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.
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.
Finally, she added butterfly pea flowers (clitoria ternatea Pailonacae).
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!
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.
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!
Kees wandered about the old town food market while I shopped for ingredients to take out to Vandara’s Kuang Si Falls Guesthouse, where we planned a magnificent cook-up together. More on that later! Meanwhile, here are some of the goodies to be found at the open air market.
I was wandering along Thanon Sakarin in old Luang Prabang when I chanced upon jeow bong being made on the street. This is the signature chilli paste of Luang Prabang.
Jeow bong is eaten with fried or grilled river algae sheets kai paen or kai phene, grilled dried beef gee sin lod or steamed vegetables. It is also served as an accompaniment to sticky rice or added to stir fries. One type includes simmered finely sliced buffalo or beef skin (traditional) or pork skin which adds a rich chewy texture. The other omits the skin and is more akin to the sweet Thai chilli paste such as Thai Mae Pranom brand.
I was offered to stir the jeow – it was very thick as it had been slowly cooking for 2 hours. No wonder the young man stirring
looks knocked out! I also tasted the thickening brew – a wonderful mix with flavours of garlic, galangal root, sugar and chillies predominated. It probably also had chopped shallots and salt. The skin had already been prepared and the warm salted water had just been poured into the street gutter. I think that had been being prepared for the same amount of time as well, but I’m not sure that I heard the Lao correctly.
I haven’t got a recipe for the large scale making of this jeow but there are several recipes for making small quantities.
3 large heads of garlic (about 1 cup)
½ cup shallots
1 thumb-size piece of galangal chopped into small pieces
½ – 1 teaspoon salt
1 – 2 tablespoons dark red, roasted chilli flakes
2 teaspoons sugar
Water or fish sauce to thin, if needed
Roast or grill the garlic and shallots until cooked through. Meanwhile, in a mortar pound the galangal.
Peel the garlic cloves and shallots, add to the mortar along with the salt and pound to a paste. Stir in the chilli flakes. Add the sugar and pound to mix. Taste and add water, fish sauce (or soy sauce for vegetarians) or more chilli flakes.
Transfer the mixture to a small frying pan and dry fry on a very low heat for 10 minutes until rich, dark and aromatic. The flavour develops over time.
I need to make this again, because I think that it would be better to make a syrup of palm sugar instead of using ordinary sugar and then cook this down for longer.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Finely chop the basil, coriander and spring onions if not already done.
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.
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.
While in Luang Prabang we have been staying at this great little guest house – the Rattanakone Guest House – in Ban Thongchaluean, very close to the peninsula and the Mekong, also a hop, skip and a jump from Joma. Apart from a comfy bed, powerful hot shower and happy laid back family staff, they sport wonderful breakfasts – khao tom and noodle dishes. There is no menu, everyone gets the same, whatever has been chosen for the day. Showing intense interest in tasting you favourite dishes does definitely influence the cook though! Here is the khao tom, which is rice soup, with little meat balls, garnished with Vietnamese sausage, finely sliced omelette, spring onions, coriander (cilantro) and deep fried garlic. Its served often served with lime wedges, sugar, pepper, dried chillies fried in oil, fresh chillies, ginger, pickled turnip, fish sauce, Knorr or Maggi seasoning sauce and occasionally crullers – the Chinese style deep fried dough that look like reproducing mitochondria ??!! where did I get that idea? Anyway, it tasted yum, and sets you up for the day.
It took me a long time to get around to eating khao tom (stupid me) because rice soup sounded unappetizing to my Western sensibilities. I finally came around while flatting with Malaysian Chinese students in the 1970’s. I think it was the fermented turnip that put me off at first! It has a very powerful smell.
Another breakfast served here is nem kao (neem khao), folded and rolled squares of steamed rice pasta, stuffed with a fried mixture of mildly spiced pork and finely chopped cloud ear mushrooms. The stuffing is only added on one side towards the end of the roll. Accompaniments include pounded fresh chilli sauce, a sweetened soy sauce, lime juice and ground peanuts. Rice noodle rolls originally come from China (Cantonese cuisine) and Vietnam. The version served at the Rattanakone probably is Vietnamese influenced, given the prominent business role the Vietnamese play in Laos and its use as a breakfast rather than as dim sum.
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.
After a morning’s work we’d eat lunch, cooked in the local village. Here is a sample of the dishes:
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.
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.
A very mildly spicy, mildly sweet-sour chicken dish incorporated finely sliced lemon grass. It also had Kaffir lime leaves and lots of onion.
Of course, one day flash-fried kai pen (river weed) was served:
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)