Mincing chillies 2
Mincing chillies 3
Mincing chillies 3
Mincing chillies 4
Mincing chillies - moving chillies to centre
Mincing chillies 5
Mincing chillies 5

Food and photos in Luang Prabang

Last week Kees was coaching young botanists (new grads form NUOL) and other staff from the Pha Tad Ke Garden in Luang Prabang. The garden isn’t open to the public yet as it is still being landscaped and plants take a long time to grow, but it should open in a couple of years time. The garden is on the opposite side of the Mekong River to Luang Prabang so getting there every day involved a tuk tuk ride followed by sliding down a steep river bank, into a very skinny, very long boat (shake shake…) and across the river. Early mornings the mountains and river banks were shrouded in mists. Two pullover temperature. Then the morning exercise came – clambering up the bank (the river is very low!) We did this for five days.

Botany staff and Kees
Photography workshop

After a morning’s work we’d eat lunch, cooked in the local village. Here is a sample of the dishes:

Soop pak
Soop pak

The sook pak had both ginger and sesame seeds and lots of succulent long beans. This was accompanied by sticky rice and a chicken lahp which had beautifully balanced flavours.

Chicken lahp
Chicken lahp

Another day we ate aw lahm, which sported the whitest, freshest pieces of sakharn I’ve ever had and lots of  black mouse ear mushrooms.

Aw lahm
Aw lahm

A very mildly spicy, mildly sweet-sour chicken dish incorporated finely sliced lemon grass. It also had Kaffir lime leaves and lots of onion.

Fried chicken with lemongrass
Fried chicken with lemongrass

Of course, one day flash-fried kai pen (river weed) was served:

Kai pen
Kai pen river weed

While Kees and The young botanists were using the big Canon cameras I tripped around the botanical garden with my little “slip in your purse” Fujifilm Finepix with auto disabled. I haven’t got around to examining the photos in fine details, but here’s one of the inside of a sida flower (guava)

guava flower
Bee's view of a guava flower

And this is torch ginger flower:

Ginger flower
Ginger flower

Our Lao cookbook wins a Gourmand World Cookbook Award

The Gourmand World Cookbook Awards have just announced the best cookbook of the year, 2010,  for 57 countries, and Food from Northern Laos – The Boat Landing Cookbook (Galangal Press) won the award for Laos. We are very happy, as the book contains heaps of Lao recipes, descriptions of ingredients etc and has Lao script, so such recognition hopefully will promote Lao food throughout the world. One of these 57 books (chosen from around 8,000 entries) will be the « Best Cookbook of the Year ». The shortlist will be announced in January, and the « Best in the World » will be proclaimed March 3, 2011 in Paris, in a glamorous awards event at the Theatre Le 104, within Le 104, the new Artistic Center of the City of Paris. In January we think they will also announce the Best Asian Cookbook award and other categories, so, fingers crossed! Whoppee!

Read about it here: Press Release, December 14, 2010 Cookbook Winners!

Visit their website Gourmand World Cookbook Awards

Blood, usually duck or pig ເລຶອດ leuat

Cutting coagulated blood
Cutting co-gulated blood
Eating blood or blood products is extremely common in Laos. Noodle soups, especially kao poon, frequently contain cubes of boiled blood cake as does a sidewalk staple, cold glass noodles with vegetables. Akha pork balls (page 109) usually contain fresh duck blood. Speciality duck restaurants serving a salad based on fresh blood are massively popular. If you are game and have access to a freshly killed duck which is far from any whisper of avian flu, here is how to make the salad.
Duck blood salad
Duck blood salad
Drain the blood from the duck and set aside. Cook the duck liver and mince it, adding a little bit of salt. Make a liver lahp by adding mint, chopped red and green chillies, spring onion greens, garlic and basil. To the duck blood, add fish sauce and 5 tablespoons of water. Mix together and pour over the lahp. Sprinkle roasted sticky rice powder over the mixture and enjoy. To ensure blood is fresh, put a drop in a bowl of water. Try to cut the drop with a toothpick tip. If the blood stays whole, the blood is fresh. If it can be cut, it is congealed and not fresh. Do not eat it! Black pudding can be substituted for blood cake.

Khmu khao poon

Khao poon (also spelt kao poon or kao pun) is a noodle dish widely made and consumed throughout Laos. This Khmu version with fermented soybean paste and minced pork was cooked by Khamsouk Philatorn, who used to make and sell it at the Luang Namtha Chinese market as a part time job while attending secondary school. The instructions below should make enough for about 30 people. Family and friends in Ban Chalensouk helped with all the chopping and shredding of the ingredients and with eating the finished product!

A serving of khao poon has four components:

  • Finely chopped or shredded vegetables, which are placed in the bottom of a big soup bowl
  • Hanks of soaked and drained khao poon noodles or rice vermicelli, which are added to the bowl
  • A spicy soup, ladled over the top to warm and partially cook the other ingredients
  • Condiments such as soy sauce, chilli sauce and lime which are added to the individual’s taste.

The whole lot is mixed together and eaten with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon.

Ingredients

1 large bunch yard-long beans

1 large bunch spring onion tops

1 large bunch mint

1 kg boiled bamboo shoots

1 big bunch coriander (cilantro)

2 – 4 banana flowers, outer petals removed

6 limes (2 for acidulating the banana flower water and the rest for individuals to add to their soup bowls)

3 -5 pieces  galangal root (big handful – the smaller rhyzomes are hotter and spicier)

3 heads garlic

One half to one handful of red chillies

2 onions

Khao poon noodles or rice vermicelli

1 C oil

1 kg coagulated blood or use 2 black puddings instead

1 kg minced fatty pork (You can use more mince pork if you like and cut down on the blood)

Generous half cup of fermented soybean paste (or make your own, see fermented soy bean paste)

Knorr (stock) powder and/or msg.

Prepared Khao poon vegetables
Prepared Khao poon vegetables

Step 1: Vegetable Platter preparation

(Get as many people to help as you can)
  1. Finely slice the bunches of yard-long beans and spring onion tops and  arrange beside each other on a big tray.
  2. Take 1 kg of boiled bamboo shoots, remove the tough outer leaves from the shoots and tease into fine shreds with a toothpick. Add to the tray.
  3. Chop the bunch of coriander (cilantro) and add to the tray.
  4. Pull the leaves off the mint and add to the tray.
  5. Finely shave the inner part of several banana flowers into a bowl of water to which a couple of squeezed limes have been added. Squeeze dry and add to the tray.
Pounded mixture for soup
Pounded mixture for soup

Step 2: Preparation of ingredients for the soup

  1. Finely slice several roots of galangal.
  2. Peel and finely slice the cloves of 3 heads of garlic.
  3. Finely chop  one half up to a handful of red chillies.
  4. Slice 2 onions vertically.
  5. Put the garlic and chilis in a mortar and pound thoroughly to a rough paste.

Preparing the noodles
Preparing the noodles

Step 3: Preparation of the noodles

  1. If you are using dried noodles, soak the khao poon noodles or rice vermacelli in warm water until soft. (khao poon noodles will need hotter water and will take linger than rice vermacelli.)
  2. When soft, use a chopstick to line up and remove a small hank of noodles from the water. Let drain, then use your hands to make into a tidy oval hank. Repeat, lay one hank overlapping the other to form a circle in a colander lined with banana leaf. Set aside. This step can be done while the soup is simmering.
  3. If using fresh noodles already in hanks, pour some warm water through them to refresh them, arrange them to suit on a banana leaf-lined sieve, and let drain until serving time.

Adding pork to the soup
Adding pork to the soup

Step 4: Assembling the soup

  1. Heat 1 cup of oil in a big pot.
  2. Add the pounded chili mixture and fry until golden and smelling sweetly fragrant.
  3. Add the galangal and onions and continue to brown.
  4. Add the minced pork and fry until it is well mixed, then add the fermented soybean paste. Brown all together, then top the pot up to two thirds with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste, and add Knorr and msg to suit. Continue to simmer for 30 more minutes.
  5. Adding the blood to the soup
    Adding the blood to the soup
  6. Cut the coagulated blood or blood sausage into 3 cm (1 1/4 in) cubes and add to the soup. Simmer for 10 – 15 minutes more until the blood has changed to a dark colour.

Step 5: Serving

  1. To serve, for each diner, place a small amount of all of the vegetables in the bottom of a deep soup bowl. Add one or two hanks of noodles. Spoon over the soup, making sure some of the minced pork and blood product are included.
  2. Make soya sauce, chili sauce, msg, salt and ground white pepper are available on the table so people can adjust their portion to suit their own taste.
    (N.B.: The family made their own weak soy sauce by boiling salted black soya beans in water, mashing them and decanting the liquid).
Khamsouk's younger brother eating khao poon
Khamsouk's younger brother eating khao poon

Yanang leaves ໃບຍານາງ bai yanang

Yanang leaves
Yanag Leaves

A food from the forest, yanang is used throughout Thailand and Laos. The juice extracted from the leaves is used in all sorts of Lao recipes for bamboo dishes, especially bamboo shoot soup, gaeng naw mai. A moke may be made with fresh rock algae and yanang juice. Tinned yanang juice is available from Asian food suppliers.

Tinned yanang juice
Tinned yanang juice

To extract the juice from yanang leaves, bruise the
leaves with either a mortar and pestle or on a chopping board with a pestle or the back of a cleaver. Place the leaves in a bowl with 2 cups of cold water. Rub the leaves together to extract the aromatic juice. Alternatively, place the leaves and the water in a blender or food processor and mix until the liquid foams. Strain the resultant juice off and throw away the leaf remnants.

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

Baci at Ban Chalensouk

Baci at Ban Chalensouk
Baci at Ban Chalensouk

In my last article I described the preparation of Khmu food before the baci ceremony, held in October 2010 at Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha province in Northern Laos. Kees and I were happy to be honoured guests and to help our ‘grand daughter’, Khamsouk, celebrate her graduation from college and triumphant return to her village.

The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees
The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees

Spiritual and ritualistic practices are important to most Lao people. The baci, also called sou khuan, is an ancient pre-Buddhist ritual traditionally conducted by Tai speakers, now widely practised by other Lao citizens, including Kmhmu, who have their own spiritual beliefs and way of doing things. The baci is the most popular Lao traditional ceremony celebrated at special events, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, a welcome or even to help cure sickness. Tom Butcher and Dawn Ellis, in their book ‘Laos’, London, a wol book: Pallas Athene, 1993, describe the baci ceremony in detail. This particular baci was held in Khamsouk’s new shop/house. It’s wired for electricity ready for when the power is hooked up. That won’t be for some time yet, though.

Tying strings
Kees trying strings on Khamsouk

The baci ceremony includes the ritualistic tying of cotton threads to ensure blessings of the spirits on specific persons, activities, or places. It is also an important gesture of reconciliation and is believed to restore the natural order of things (Source: LNTA).

After the baci, we adjorned to the tables outside for the feast and lamvong dancing to a local (highly amplified) live band. Lamvong is a circular folk dance, with the women on the outside of the circle and the men on the inside, and each couple dances slowly around each other while progressing around the main circle.

Dancing the lamwong
Dancing the lamvong at Ban Chalensouk. Khamsouk's mother (on the far right) dances with her husband.
Young people dancing
Khamsouk and friends dancing lamvong

Its certainly not hip-hop.  Messages are far more subtle. But it IS a dance of courtship and building of social relationships (without looking at each other or touching, however). It certainly holds people’s interest, old and young – the dancing went on for 7 hours, mainly lamvong, with maybe half an hour of line dancing interspersed! Its a bit risky doing line dancing in Laos for too long!

Lao hai Kmhmu
Lao hai Kmhmu

In the afternoon the lao hai was opened and we imbibed. This is home made Lao rice wine fermented in a pottery jar (hai). Its very tasty and never drunk alone, always at least two people suck the equivalent of 2 glasses full from straws (or these days, IV leads). The jar is then replenished with the same amount of water, and two or more other people take over the drinking. The people who get first crack at the jar get the strongest alcohol, because the water dilutes the brew over time. Occasionally it is stirred with a stick to mix in the water.

Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk 2
Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk - Khamsouk's Dad on the right
Lao hai drinking
Dolly and friends enjoy Lao hai. Both men touch the IV line so the drink is shared.

With Beer Lao, toasts of Lao lao and Lao hai, it is very difficult to remain vertical after a while. Naps are highly recommended throughout the festivities, which gaily continue regardless of where the guests are for a while!  Starting at 11 am, the band packed up at 7 pm. So a slow fade out on this article The next blog will cover making khao poon, Kmhmu style ‘the morning after’.

Party at Ban Chalensouk
Party at Ban Chalensouk - still doing the lamvong at 6 pm!