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.
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 simmered apple 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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
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
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
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
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).
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.
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)
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)
3 small spring onions, washed and trimmed of old leaves
3 small coriander plants, washed and trimmed of old leaves
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.
In a mortar, pound together the chillies and the garlic. Stir into the soup. Simmer for 10 minutes.
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.
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.
Mashed soybeans and a grain (usually rice or wheat) are mixed with natural bacterial and fungal cultures to create this flavouring sauce. Traditionally, it is brewed to yield a thin, dark brown sauce, high in free glutamates which trigger the umami taste. It tastes very salty. Cheaper varieties may be made with hydrolyzed soy protein and have additives, such as caramel colouring, to give the liquid a dark colour. In Laos soy sauce is sometimes used in stir fried dishes. However, fish sauce is commonly used in preference. The Boat Landing substitutes Chinese light soy sauce for fish sauce in pure vegetarian dishes. Dark soy sauce has molasses added to it and is used for Chinese red cooked dishes.
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.
Most are grown to about 15 cm (6 in) but sometimes are left to grow twice that size. Smaller, dill pickle-size cucumbers are also available in Laos. The main varieties in Laos have a thin, edible skin. Stuff with pork and put in a mild soup. Stir fry with meat or tofu. Eat raw as a salad vegetable with lahp. This is a frequent garnish and accompaniment for many other dishes. In the uplands, large, juicy apple cucumbers are grown and eaten raw or in soup. They can grow as large as pomelo, a local citrus larger than a grapefruit. Lebanese cucumbers or telegraph cucumbers make good substitutes.