Lao Food what's that? by Xaixana Champanakone -- Cooking at home --
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
5. Tom and Gaeng, soups of a kind
There are tom and there are gaeng, both are ‘soups’ in English whereby gaeng is misleadingly translated into ‘curry’.
Tom - “to boil” or “boiled” - are clear soups without vegetables mostly made of fish or chicken with some celery or coriander and a few thin slice of ginger added. It is seasoned with pepper & salt only and ‘crowned’ with thinly sliced spring onion when served. Boil chicken bones the longer the better, while fish bones will take no more than twenty minutes before they start producing glue.
Tom kadouk (bones). The heigth of simplicity? You have any chicken or fish bones left over, that’s all you need; proceed as per above! This bare-boned soup is hard to beat in sophistication; perfection in simplicity.
Som I - sour taste add some lime, lime leaves, lemongrass or tamarind and you’ve got the sour version. The ‘sour’ touch is very much part of Lao cooking.
Som II- anything fermented by means of sticky rice produces a sour taste hence som (see nomai som next page.) Som as in ‘fermented’ plays such an integral role in Lao cooking that a future article will be dedicated to it.
Tom gai - boiled chicken, insides and all. This is the dish to eat picnic-style on the morning after tahk baat (alms giving to the monks) during the festival of Boun Taht Louang which is celebrated every November around Viangchan’s Great Stupa, symbol of the nation. It’s real, come and partake in this happy congregation of the Lao peoples.
Gaeng are rich vegetable soups made of many ingredients boiled together for a short period of time. Add ginger or galangal and meat of your choice. In Laos these soups do not consist of heavy coconut cream-plus-something-else (with the exception of Luang Prabang cuisine which does at times apply a touch of coconut cream). And they are not made with curry powder, either, so nostalgically remembered by the uninitiated from British ‘Raj’ colonial days.
Gaeng Nomai - boiled bamboo shoots, yellow gourd and mushrooms thickened with pounded soaked sticky rice, flavoured with fermented fish and coloured green with the extract of a jungle leaf called bai yanang.
Gaeng ‘nomai som’ with chicken - fermented bamboo shoot soup which is prepared in about as many ways as there are people in Laos and, of course, My Mother’s is The Best! The high art of preparing this dish lies in the preparation of the nomai som; not bitter, not too sour.
Gaeng ‘joed’ (as in ‘bland’, no chilli in sight), are clear soups made of pork stock typically featuring glass noodles, mushrooms, minced pork, tofu and leafy vegetables spiced to taste with black pepper. Take this dish international by adding sea algae of Japanese fame. I have yet to encounter the clear and fiery hot gaeng ‘pa’ - ‘jungle’ variety here in Laos.
And there is leuat paeng, nothing other than duck blood soup, raw like ‘steak tartar’.
See you for the next issue
Lao Cooking and The Essence of Life by Xaixana Champanakone
- Monument Books in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse
- Green Discovery Travel Specialists’ offices in Luang Namtha, Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, Vientiane, Thakhaek and Pakse
- Preview and online purchase at tropicaldesignfz.net/articles