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 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 lahp
Rice noodles for lahp
Rice noodles for lahp

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 lahp meat
Pounding cooked lahp meat

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 lahp
Cutting noodles into the lahp

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 lahp

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), lahp moo (poork lahp) 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

Animal from the forest

“What are you eating, Khamsouk?” “Animal from the forest!” I peer at her plate of brownish stew with sticky rice accompaniment. Unidentifiable, I muse, but maybe barking deer. Best not to enquire further. Khamsouk, Kees and I were in a roadside restaurant in Pak Mong at 11 in the morning having lunch on our way from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha. We were eating early because the road between here and Oudomxai (60 km) was so bad we would not arrive at Oudomxai for lunch before 2 pm, a potential disaster for all those Lao with clock-work tummies set at mid-day for aharn tian (lunch). Kees and I had ordered fer, a Vietnamese-inspired noodle soup ubiquitous throughout Laos. We hadn’t had a chance to eat fer on this trip so we were hanging out out for it. In the rush to get our “fix” we had missed the trays of pre-prepared dishes lurking in the shopfront glass cabinet. But Khamsouk hadn’t! Oh well, I thought, peeved at missing the opportunity to sample bush tucker, at least fer is the best dish for not getting the trots while travelling! (Such considerations are necessary on a long, steep and winding road with no loos and lots of exposed cliff faces). In Khamsouk’s opinion, the unidentified meat was too spicy so she didn’t finish it, but she was delighted to identify the other dishes in the display cabinet for us.  Here they are:

Frogs
Tasty frogs (kop) with crunchy bits
Animal from the forest
Animal from the forest
Jeow padaek
Dry fermented fish relish, jeow padek
Bamboo larvae
Dry fried bamboo larvae

The shop also served vegetable soop, an aw lahm (spicy stew), steamed local vegetables pak neung, two different kinds of insects, smoke dried meat siin yang (source unknown) and grilled baby fish. After finishing the photographs and buying snacks for the journey we got back on our way, with one stop to pour water on the brake linings at a local village, where Khamsouk showed us the local guava mak sida – very delicious. New leaves from the guava tree behind her are finely chopped and put in Akha pork balls.

Khamsouk and guava
Khamsouk holding local guava mak sida by tree

She also showed us a wild vegetable growing close to the local water source – pak hart. It is steamed to be eaten with a jeow, and added to stews (both aw and gaeng). It has a numbing effect on the tongue.

pak hart
pak hart

We arrived in Oudomxai at 3 pm and finally in Luang Namtha at 8 pm – 11 hours and 308 km from setting out from Luang Prabang. Goodness, we needed that Beer Lao when we arrived at The Boat Landing!

Of Lao blood products and Western blood pudding

I’ve been mulling about how people without access to fresh blood products such as blood cake can get the taste and colour of the fresh stuff without the food safety risks and general “yuk” factor for the faint of heart. Blood pudding – that Scottish and English breakfast standard should do the trick nicely. I’m off to my local UK food supplier, Yorkies, in Jomtien, Chonburi, Thailand to get a couple, and have a go cooking two Lao recipes using blood pudding instead of blood cake or blood, namely Akha pork balls and northern Lao khao poon. I’ll keep you posted on the experiment.

Update: Yes, it works! Not the same, but it gives colour and that rich blood flavour to the Akha meatballs. OK, so bits of black pudding floating in your Khao poon is culturally weird, but its the closest you’ll ever get to the taste of blood cake in the land of “sanitized”  pork products!

Visit to Laos Oct 2010

Kees and I are just back from Lao PDR and 2 weeks of fabulous fêting and feasting! I’ve got lots that I want to write about and will do so over the next couple of weeks. Kees is now sorting his way through hundreds of photos so we can put some in this blog and on his zenfolio site.

Highlights were the baci and party held in the Khmu  (Khamu) village of Ban Chalensouk in  Luang Namtha province, organised by the unstoppable Khamsouk.

baci
Baci preparations

We have heaps of photos to share of the two day celebration, including food preparation for the meal after the baci (all the ingredients were local products grown or gathered: sticky rice; vegetable soop (mixed cooked vegetables with galangal, chillies and pounded roasted sesame seed – yum!; sa siin moo – a lahp-style dish with heaps of finely shaved banana flower, and an excellent forest bamboo shoot soup with pork).

Preparing Sa siin moo for post Baci feast
Preparing sa siin moo for post baci feast

Other photos are of the baci and party (7 hours of non-stop dancing!) and other meals there – three before lunch the next day – plus photos and ‘how to’ for Northern-style khao poon, the Lao national dish of noodles and accompaniments all mixed together with a flavoursome soup. I hadn’t had time to record this before publishing the book so it was a top priority for this trip.

Northern-style khao poon
Northern-style khao poon

Northern khao poon is very different from the Vientiane version – the Northern version has lots of blood and blood products whereas the Central and Southern versions have pig’s head, liver, lungs and fish, plus blood products. I hope that does not put you off – each version tastes delicious, and the blood was very, very fresh.  You can also make a very delicious khao poon leaving out all the inside bits, so not to worry!
I also want to tell you about WIG (Women’s International Group) and the presentation we did in Vientiane about northern Lao food. This will include what we did to serve Lao food as canapés at the gathering of 70 plus people.

Visit to Laos

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.

Acacia fronds ຜັກລະ pak la

 

Acacia fronds ຜັກລະ pak la
Acacia fronds ຜັກລະ pak la

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.

More about the book

The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant
The Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant

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)

Background

The Boat Landing staff
The Boat Landing staff

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.

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Chilli wood, pepper wood Piper ribesioides Wall., Piper interruptum Opiz. ໄມ້ ສະຄານ mai sakahn, sakhan, sakharn, sakhahn, mai sakhaan

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Sakharn, peeper wood, used in aw lahm

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.

aw lahm with buffalo skin
aw lahm with buffalo skin

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Snake gourd ໝາກນອຍຍາວ mak noi nyaow

Snake gourd ໝາກນອຍຍາວ mak noi nyaow
Snake gourd ໝາກນອຍຍາວ mak noi nyaow

Serve steamed as an accompaniment with jeow. Steam, cut and stir fry with pork. Add to soup/gaeng. Substitute any gourd, scallopini (patty pan squash) or zucchini (courgettes).

Coriander, cilantro ຜັກຫອມປ້ອມ pak hom pom

Coriander, cilantro ຜັກຫອມປ້ອມ pak hom pom from Lao seed
Coriander, cilantro ຜັກຫອມປ້ອມ pak hom pom from Lao seed

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.

Gourds

A common  ingredient in Lao recipes, a wide variety of gourds are grown in Laos. The gourd, leaves, flowers and tendrils are all eaten.

Angled gourd, silk melon ໝາກໜອຍ mak noi

Angled gourd, silk melon ໝາກໜອຍ mak noi
Angled gourd, silk melon ໝາກໜອຍ mak noi

Use in soups and fry with pork. Sometimes it is used in bamboo soup. It is steamed in northern provinces and eaten during the rice harvest ceremony.

Gadawm gourd ໝາກກະດອ່ມ mak gadawm

Gadawm gourd ໝາກກະດອ່ມ mak gadawm
Gadawm gourd ໝາກກະດອ່ມ mak gadawm

A small, rainy season gourd, it is used for soup or eaten steamed with jeow. Substitute any small biter gourd.

Sponge gourd ໝາກບວບ mak buab

Sponge gourd ໝາກບວບ mak buab
Sponge gourd ໝາກບວບ mak buab

This gourd is very similar in appearance to zucchini (courgette). Its skin is dull, not shiny. Steam and eat with jeow. Zucchini is a suitable substitute. The leaves, ຍອດໜາກບວບ nyot mak buab, can be stir fried in the same manner as morning glory. Steam the leaves and eat with tomato jeow. Add to soup.

Water gourd, bottle gourd ໝາກນ້ຳ mak nam

Water gourd, bottle gourd ໝາກນ້ຳ mak nam
Water gourd, bottle gourd ໝາກນ້ຳ mak nam

Fully grown water gourds are dried and used as water-carrying vessels. Small, 10 cm (4 in) long, immature gourds are eaten steamed with their skin on with a jeow or added as a vegetable to a soup or stew. They are quite bland. Substitute scallopini (patty pan squash).

Pumpkin ໜາກອຶ mak eu

Pumpkin ໜາກອຶ mak eu
Pumpkin ໜາກອຶ mak eu

Pumpkin is prepared and eaten in many different ways in Laos. Chunks are used in soup recipes, especially when the whole is small and immature, or pieces may be fried or steamed. Custard is steamed in small, whole buttercup pumpkins, and cooled slices are served as a sweet. This is a classic sold by street vendors specializing in sweets. The dessert is also popular throughout Thailand.

Mature pumpkin
Mature pumpkin

Pumpkin tendrils, young Pumpkin tendrils, young ຍອດໜາກອຶ nyot mak eu

Young pumpkin leaves and flowers
Young pumpkin leaves and flowers

Add to bamboo shoot soup just before serving. Boil or steam young leaves and tendrils and eat with jeow. Use cut young leaves to fry with eggs or pork. Steam and use in soop pak along with other vegetables. The flowers can be stuffed with a minced pork mixture, dipped in either beaten egg or tempura batter and deep-fried.

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.

Steamed green beans with sawtooth herb and either ginger or sesame seeds ຊຸບໝາກຖົ່ວຍາວ soop mak tua nyaow

Here’s an ethnic variation on the common Lao food, soop pak. Muang Sing villagers operating the community-based ecotourism trekking business Akha Experience taught The Boat Landing staff this recipe when they trained at the guest house in July 2005. Traditionally, this Akha salad is made with either ginger or sesame seed, but never both. Each version is delicious and great served warm or cold.

Steamed green beans with sawtooth herb
Steamed green beans with sawtooth herb

Serves two to four depending on the number of accompanying dishes.

Ingredients

250 g (½ lb) green beans, topped and tailed; use long, string or French beans
12 cloves garlic, roasted and peeled; cook the entire head before peeling the required cloves
1 piece ginger, thumb-size, roasted and peeled (if not using sesame seeds)
2 – 3 T sesame seeds (if not using ginger)
2 – 3 T light soy sauce
1 t salt
2 t fish sauce
2 T mint leaves, chopped
2 T sawtooth herb, chopped (or substitute coriander, see below)
2 T spring onion, white stalk and greens, finely chopped
1 T Vietnamese mint leaves, chopped
2 T small coriander plants, stalk and leaves, chopped (use only if Vietnamese mint is not available; use a larger amount if sawtooth herb isn’t available)

Method

  1. Slice the beans diagonally or halve them. Steam the vegetable for a few minutes until lightly cooked. Remove to a mixing bowl.
  2. Dry roast the sesame seeds until golden. Remove them before completely browned. Set aside to cool.
  3. Put the peeled, roasted garlic cloves and salt in a mortar. Slice the roasted ginger if using. Add to the mortar. Pound the ingredients together until well-integrated. Tip this mixture over the beans.
  4. Add the soy and fish sauce and gently mix into the salad by hand. Add the chopped mint, sawtooth herb and coriander.
  5. Add the dry roasted sesame seeds if using and gently mix in by hand.
  6. Transfer the mixture to a serving dish.

Variation

  • Be a non-traditional hedonist and use both sesame seeds and ginger. The taste is great!
  • Complete your Akha experience by serving the beans with Akha pork balls, ginger chicken soup, sawtooth herb jeow and sticky rice (all in the book, Food from Northern Laos).