Lao Food what's that? by Xaixana Champanakone at Khop Chai Deu Restaurant
Kin Khao - 'eat rice' is the daily celebration of life, and the way of cooking what you 'eat with rice' - kin kap khao - reflects the Lao attitude to life : Simplicity
Three rocks, some firewood and a pot will do the trick, and a mortar and pestle would come in handy. Ah, and a steam pot and bamboo basket!
You buy fresh in the market what has been newly gathered and caught along the rivers, in the fields and in the jungle - vegetables, leaves, herbs and fish. Whatever livestock runs around the house yard makes for a feast.
Bamboo skewers grill things on the fire while banana leave wrappings roast food in the hot ashes or steam it in the bamboo basket; the pot cooks soups and stews, and fries the odd meat. Mortar and pestle pound roots and spices, chilli pastes and the life sustaining papaya salad; and the steamer and basket makes a home for it all with sticky rice.
With few tools and some herbs the Lao know to magically produce culinary delight, finelybalanced in flavour, varied in preparation, all of it ultra healthy - light and fresh.
Cooking and life - simple, immediate, receiving the abundance of nature with humility. Every meal is Thanksgiving, an auspicious and merry occasion blessed by the presence of family, friends, neigbours and colleagues... or you as the guest, anytime.
Where does this leave you?
Venture on foot or by kayak into the deep countryside for a 'homestay', eat in the local street stalls or bypass exercise and culture shock and go adventuring at a restaurant dedicated to serving Lao food in style.
Where daily meals are 'ingenuity in simplicity' - sticky rice, a chilli dip, something grilled and something boiled, all of which is accompanied by mountains of fresh herbs - festive occasions justify the extra effort to produce some of the Lao signature dishes to be featured in this magazine's next issues together with everyday fare for healthy sustenance :
Copyright (C) Vincent Fischer-Zernin 2010
1. The Lao Classic - papaya salad, grilled chicken and sticky rice
Tam mak-houng or 'pounded papaya' is the celebrated national dish. There's hardly a meal without it, and for Lao travelling abroad its absence seriously affects physical and mental well-being.
Made of shredded green papaya, the sourness is augmented by plenty of lime juice, spiced with chillies and garlic and seasoned with fermented fish or fish sauce and sugar. Roasted peanuts top it all while cabbage and crackling pork skin are served along side. The soothing pop-pok sound made by the pestle hitting the mortar assures that salvation is in the making.
String beans and cucumber are common variations sometimes mixed with soft rice flower noodles.
For some creative input choose green mango, grapefruit, cabbage or carrot. Khop Chai Deu Restaurant serves banana flower as its speciality.
Ping gai or 'grilled chicken', there's no festival without rickety tables loaded with succulently marinated chicken halfs. Split bamboo sticks hold these ready for grilling to juicy perfection.
For self respecting Lao only free range chicken will do, industrial fast food still needs to make inroads here. Nothing is discarded, intestines are simply threaded on bamboo skewers awaiting further action.
Connoiseurs will delightedly nibble away at the popular chicken feet, so much for chicken feed.
Khao nio or 'sticky rice' is glutinous rice wich is eaten with your fingers. Kneaded into a big ball in the palm of your left hand, those grains will stick to themselves, and not to you. Tear off morsels with which you pick up the dry food on offer; hands on - delicious.
This way of eating explains the ever-present handwash bassins conveniently placed in the middle of restaurants or the corners of private dining rooms.
Once you've finished replace the lid on the rice bamboo basket or your wife may well divorce you, believe it or not!
See you for the next issue