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
2. Finger Food - a typical fun way to enjoy food at leisure
Pan Mieng - Pan means to form a cup made of a salad or cabbage leaf with your fingers while mieng is the name for the way this assortment is presented and subsequently eaten.
Family members, friends and guests joining in the meal wrap pieces of grilled fish, sausage or any meaty bits on hand in a leaf or a in thin rice paper sheet soaked in water.
To this pan add pickings from the keuang kiang - mint, spring onion, peanuts, chilli, garlic, shallots, star fruit, ginger, lemon grass, white rice noodles - crispy pork skin for fish - round eggplants and whatever waiting to be smothered by a sauce (jeow).
Proceed to pop this little package into your mouth - one bite different from the next. This languorously extends the mealtime to allow for talk and gossip to pass the time of the day in a most leisurely and convivial atmosphere.
The typical jeow is a dip made of pineapple, chillies and garlic, tamarind paste and fermented fish, sugar and salt.
Pan Mieng 'Pa' (fish) is the most common version given the number of rivers in Laos which, as the providers of fish, are the principal source of protein for people's daily diet; it's available in abundance and inexpensive - go fishing.
The most popular fish nowadays is Pa Nin (an import, admittedly - tilapia - thanks to one Cleopatra) ever so easyly raised in floating water farms up and down the Maekong. The meat is firm with a pronounced flavour and a bone structure that accommodates amateurs.
Push an honest stalk of lemon grass down its throat, coat it with a generous layer of coarse salt and... well., grill it ... slowly and gently.
Yoh Khao, that's 'wrapped rice' according to the country of origin, Vietnam, or 'spring rolls' to you and me, like in spring - like in fresh. Basically it is any kind of mixed salad minus dressing rolled up in soft rice paper and eaten as finger food. It is served with some out of this world sweet & sour peanut or fruit & honey sauces. For choice you may want to add glass noodles, sliced omelette, minced pork or smoked salmon.
The greasy fried kind has no place in Lao cooking though tourists love them, in flagrant contradiction to their name!
See you for the next issue