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
Here’s an ethnic variation on the common Lao food, soop pak. Muang Sing villagers operating the community-based ecotourism trekking business Akha Experience taught The Boat Landing staff this recipe when they trained at the guest house in July 2005. Traditionally, this Akha salad is made with either ginger or sesame seed, but never both. Each version is delicious and great served warm or cold.
Serves two to four depending on the number of accompanying dishes.
250 g (½ lb) green beans, topped and tailed; use long, string or French beans
12 cloves garlic, roasted and peeled; cook the entire head before peeling the required cloves
1 piece ginger, thumb-size, roasted and peeled (if not using sesame seeds)
2 – 3 T sesame seeds (if not using ginger)
2 – 3 T light soy sauce
1 t salt
2 t fish sauce
2 T mint leaves, chopped
2 T sawtooth herb, chopped (or substitute coriander, see below)
2 T spring onion, white stalk and greens, finely chopped
1 T Vietnamese mint leaves, chopped
2 T small coriander plants, stalk and leaves, chopped (use only if Vietnamese mint is not available; use a larger amount if sawtooth herb isn’t available)
Slice the beans diagonally or halve them. Steam the vegetable for a few minutes until lightly cooked. Remove to a mixing bowl.
Dry roast the sesame seeds until golden. Remove them before completely browned. Set aside to cool.
Put the peeled, roasted garlic cloves and salt in a mortar. Slice the roasted ginger if using. Add to the mortar. Pound the ingredients together until well-integrated. Tip this mixture over the beans.
Add the soy and fish sauce and gently mix into the salad by hand. Add the chopped mint, sawtooth herb and coriander.
Add the dry roasted sesame seeds if using and gently mix in by hand.
Transfer the mixture to a serving dish.
Be a non-traditional hedonist and use both sesame seeds and ginger. The taste is great!
Complete your Akha experience by serving the beans with Akha pork balls, ginger chicken soup, sawtooth herb jeow and sticky rice (all in the book, Food from Northern Laos).
Sticky rice is Laos’ staple food, accounting for two-thirds of its rice consumption. There are many varieties, both old, traditional seeds and new, higher yielding varieties developed to improve food security in subsistence economy villages. Some sticky rice is grown dry on steep upland slash and burn fields. Other varieties are grown in wet paddy fields. Non-mechanized rice production is very labour intensive, making every grain of rice precious. When Pawn was going on a three-month study trip to America, his chief concern was whether sticky rice was available and, if it were not, how he would survive without it. His concern mirrors that of many Lao travelling outside of their country.
Preparing sticky rice is very easy and fail safe if it is soaked long enough and if the steamer insert does not touch the boiling water below it. A most important step in preparation is to free the steam from the finished, cooked rice by prodding and flattening it with a paddle or spatula.
How to prepare sticky rice
Step 1: washing and soaking
Place the raw sticky rice in a bowl. Allow ½ – 1 cup of uncooked rice per person. Count on Asian diners eating more rice than Westerners. Briefly wash the rice to rinse away any husks or impurities. Do not over wash. Cover the rice with at least 2 cm (1 in) of water. Let it soak 6 hours.
The long soaking is essential, especially if the rice is old. Don’t try to shortcut it, or the rice will be starchy and lumpy, no matter how long it is steamed. If time is limited, the rice may be soaked in hot water for 2 hours. With any less time, however, it is impossible to cook sticky rice; substitute long grain, non-glutinous rice for the meal. To test whether the rice has been sufficiently soaked, try squashing a grain with your fingers. If it gives easily, it is ready for steaming.
Step 2: transferring the rice to a steamer
Drain off the rice water. (Try using this water later as a hair rinse. It is especially good for bringing out the gloss in long hair.)
Put water one-third up the side of the traditional, aluminium steamer pot (maw nung). A Western pot with steamer insert may be used in place of the traditional equipment. Place the pot on the heat and bring the water to the boil.
Meanwhile, tip the drained sticky rice into the traditional conical bamboo steamer (houad). Smooth the top of the rice, and then place the houad in the maw nung. If using a Western steamer pot and insert, lay a loose weave cloth in the base of the steamer insert so the rice does not fall through. Make certain that the houad’s bottom or steamer insert is not touching the water, or the rice will be soggy.
Step 3: steaming the rice
Cover the rice container with a bamboo lid or clean tea towel. Let the rice steam for 20 – 30 minutes. Ensure the water does not boil away. The cooking time depends on the rice’s age. Fresh rice takes less time. If cooking a large amount of sticky rice, half way through the steaming, flip the contents over as they lie in the steamer. Alternatively, cook the rice longer – up to 40 minutes.
Step 4: presenting and storing the rice
When the grains are soft with no ‘bone’ and when they have released a sweet, nutty taste, take the houad or steamer insert off the pot. Tip its contents onto a clean surface, cloth or banana leaf. Using a wooden paddle or spatula, flatten and spread the rice to release the steam. Let the rice rest a moment, and then turn the edges of the rice inwards to create a flattish ball. Divide the whole into smaller balls to fit inside individual sticky rice baskets if they are being used. Alternatively, serve the rice family-style, putting the entire mass on one plate for the table.
Step 5: using leftover sticky rice
To keep the rice warm and supple if it is to be eaten later in the day, store it in cheese cloth in a sticky rice basket. It may also be wrapped in a cloth and placed in an insulated cool bucket of similar size, a practice often used in Lao restaurants and large families.
Leftover sticky rice may be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge and resteamed later, briefly.
Cooked rice can also be shaped into thin wafers and sun dried. These pieces may then be grilled and added to stews as a thickening agent. Larger dried rice cakes, prepared the same way, may be deep-fried and used as a base for savoury or sweet toppings.
Watercress salads are synonymous with Luang Prabang. There are many variations. Some are very oily; some are very sweet. The dressing here uses a reduced amount of oil. It has an excellent balance between sweet, sour and salty effects and is redolent of cooked garlic. The mashed, cooked egg yolk enriches and thickens the dressing which contrasts brilliantly with the cress’ bitterness. This recipe is heavily influenced by Luang Prabang’s French colonial period. It is not traditional fare, but it is occasionally served at weddings and on other celebratory occasions in Luang Namtha.
1 large bunch watercress (or 1 cup Chinese or regular celery leaves or 1 cup rocket)
4 eggs, hard-boiled, whites only; reserve the yolks for the dressing
2 C mesclun using whatever greens are available
½ C coriander leaves
½ C mint leaves
1 cucumber, peeled and sliced
10 cherry tomatoes or 2 medium tomatoes
⅓ C light oil
4 T garlic, chopped
4 egg yolks, chopped
3 T sugar
2 T fish sauce
2 T soy sauce
4 T lime juice
¼ C dry-fried peanuts, chopped
Heat a wok or pan and dry fry the peanuts. Set the nuts aside to cool. When cool, chop.
Heat the oil on a medium heat. Add the chopped garlic and fry until golden brown, stirring frequently so it does not burn (about 2 minutes).
While the garlic is frying, mix together the chopped egg yolks, sugar, fish sauce and soy sauce in a deep bowl or screw-top jar. When the garlic is ready, remove it from the heat and cool. Add the garlic and its cooking oil to the mixture. Whisk or shake to blend well.
Add the lime juice and mix. Taste and adjust the sugar and lime juice.
Wash the watercress thoroughly in clean water; drain and discard any thick stems. Cut cherry tomatoes in halves. If using larger tomatoes, cut into wedges about 1 cm (½ in) thick at the widest part.
Assemble the salad on a large, flat plate or in a bowl by forming a bed of watercress which is topped with the other herbs and leaves, tomatoes and sliced egg whites in a nice pattern. Drizzle the dressing over the salad and sprinkle the chopped peanuts over the whole. Serve the salad immediately, as it will quickly wilt.
For a sweeter version, reduce the lime juice; for a sourer version, increase the lime juice. Do not reduce the sugar amount. Equal or other sugar substitute may be used as a replacement sweetener.
The number of eggs can be reduced to 2 or 3. The dressing will be thinner.
Save any remaining dressing in a screw-top jar and refrigerate for later use.
A soop resembles either a cooked vegetable salad or a thick, herby stew. This dish is more a salad. It can be made with a wide variety of steamed or lightly boiled vegetables. In fact, the sesame seeds are the only essential ingredient. Everything else may be varied. This dish is particularly delicious when sesame seeds are liberally used. Serves four to six people.
1 C Chinese cabbage, cut in small, loose leaf pieces 7 cm (2 – 3in)
1 C cauliflower flowerets (or other white vegetable)
3 fingers sized amount of bamboo shoots, pre-cooked, finely sliced (optional)
3 long beans, cut into 4 cm (1½ in) pieces (or 10 green beans)
1 bunch sawtooth herb, three fingers-width, tailed and cut in half (or coriander leaves)
½ – 1 C collard greens (or bok choi ), cut in 4 cm (1½ in) pieces
2 – 3 stems dill, cut into 4 cm (1½ in) lengths
2 very large or 4 medium oyster mushrooms, torn in 1 – 2 cm (½ in) wide shreds
1 large bowlful water with 1 teaspoon of salt for refreshing vegetables
½ large head garlic, strung on toothpicks or satay sticks for grilling
3 or more red chillies (amount to taste or omit), strung on toothpicks for grilling
2 thin slices galangal or ginger
2 T to ⅓ C sesame seeds, dry roasted. A mixture of white and black seeds is desirable, although white alone is fine.
2 T soy sauce, padek or fish sauce (or to taste)
8 C water
Prepare the vegetables as described, placing the readied ones in a large bowl. Add water and 1 teaspoon of salt. Rinse vegetables in the brine, picking off any wilting pieces. Let soak briefly.
Put fresh water into the bottom of a steamer or a sticky rice pot and bring to the boil.
Toast the sesame seeds. Place in a mortar. Pound until most of the seeds are broken. Remove and set aside.
When the water comes to the boil, tip the vegetables into the steamer, allow them to drain and then place the steamer over the boiling water. Steam for 10 – 15 minutes depending on preferred crispness.
Roast the garlic and chillies. Cool. Remove their charred skins. Add the peeled garlic, chillies and galangal/ ginger to the mortar. Pound until a paste forms. Adding a dash of salt helps the blending.
When the vegetables are ready, toss them briefly in the steamer to expel the steam. Invert the steamer over a low-sided, wide bowl. Let the vegetables cool. Sprinkle them with the pounded sesame seeds and the pounded galangal/ginger and garlic paste. Add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Gently use your hands to mix the ingredients together well. Taste and adjust with sauce if needed.
Turn into a serving bowl, garnish with coriander and serve as part of a Lao meal. This dish goes well with sticky rice or can be used as a picnic dish.
This dish’s intensity is modified by pre-cooking the chillies and garlic. Grilling imparts a mellower, sweeter flavour than if the ingredients were used raw. This jeow may be made with small, hot green and reddening (immature) chillies, or if a milder flavour is preferred, use immature, longer green chillies or the large, sweeter pale green chillies of a size suitable for stuffing. The younger the chillies, the less hot they are.
1 handful immature chillies (about 22 small chillies for a hot jeow or 2 – 3 large pale green chillies for a mild jeow)
6 medium cloves garlic (or a small garlic head)
½ t chicken stock powder (or 1 teaspoon of fish sauce and a little sugar), (optional)
½ t salt
2 sprigs coriander
2 T (approx) water or stock
Choose a mix of small immature chillies from green to nearly red, with the balance more towards the green. Thread them through their middles, so they lie side by side on toothpicks. Each toothpick will take about 7 – 8 of the small ones. Large chillies can be grilled separately.
Grill the chillies and unpeeled garlic cloves, turning occasionally until the chilli skin crinkles slightly and has occasional blisters and the insides soften (about 7 minutes). Grilling may be done on a wire rack over a gas flame, on tinfoil on a heating element, under a grill or over a low fire, the usual village way.
Remove the grilled chillies and garlic as they become ready. Deskewer the chillies when cool.
If using big chillies, remove any blistered skin and chop into 1 cm (¼ in) pieces. Placing the chillies in a plastic bag to cool for a couple of minutes before removing the skin makes this easy.
If using stock powder, place it and salt in a mortar or food processor.
Peel the cloves of garlic and add to the mortar. Add the chillies to the mortar. Pound with a pestle for several minutes (or process until the ingredients form a coarse paste). The individual ingredients should be recognizable, but blended together.
Remove any thick stems from the coriander and finely chop the leaves and finer stems. Add to the jeow. Add the water or stock. Mix, thinning the jeow to the consistency of a thick spread or salsa.