This Tai Neua jeow was prepared for us in Ban Siliheuan and bursts with flavour. The sweetness of the sugar and the sharp tang of the ginger and garlic are softened by the spicy umami flavour of fermented soy bean paste.
It is served with very sour berries (mak lod ໝາກລອດ) wrapped in spring onion leaves and coriander (cilantro). The berry tree grows in the forest and around the homes of Tai Neua people. The berry ripens and yellows until it is too sweet to eat. Crab apples, cranberries, unripe plum slices or cape and ordinary gooseberries would easily substitute for the mak lod – the sourer the fruit the better.
1 knob ginger, the size of three fingers
6 big garlic cloves
15 small dried chillies, not bird’s eye chillies
3 – 4 tablespoons (2 rounded Chinese soup spoons) fermented tua nao paste or substitute such as miso or Korean fermented bean paste
3 tablespoons raw cane sugar
1 tablespoon MSG
Salt, added depending on the saltiness of the khao soi paste
Pound the garlic in a mortar with half a teaspoon of salt for a minute and then add the ginger. When the paste is well integrated and squishy, remove it to a bowl and set aside. String the chillies on a skewer and roast over the fire or gas flame or under an electric grill until semi blackened but not immolated. Deskewer into the empty mortar and pound until well mixed and broken up. Then add thefermented bean paste and pound again. Put the ginger and the garlic paste back into mortar, pound a bit and add the sugar and MSG until all is well mixed. Taste and adjust the levels of salt, sugar and MSG to suit your own taste.
To serve, take a mak lodt berry (which is VERY sour) and remove the pit with a sharp knife. Wrap the sour fruit with a piece of coriander (cilantro) and spring onion leaf, then dip the little bundle in the jeow and pop into your mouth. A taste explosion will ensue. Any very sour berry could be eaten this way, such as gooseberry, a slice of crab apple etc.
You cannot go to khao soi village Ban Siliheuang in Muang Sing without making the famous pork and fermented bean sauce which is the key ingredient topping Northern Lao khao soi.
Here is how the Tai Neua make it. Our cookbook shows you how to make this khao soi sauce the traditional way, Luang Namtha (Tai Lue) style. The two ethnic groups have influenced each other over the past 200 years. There is not much difference really, just the type and form of chillies). Both groups insist that soaking and chopping the chillies from scratch gives the best results, but most restaurants and khao soi market stalls in both districts take a short cut by using dried chilli powder and chilli flakes.
Ingredients for the meat and fermented soybean (tua nao) sauce
4 big cloves garlic
1 cup fermented soybean paste (actually 3 heaped Chinese soup spoons)
3 – 4 tablespoons (actually 2 heaped Chinese soup spoons) mild chilli powder, brightly coloured – not from bird’s eye chillies
750 g fatty pork such as belly pork, minced (3 big handfuls when minced), or a mix of pork and beef which is evidently especially delicious.
1 cup palm oil (or other vegetable oil, but not coconut, mustard or olive oil)
Salt to taste
MSG to personal taste (Tai Neua use a whopping amount in everything)
2 tomatoes, sliced in small wedges
Method for sauce (soup and accompaniments are further down the post)
Put the garlic cloves and ½ teaspoon of salt in a mortar and pound for a minute.
Nang Jantee pounding garlic for the khao soi meat paste
First the oil is added to the wok
Khao soi paste is added
Slicing tomatoes for adding to the meat paste
In a hot wok or frying pan, add the cup of oil. When heated, slip in the garlic mixture and fry while moving it about until the garlic is browned. Before it burns (!!), add about 1 cup of tua nao paste and stir to mix. Continue to fry together until the oil returns.
Add the two types of chilli and keep on frying, while moving the sauce around the pan.
Add the tomato slices and stir fry until the moisture comes out. The paste is ready when it smells good and the tomato has started disintegrating.
Add the minced pork, 2 teaspoons more salt (or to taste) and 1 – 2 tablespoons of MSG. (Remember, this is a very concentrated sauce expected to last a few days refrigerated (hence the oil, salt and pork fat) and to serve many people). Keep on frying until the meat is thoroughly cooked then thin with water to a thick Western savoury mince consistency. Then, um, add another tablespoon of MSG and stir to mix in. Sai told us “If like to live long time don’t put in water.” After a bit of pondering I figured out he meant the meat sauce, not the person eating it. Continue to cook until the oil returns again and then transfer to a deep bowl to cool. In the cold, the fat in the sauce will solidify. It is the oil, chilli and reduced water content that preserves the sauce.
Sauce finished, we proceeded to make the soup base (there was only one fire). This can be done concurrently if you have two gas rings for example.
Ingredients for the soup base
250 g pork bits (Nang Buawon used slices left over from the pork she minced by hand for the meat sauce)
Half a pot of water (2 – 4 litres depending on how many people you have to feed, ours fed four with plenty left over. Don’t worry about the quantity because all the flavour comes from the sauce and condiments added later. This bland soup is to heat the noodles and cook the pork which is added to the dish when serving.)
Method for soup base
Bring the water to the boil. Add the slices of fatty pork. I saw no salt or MSG added, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some was slipped in while I was not looking. Simmer away while preparing the accompaniments until the meat is cooked.
Accompaniments and garnish
Finely chopped or sliced spring onions and coriander leaves, 1 tablespoon for each bowl being served
Pea or soy bean tendrils (or Chinese flowering cabbage), raw or blanched, to your taste
Coriander (cilantro), smallest you can get, roots removed, fresh
MSG, Soy sauce (which is also made in Tai Neua villages), lime wedges or juice, and crunchy and feather-light beef rinds, also a village speciality)
Noodle soup base ready for garnishing with spicy khao soi paste, herbs and vegetables
Nang Buawon preparing a bowl of khao soi noodles
About this time Sai disappeared to get some kao soi noodles from another villager while Nang Buawon set the table and sliced some of the pork. When he came back, she put two thirds of a bowl of noodles in each bowl, topped it up with the boiling stock then poured the excess back into the pot. She then added the pork, a good hit of the meat sauce (1 very heaped Chinese spoonful, 3 – 4 level tablespoons) and sprinkled over the chopped spring onion and coriander.
Each bowl was served piping hot and ready for us to doctor with any or all of the condiments and additional spicy meat sauce. (I noticed that Sai added another tablespoonful of MSG to his.) All the ingredients were mixed together and silence interspersed by slurps and grunts of pleasure ensued!
The next post will be about the wonderful sweet spicy jeow (chao) made with fermented soybean paste, ginger and garlic which is served with sour fruit from a tree (mak lodt ໝາກລອດ)