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!
Dried river weed from Luang Prabang
Making Khai Paen (dried river weed sheets) steps 1-4
Making Khai Paen (dried river weed sheets) steps 5-8
Making Khai Paen (dried river weed sheets) steps 9-12
At the entry, big signs announce the event, and the family and some village elders line up to welcome the guest. A heart shaped box to receive the donations (guests use the envelope with their invitation to donate some money towards the cost of the party).
The guests started arriving, many of them colleagues of the groom (He is a local police officer).
Uncles and aunts and cousins from town and villages, some arriving by motorcycle, some by tuk tuk or private truck. They slowly start filling up the many tables, and start eating and drinking. After most guests have arrived, the welcoming party lines up in a half circle under the parachute, for formal photographs.
This causes a bit of confusion, since I am the photographer and Khamsouk insists that Dolly and I as ‘adopted grandparents’ join the family group for the photographs.Note that the central spave for this which will later be used for dancing, is a big parachute, decorated with bananaleaves and balloons. The parachute is to keep the sun off the dancers, and still provide some light
Since it is a half circle of about 25 people, this turns out a bit odd anyway.
That out of the way, the band starts and the newly wed couple have the first dance, soon joined by many others.
The main dance style at these occasions is the LamWong. To an outsider, it looks like two people dancing together trying hard not to touch each other or look at each other, waving their arms a bit, but as sedately as possible, walking slowly in a circle, looking far away. Not very expressive in my opinion, but that’s how it is.
After a while, the groom and bride start doing the rounds, The bride carries a tray with two tiny cups, the groom fills them with whiskey (Johnny Walker), and offers them to each guest. The guest may take the opportunity to put a few banknotes on the tray, then, bottoms up!
This ceremonial round takes over an hour, during which the guests dance, drink and eat.
A few hours into the party, it is found that instead of 300 expected guests, about 400 have turned up, and the beer is running low. Uncle who owned the ‘restaurant’ where I had lunch last month (See the post about having lunch with a policeman etc) offers to buy half a dozen crates of beer, and we join in and also add half a dozen more, the party rolls on.
I get a chance to dance with the bride, and get poured some more laolao, washed down with beer. It is now after three in the afternoon, I know the hard line party goers will continue until the last drop of alcohol is gone, probably after dark, but I know I still have to ride our motorbike home, and consider it safer to leave at this stage.
Next morning, we receive an urgent phone call to invite us to the after wedding party, which is another food and drink function in the village, especially for all the volunteers who cooked and worked for the wedding. We are partied out and only stay an hour or two. But the photographs were appreciated by all.
I was shown a new recipe for pun pa at the Boat Landing on our last visit. This is spicier than the one in the Cookbook and also contains mashed simmeredapple eggplants. If these are not at hand, use cubes of purple eggplant.
Poon Pa (pun pa) Luang Namtha-style, cooked by Peng
7 apple eggplants (or one purple eggplant, cut in 3 cm (1′) cubes
1 bulb garlic
5 green chillies (long and thin) threaded on a toothpick
1 small fish (cat fish, slippery stuff removed, or tilapia)
2 C water
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised with the back of a knife
½ t salt for broth and another ½ t when frying mixture
1 T oil
1 T garlic, chopped
2 T soy sauce
Small handful mint and coriander leaves, chopped
Small handful spring onions, chopped
1 thick wedge cabbage
2 wedges pumpkin or gourd
1 bunch Chinese greens (pak kaat kieow)
Grill the garlic bulb, shallots and chillies over a charcoal fire, gas ring, barbeque or electric over grill, turning regularly. Each ingredient will have a different cooking time. The garlic bulb, shallots and chillies are ready when blackened on the outside and softened on the inside. Remove ingredients to a plate when ready.
Heat the water in a wok or frying pan and add salt and lemongrass. Bring to the boil and add the fish and eggplants. Simmer for 7 minutes and then remove from the stock when ready and set aside. (Be careful not to cook the fish for too long or the stock will gel. If the eggplants are not yet soft continue to simmer them after removing the fish.) Transfer the stock to a bowl for later use.
In another pan set the vegetables to simmer in salted water. They should take about 15 minutes on a low heat once brought to the boil.
Put the cooked eggplants into a mortar and pound to a pulp. Remove the skin and bones from the cooled fish and add it to the mortar. Pound.
Peel the garlic, shallots and chillies and in a separate mortar, pound them to a fine paste. Add this paste to the fish mixture.
Rinse the wok, reheat and add oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the chopped garlic and sauté until aromatic. Then add the fish mixture and soy sauce. Fry for a minute and spoon in some of the broth. Continue to fry the mixture on low heat for about 5 minutes in total. Taste and add salt and more soy sauce if needed. Mix in the chopped mint, coriander and spring onions. Taste and make any final adjustment to the flavours.
Khamsouk’s child recently had her baci where she was named, and welcomed into the wider Khmu family in Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha Province. The Khmu have merged Lao and their own earlier traditions for the ceremony which is held after 28 days following birth, during which mother and child remain in the house, resting on a bed close to a fire. This is thought to contract the uterus, and also gives mother and child time together rather than mother going straight back to work. The offerings part of the ceremony calls the wandering khwan (the 32 guardian spirits that are part of every person) back into the person, restoring equilibrium. This needs to be done for a new baby and mother because birth is traumatic and the new family are setting off on a new life journey.
The tying of strings on the baby’s and parent’s wrists is accompanied by a set of blessings wishing good fortune, long life etc. It is a wonderfully positive process where everybody bestows their good wishes on baby and parents while tying the strings. I find myself with a widely beaming smile and a loving peacefulness and openness every time I attend a baci.
The baci was, of course, followed by a feast. (I bet you thought I’d never get to the food!)
There were people eating both inside and outside the house; the photo on the left is of the senior men. Khamsouk’s mother is holding Media.
You may have noticed the offerings on the table in the second photo (above) for calling the spirits. They include a boiled chicken and a cooked egg, which was slightly peeled during the ceremony (the chick has successfully hatched?), rice, khanom (crackers and other treats), fruit, lao Lao (a rice spirit of the alcoholic persuasion, not a khwan!), the strings for tying later, money, etc. It is especially important that the chicken and egg are eaten by the main participants, it is “strong food” laden with blessings and power. The chicken stock is made into a soup. There is also a fish soup, grilled fish and accompanying pounded spices for seasoning and sticky rice.
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:
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.
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
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)
Finely slice the bunches of yard-long beans and spring onion tops and arrange beside each other on a big tray.
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.
Chop the bunch of coriander (cilantro) and add to the tray.
Pull the leaves off the mint and add to the tray.
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.
Step 2: Preparation of ingredients for the soup
Finely slice several roots of galangal.
Peel and finely slice the cloves of 3 heads of garlic.
Finely chop one half up to a handful of red chillies.
Slice 2 onions vertically.
Put the garlic and chilis in a mortar and pound thoroughly to a rough paste.
Step 3: Preparation of the noodles
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.)
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.
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.
Step 4: Assembling the soup
Heat 1 cup of oil in a big pot.
Add the pounded chili mixture and fry until golden and smelling sweetly fragrant.
Add the galangal and onions and continue to brown.
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.
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
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.
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).
“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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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.