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 passion fruit 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!
Vandara Amphaiphone is an amazing woman and a Luang Prabang institution who’s creativity and holistic life approach imbues all she does: weaver, culinary expert, guesthouse owner, mentor and organic gardener. I met Vandara in print in 2005 but it took until 2011 for me to meet her in person at the opening of a photography exhibition at Project Space in Luang Prabang. Vandara co-authored “Food and Travel Laos”, the first English language Lao cookbook published in Thailand. Now out of print, the Thai edition is still available. She also gives cooking classes at her guest house using her own organic produce.
I was delighted when Vandara suggested that we come to her riverside guest house and have a big cooking/sharing session as we’d both heard of each other and were very excited to get together. I didn’t know about Vandara’s magnificent organic garden so in the morning Kees and I took off to the local market to get vegetables, herbs and meat – which later of course we found out that Vandara had in abundance! But it was fun in the market. What Kees did not realise was that Vandara was actually at the market buying padek fish. I only found out when I was going through his market photos as I did not see her myself.
We were picked up in town by Vandara in a tuk tuk and made our way to her guest house/ home stay, “Vanvisa at the Falls“, on a river outlet of the Kuang Si Falls. The water was raging when we arrived as it was the rainy season, with water swirling a footstep from where we had our amazing dinner that night. Vanvisa is set in Vandara’s local Khamu village, and she has spent years planting what seems a wild jungle paradise crammed with food-bearing and traditional medicinal plants and trees. Its an ongoing passion – we shared our tuk tuk with bags of cuttings and plants on the way out and stopped off at Vandara’s bigger garden (if you can imagine such a thing) to pick up sweet bamboo.
The garden is absolutely not in straight rows, everything grows in association with other plants and trees creating little ecosystems. It was hard to walk anywhere because even the ground cover was edible! Not being a botanist or avid gardener I just knew that there was a wealth of expertise and precious species behind this seeming wilderness and I will certainly be taking more time to learn and explore in future.
Meanwhile, if you are into food and wild organic gardens and a real Lao experience you MUST visit this place and meet Vandara.
Don’t expect a three star or above hotel experience, this place is basic but so creatively authentic – even the beds, toilet roll holders and shelves are made on site using local bamboo! And the passion fruit juice is freshly made with local honey.
Below are some photos of vegetables in the garden, but there are many more – papaya, basils, pennywort, avocados, many types of eggplants, plants for dyeing, gingers, galangal, taro etc.
The Tamarind Restaurant – A Taste of Laos in the Old Quarter of Luang Prabang is one of our favourite Lao restaurants. Besides their scrumptious food and the best cold drinks in Laos, what we love about Lao-owned Tamarind is Joy and Aussie wife and partner Caroline’s philosophy behind its creation and operation. Recently moved to new premises over looking the Nam Khan river, the restaurant has grown in reputation and popularity, yet still retains its essence – making Lao food accessible to people unfamiliar with the cuisine, not by dumbing down the food, but by providing delicious tasting platters and other dishes aesthetically presented in a stylishly simple dining setting. Staff relish the opportunity to explain the dishes when asked, and having observed the scrupulously clean but essentially Lao kitchen, I can vouch that no shortcuts are taken in producing the carefully selected dishes. Tamarind also sells kitchen ware, books about Lao food, and Lao ingredients packaged in a way to not get seized by Agricultural Security in countries concerned about protecting their bio-security. Naturally arising from their philosophy, Tamarind also runs an excellent cooking school set in beautiful lakeside gardens. Not surprisingly, the restaurant is one of the favourite lunch and dinner haunts for local expats.
For this visit, Caroline had asked Joy’s sister, Morn, to demonstrate their Or paedek for us so that Kees and I could record the process (and then eat the results for lunch)! Or padek uses the fermented fish from the padek pot to form a chunky sauce-like dish eaten with sticky rice and simmered vegetables. It has lots of herbs and other favourite Lao flavouring agents, a little minced pork and eggs. The mix sounds odd, but the resultant flavour is salty, hot and redolent of grilled garlic, lemongrass and herbs, buffered by the eggs and pork. Altogether saep lai! If you are close to an Asian market, it’s a dish that can be made easily around the world, you just have to get your hands on padek or a substitute. This dish would normally be eaten by at least four people with sticky rice and maybe another simple dish.
Or Padek Recipe
1 large bulb garlic
1 handful brown or red shallots
4 stalks lemongrass
10 long red chillies
1 tablespoon pea eggplants mak keng waan on their stalk
1 teaspoon Knorr stock powder (optional, otherwise use part fresh stock for the water when simmering the fish)
2 tablespoons galangal, (check if grilled)
2 stalks dill
3 sprigs lemon (hairy) basil pak I tou Lao
3 – 5 spring onions (lao size, not the hulking great ones in the West, in which case use only one)
Note: All the steps are shown in photographs on the left. Just scroll down as there are more photos than text.
In a fire or on a grill, roast the whole bulb of garlic and shallots, add the lemon grass to the grill.
Thread the chillies onto a skewer or toothpick and add to the grill. The pea eggplants only need 30 seconds to grill, just enough to bring out the flavour. Turn as each ingredient slowly roasts and blackens. Remove as each ingredient is softened – the garlic will take the longest. Set aside to cool.
In a wok, dry fry the padek fish a few minutes until aromatic and then add 1½ to 2 cups of water, stir to break up and mix in fish and simmer for 5 minutes. Sieve over a bowl to remove the liquid.
Dry fry the pork in the wok until white and broken up and then add the strained padek water. Add the Knorr if using and more water. Simmer while you do the next step, adding more water if needed.
Remove the black and blistered shin from the chillies, clean up the lemon grass of blackened outer sheath, and remove the garlic cloves from their blackened papery covering and peel the shallots. Destem the pea eggplants. Rinse by pouring over some water to rinse. Discard water containing the excess blackened bits. (I’d never seen this step done before, but maybe Westerners were alarmed by black specks in their food.)
Slice the garlic and shallots crosswise and the chillies vertically into strips, removing the seeds. Slice the lemongrass finely from the bottom up the stalk until if feels a bit tough, then stop. Discard the tough green bit.
Slice the galangal, then cut across into 2 tablespoons of finer pieces.
Add all the ingredients except the chillies to the simmering mixture. Top up with more water if needed.
Remove the dill and lemon basil leaves from their branched and put in cold water. Chop the spring onions into a bit less than 1 cm (⅓ inch) pieces.
When the or is thickening, add three eggs. Let them sit for a minute then gently mix in. Slowly cook. Add more water and when
simmering add the herbs, then half of the chillies. Stir to mix. Just before serving add the rest of the chillies, then transfer to a serving bowl and garnish with basil.
Choose a selection of vegetables to simmer for eating with the or padek. Morn used carrot, snake gourd, choko, beans and pak choy (a type of Chinese cabbage with yellow flowers). Zucchini, and wedges of cabbage would also work.
Prepare the vegetables by cutting into pieces suitable for dipping (crudites) and soak in cold water. Add vegetables in order of cooking time and simmer in boiling water until soft but still having a bite. Drain and arrange on a plate.
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.
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.
Kees and I arrived at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha after a long bumpy drive in our fire-engine red Honda Jazz from Luang Prabang. This car in SE Asia is considered a teenager’s car but in New Zealand, its a Nana-mobile. OK, I’m a Nana and Kees has teenage tendencies – so its a good fit for us, even if it is not really suitable for travelling in Laos. We thought we might have to lift it onto a barge at one stage! Still, it, like us, coped with anything, even though the trip cost us two shot tyres!
No sooner had we checked into our bamboo “chalet” by the river, and showered off the dust than we were summoned to Nang Noi’s 20th birthday celebration.
Nang Noi (Little woman) had been looking after Namthip as an after school activity since she was about 12 years old. Now Namthip is 9. As you can see it was cold in Luang Namtha!
Everyone gathered outside the Boat Landing kitchen around three low bamboo tables, which had the makings for a version of Lao hotpot sin dat (without the meat as fish was used instead). A huge aluminium bowl of green vegetables, herbs and bean sprouts had been washed and torn into manageable pieces and fine dried rice noodles had been soaked and drained. A rice serving bowl holding delicious spicy home-made chilli sauce was at hand and two electric hot pots filled with stock bubbled away.
The vegetables were piled into one pot of stock – loads of them and simmered. Meanwhile, the fish pieces poached in the other pot. To serve, vegetables were removed with chopstick to a soup bowl, rice noodles and a bit of broth added, topped with fish. The diners added sauce to their liking and mixed up everything together. Accompanied with Beer Lao, this is a great way to celebrate a birthday with minimal work and maximum fun and informality.
The leisurely meal and socialising took several hours, but we toddled off to bed early after catching up with everybody. 7 hours on the road takes its toll! However, the road is much improved from November last year, when it took us 11 hours in a van.
Essential to the flavour of Lao food, and the first step in many Lao recipes is the preparation of flavouring ingredients. Most jeow (chilli dipping sauce) recipes call for the roasting of such produce as whole bulbs of garlic, shallots, apple eggplants and chillies, and maybe additional flavourings such as ginger, lemon grass, water beetles etc.
I’ll share the traditional way of doing this first, followed by how to do it in a Western kitchen. Either way, the goal is smoky flavoured, cooked until soft ingredients that are easy to pound or mash.
Traditionally, unpeeled heads of garlic, shallots and apple eggplants are roasted in embers (jee) or grilled (ping) before they are pounded to make jeow, Lao dipping sauce. They must be turned occasionally until the outer skins are thoroughly blackened. After cooling, peel or break off the burnt skins. Don’t bother about removing all the burnt skin as its smoky flavour is valued.
Thread chillies on a toothpick or sharp strip of bamboo and lay on a wire rack or splatter guard over a charcoal stove or gas flame. Grill until charred, but not completely blackened. After cooling, remove the burnt pieces of skin before pounding the chilli pulp.
There are a few issues with these methods. First, with the charcoal stove, there is the hassle of waiting until the embers are subdued enough not to immolate your garlic and other goodies. You want things black, yes, but you are not aiming for a job as a charcoal burner! Controlling the embers is not a problem for most Lao within the Lao PDR where a charcoal (or wood) stove is used for everyday cooking.
Second, with a gas flame, bits of charred garlic skin often float around the kitchen causing alarm to others, and chillies slide off the wire rack and into the gas flame to become totally burnt offerings that then need to be fished out through the wire rack, causing alarm to the cook.
A piece of tinfoil or a splatter guard under the goodies foils (sic) the escaping chillies but doesn’t do much to contain the floating fragments of skin. The answer is to place the ingredients on either tinfoil, a rack or vegetable barbeque tray and grill the ingredients in a toaster oven or oven grill, while turning occasionally (the ingredients, not you!). Don’t cover them in tinfoil because you want them to blacken for the smoky flavour, not stew. Of course, firing up the gas barbie is the obviously outdoors answer to these modern problems!
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).
This is one of three recipes for gaeng naw mai from the cookbook “Food from Northern Laos”. It uses fresh bamboo shoots and yanang juice. The recipe was recorded in ant egg season (April – May), so ant eggs and acacia fronds were added. The recipe is perfectly fine without the ant eggs, and you can add a mix of beans, mak buab (or zuchini), squash tendrils, Lao basil and sawtooth herb (or coriander) cut in 5 cm pieces instead of the acacia fronds or leave the greens out entirely. Up to you!
N.B. One of the other recipes, gaeng naw mai som uses pickled bamboo shoots and the other, gaeng naw mai sai padek uses a piece of fermented fish from the padek pot as well as your choice of meat.
Serves four to six.
500 g – 1 kg (1 – 2 lb) fleshy pork bones chopped into small pieces (3 cm [1 in])
1 – 2 large handfuls yanang leaves to taste (or half a tin or more of yanang extract)
Water for soaking yanang leaves
3 T oil
5 cloves garlic
1 small white or red onion, chopped into thumb-size pieces or several shallots
5 T padek, boiled for 5 minutes to sterilize (or less to taste, or add some fish sauce at the end)
10 – 12 long reddish chillies
1 thick bamboo shoot, pre-cooked, finely sliced lengthwise and blanched (or about 2 cups tinned bamboo shoots)
2 C oyster mushrooms
2⁄3 C cloud ear mushrooms
1 bunch acacia fronds (pak la) (or your choice of greens)
1 C red ant eggs (optional)
Put yanang leaves into water and soak. Rub, squeeze and collect the liquid (or use tinned yanang extract).
In a large frying pan or wok, add the oil. When hot, add the garlic, stir briefly and then add the onion. When the onion is transparent, add the pork pieces, frying until sealed and succulent looking (about 5 minutes).
Put the yanang juice in a large pot along with the padek and chillies. If using yanang extract, add sufficient water to create a soupy stew. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pork and simmer for 5 more minutes. Stir in the bamboo shoots and simmer a further 5 minutes. Lower heat if needed and add the oyster mushrooms. Stir to mix gently.
Line up the fronds, so they face the same direction. Curl them on top of the stew; do not mix in. Leave to simmer for a few minutes, and then slip in the red ant eggs and cloud ear mushrooms trying not to disturb the fronds. Simmer for a few minutes more. Take off the heat and serve with steamed sticky or plain rice.
“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!
This herb is widely used in Lao recipes. The small-leafed, short plant is the Lao version; the variety with larger stems and leaves grows from Chinese seed. It is a standard raw accompaniment for lahp and sa. Use the plant, root removed, as a salad vegetable. The leaves are added to soups just before serving. Use in young chilli pepper jeow. Lao do not cook with the seed.
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).
Pumpkin is prepared and eaten in many different ways in Laos. Chunks are used in soup recipes, especially when the whole is small and immature, or pieces may be fried or steamed. Custard is steamed in small, whole buttercup pumpkins, and cooled slices are served as a sweet. This is a classic sold by street vendors specializing in sweets. The dessert is also popular throughout Thailand.
Pumpkin tendrils, young Pumpkin tendrils, young ຍອດໜາກອຶ nyot mak eu
Add to bamboo shoot soup just before serving. Boil or steam young leaves and tendrils and eat with jeow. Use cut young leaves to fry with eggs or pork. Steam and use in soop pak along with other vegetables. The flowers can be stuffed with a minced pork mixture, dipped in either beaten egg or tempura batter and deep-fried.