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.
Sticky rice accounts for 80 to 90 percent of the rice consumed in Laos. It is opaque rather than semi-transparent like plain rice. High in gluten, it is the staple diet of many Tai and Kmhmu’ people. In the uplands, much work goes into polishing the rice which is unfortunate as many essential vitamins and minerals lacking in local diets could be provided if the bran were left on the grains. There are many varieties, both old, traditional seeds and new, higher-yielding ones. The latter have improved food security in subsistence economy villages and added income when yields are large enough for a portion to be sold. However, they may need more chemicals and be less resistant to drought, disease and pests.
Sticky rice is the most important crop for subsistence economies in the hills of northern Laos even when it is not traded.
It is grown dry on steep, upland slash and burn fields, interplanted with crops such as maize, cucumber, chilli, taro and sesame. Other sticky rice varieties are grown in wet paddy fields.
The rice must be soaked before steaming. It is usually cooked in a traditional bamboo or wooden steamer above a special aluminium pot. Once steamed, the rice is allowed to breathe by being stirred and turned over with a wooden paddle. Turning, allowing the steam to escape, prevents an overly sticky rice. A special woven bamboo basket is used for storing and serving sticky rice. The rice is eaten with the fingers. The diner presses the rice in the right palm to form a small ball to scoop up accompanying food. Dip the ball into chilli paste or use it, along with the thumb, to grab a piece of food. See recipe for Sticky rice for full cooking instructions.
Sticky rice is available in supermarkets and Asian suppliers. Buy young rice which requires less time to cook. Overseas Lao prefer Japanese sticky rice to the long grain Thai sticky rice because the Japanese variety has smaller grains like that at home.
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. Investigators from Singapore and Thailand have discovered new bile duct cancer-associated gene mutations that are caused by a type of parasitic flatworm (liver fluke) infection. Boiling padek 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.
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.
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.
A soop resembles either a cooked vegetable salad or a thick, herby stew. This dish is more a salad. It can be made with a wide variety of steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. In fact, the sesame seeds are the only essential ingredient. Everything else may be varied. This dish is particularly delicious when sesame seeds are liberally used. Serves four to six people.
1 C Chinese cabbage, cut in small, loose leaf pieces 7 cm (2 – 3in)
1 C cauliflower flowerets (or other white vegetable)
3 fingers sized amount of bamboo shoots, pre-cooked, finely sliced (optional)
3 long beans, cut into 4 cm (1½ in) pieces (or 10 green beans)
1 bunch sawtooth herb, three fingers-width, tailed and cut in half (or coriander leaves)
½ – 1 C collard greens (or bok choi ), cut in 4 cm (1½ in) pieces
2 – 3 stems dill, cut into 4 cm (1½ in) lengths
2 very large or 4 medium oyster mushrooms, torn in 1 – 2 cm (½ in) wide shreds
1 large bowlful water with 1 teaspoon of salt for refreshing vegetables
½ large head garlic, strung on toothpicks or satay sticks for grilling
3 or more red chillies (amount to taste or omit), strung on toothpicks for grilling
2 thin slices galangal or ginger
2 T to ⅓ C sesame seeds, dry roasted. A mixture of white and black seeds is desirable, although white alone is fine.
2 T soy sauce, padek or fish sauce (or to taste)
8 C water
- Prepare the vegetables as described, placing the readied ones in a large bowl. Add water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Rinse vegetables in the brine, picking off any wilting pieces. Let soak briefly.
- Put fresh water into the bottom of a steamer or a sticky rice pot and bring to the boil.
- Toast the sesame seeds. Place in a mortar. Pound until most of the seeds are broken. Remove and set aside.
- When the water comes to the boil, tip the vegetables into the steamer, allow them to drain and then place the steamer over the boiling water. Steam for 10 – 15 minutes depending on preferred crispness.
- Roast the garlic and chillies. Cool. Remove their charred skins. Add the peeled garlic, chillies and galangal/ ginger to the mortar. Pound until a paste forms. Adding a dash of salt helps the blending.
- When the vegetables are ready, toss them briefly in the steamer to expel the steam. Invert the steamer over a low-sided, wide bowl. Let the vegetables cool. Sprinkle them with the pounded sesame seeds and the pounded galangal/ginger and garlic paste. Add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Gently use your hands to mix the ingredients together well. Taste and adjust with sauce if needed.
- Turn into a serving bowl, garnish with coriander and serve as part of a Lao meal. This dish goes well with sticky rice or can be used as a picnic dish.
I’d never thought about using cucumber in a stir-fry before, but this is very common in Laos, where cucumbers are prolific growers and very cheap to buy. Not much meat is used in proportion to the amount of cucumbers. Increase the quantity to suit yourself. Chicken, turkey or pork is a fine substitute for duck. The recipe serves 6 – 8 as part of a Lao family meal. Half the recipe would be enough for four people if served as one of two main dishes along with rice for a simple, easy meal.
5 medium cucumbers or 2 telegraph cucumbers, washed (choose young ones with thin, edible skin and small seed core if possible)
½ duck breast with skin (or equivalent in thigh meat and skin)
1 T garlic, chopped
2 T fish sauce
2 T thin soy sauce
1 T chicken stock powder (optional)
3 T oyster sauce
½ t sugar
1 t chilli paste to taste (optional)
¼ C spring onion greens, finely sliced
- Separate the duck skin from the flesh, reserving fat. Slice the fat into 1 cm (½ in) pieces and the skin into 2 cm (1 in) slices. Set aside. Slice the duck meat finely across the grain. Set aside.
Toss the chopped fat and skin into a heated wok set over a medium flame. Allow the fat to render down and the skin to fry until golden brown and crisp. At this stage (there will be a change in the frying sound and a fragrance released), push the crisp skin to one side. While the skin and fat are cooking, prepare the cucumbers.
- Peel the cucumbers if the skin is tough and bitter; cucumber is used in this dish to impart sweetness. Slice them in thin diagonal wedges, creating slices that taper off about two-thirds of the way through the cucumber. See soi slicing technique.
Add the chopped garlic to the rendered fat and then the meat. Stir fry several minutes until the colour changes. Add the crisp duck skin and then the cucumber. Mix together and stir fry until all is heated through and starting to cook. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, stock powder, oyster sauce, optional chilli paste and sugar, briefly stirring between each addition to distribute the flavours evenly and merge them together.
- Cover and let cook for a few more minutes. The moisture from the cucumbers should be released to form a tasty sauce with the other flavourings, but the vegetable must not be overcooked. It should remain crisp.
- Taste for flavour and adjust. Stir in the spring onion greens. Transfer to a serving bowl.
- For a low saturated fat dish, substitute the duck fat and skin with any oil other than olive. However, using the rendered fat and skin adds a silky richness and depth to the dish.
- For a vegetarian alternative, use oil and substitute tofu for the meat or add a second vegetable to replace the meat. Vegetables might include a mix of Savoy cabbage and Chinese yellow flowering cabbage.
- If cooking this dish with pork, consider adding pork fat and skin for authenticity.
The dominant brand of instant stock used in Laos is Knorr. A Unilever company, Knorr makes and sells instant flavouring products for the Asian market including broth cubes and powders, fish sauce and soups. At the time of writing, all Knorr broth/stock products sold in Laos contain monosodium glutamate (msg). These products are extensively marketed. Many restaurants and wet markets prominently display Knorr posters and banners. Knorr stages road shows and cooking contests to promote its brand. This extensive advertising could be seen as having shaped attitudes of local cooks, thereby influencing the flavouring of food in Laos. As in the rest of the country, in northern Laos Knorr stock cubes and powder are widely used in both restaurants and households. Even if a restaurant customer requests “no MSG”, it is still very likely a dose of Knorr stock powder will be in the food. The products keep well, are cheap and add flavour to meals where ingredients are often few. Purists may advocate the use of a good vegetable or meat-based stock rather than powder or cube, but that is not viable for cooks who seldom have meat because of scarcity and expense and who often have limited vegetable supplies. Knorr is a very attractive addition to rural kitchens.
The use of Knorr has been hotly debated at The Boat Landing and among those interested in Lao cooking. Its use is a relatively new practice, Knorr having been widely introduced only within the last ten years. The use of monosodium glutamate is an older, far more widespread practice.
So what is authentic Lao food? Is it what most people cook at home now or what was done BK (Before Knorr)?
The Boat Landing has decided not to use Knorr products or MSG. It has done this, first, because not using them is more traditional and secondly, guests at an ecolodge expect as many aspects of their stay to be as natural as possible. Most importantly, The Boat Landing restaurant can afford not to use Knorr because its kitchen uses very tasty meat (such as black leg chicken and locally raised, free-range pork) and lots of herbs, which make any stew, soup or stir fry rich and delicious. Thus, The Boat Landing serves what locals would consider banquet-standard cooking for its restaurant customers.
However, for day-to-day cooking in the local villages, Knorr (and/or MSG) is still widely used. If you cook with commercially raised chicken or pork (which has come to have so little flavour), limited herbs and/or no fresh stock, don’t be afraid to do what the local Lao do – add a small spoon of powder or a stock cube to a recipe.
Half a large 10 g Knorr stock cube or one small 5 g stick cube equals 1 teaspoon Knorr stock powder and makes one strong 250 ml (8.5 US oz) cup of liquid stock. A substitute for half a cube is ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon sugar or salted, liquid chicken stock. But, it is important to note, these substitutes do not replicate the Knorr flavour as the MSG in Knorr casts a full, 3-D taste around the top of the mouth which can’t otherwise be reproduced.
Knorr chicken stock powder without MSG is available outside Laos. An excellent non-MSG substitute is Puyking instant seasoning, a product from Thailand. Details are available from the Internet.
This dish’s intensity is modified by pre-cooking the chillies and garlic. Grilling imparts a mellower, sweeter flavour than if the ingredients were used raw. This jeow may be made with small, hot green and reddening (immature) chillies, or if a milder flavour is preferred, use immature, longer green chillies or the large, sweeter pale green chillies of a size suitable for stuffing. The younger the chillies, the less hot they are.
1 handful immature chillies (about 22 small chillies for a hot jeow or 2 – 3 large pale green chillies for a mild jeow)
6 medium cloves garlic (or a small garlic head)
½ t chicken stock powder (or 1 teaspoon of fish sauce and a little sugar), (optional)
½ t salt
2 sprigs coriander
2 T (approx) water or stock
- Choose a mix of small immature chillies from green to nearly red, with the balance more towards the green. Thread them through their middles, so they lie side by side on toothpicks. Each toothpick will take about 7 – 8 of the small ones. Large chillies can be grilled separately.
- Grill the chillies and unpeeled garlic cloves, turning occasionally until the chilli skin crinkles slightly and has occasional blisters and the insides soften (about 7 minutes). Grilling may be done on a wire rack over a gas flame, on tinfoil on a heating element, under a grill or over a low fire, the usual village way.
- Remove the grilled chillies and garlic as they become ready. Deskewer the chillies when cool.
- If using big chillies, remove any blistered skin and chop into 1 cm (¼ in) pieces. Placing the chillies in a plastic bag to cool for a couple of minutes before removing the skin makes this easy.
- If using stock powder, place it and salt in a mortar or food processor.
- Peel the cloves of garlic and add to the mortar. Add the chillies to the mortar. Pound with a pestle for several minutes (or process until the ingredients form a coarse paste). The individual ingredients should be recognizable, but blended together.
- Remove any thick stems from the coriander and finely chop the leaves and finer stems. Add to the jeow. Add the water or stock. Mix, thinning the jeow to the consistency of a thick spread or salsa.
- Serve with sticky rice and steamed vegetables.