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Lao Cooking and the Essence of Life: Front Cover

This book is the outcome of my journey which started in 1952 in Venezuela where my
German parents christened me Vincent Fischer-Zernin.

It has led me across continents, lives and religions to Laos where
I have become Xaixana Champanakone.

Lao Cooking and the Essence of Life: Back Cover
Book image Book Inside
Book Inside

Lao Cooking and the Essence of Life

Hard Cover Book and DVD Slideshow

Published in Laos     First Edition 2010     ISBN 978-9932-00-001-2

Book   Cover   PVC coated, matt, 19 cm x 27 cm
    Inside   207 pages art paper
       27 black & white photos
       13 full colour pages
        8 black & white illustrations
        3 bookmark ribbons
DVD   Slideshow with traditional Lao music, live recording
      333 photos of temple, market, street & river scenes in Viangchan
        45 minutes
Available in Laos (for US$ 31.-)
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  Louang Namtha - Louang Prabang - Vang Vieng
  Viangchan - Thakhek - Pakse
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  Xaixana Champanakone at fischerzernin@gmail.com

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

  Introduction XII
  Foreword XV
  Map of Laos XVI

Laos Today

  Simplicity, contentedness 1
  Rice, life 1
  Spiritualism, nature 2
  BACI, communion 3
  Bo Pen Yang, never mind 4
  Kaengchai and Bounkoun, obligations 6
  Face, yours 6
  Offering, merit 7
  Time, illusion 7
  Smiles, wonderful 7
  Yes, complicated 2
  Body, spirituality 8
  Nop, meaning 8
  Greeting, intricacy 9
  Passing in Front of, consideration 10
  Presenting, respect 10
  Raising Children, gently 10
  Daily Wear Haute Couture, delightful 10
  Animals for Food, but 11
  Cleanliness, naturally 11
  Food Comes Out, hygiene 11
  Drinking, ritual 12
  Ramwong, dance 15
  Festivals, passage 16
  Politics, whose 21
  Laos, today 21
For a study about this country’s history, buddhism and animism go to:http://countrystudies.us/laos/3.htm, 58.htm and 59.htm

Cooking Meditation

  Overview 23
  The Contemplation of Cooking 27
  Lao Food, never heard of it 31
  Enjoy Your Meal 43
  Cooking Meditation, what it takes 49
  Picture Guide to the Market 52
  Cooking Meditation, how to 63


  List of Recipes 71
  Read the Gospels 79
  Cooking Rice 87
  Rice Noodles 83
  Asian Snacks 91
  Chilli Dips Lao Jeow Thai Nam Prik 95
  Papaya Salad Tam Mak-mai Festival 101
  Thai Salads 103
  Salads Vinaigrettes 107
  Raw Pickled 115
  Jeow Mak-nao Travel Survival Kit 119
  Lao Sauces Chutneys Raitas Salsas 121
  Eggs 127
  Soups 131
  Fish Seafood 139
  Beef Pork Chicken Duck 149
  Vegetables 161
  Sandwiches 169
  Marmalade Extra Bitter 173
  Ice Cream 175

Recommended Cookbooks

  … and other Reading Material 177
  Collage of Illustrations in Full Colour 181

LAOS Today

Rice, life

Gkin khao - eat rice. It plays the central role in our daily routine and in the pursuit of our lives. ‘“To have rice or not to have rice!” that is here the question’ … between life and death. Rice means survival of the species.

Life is about rice - rice is life. The pursuit of life is to plant and harvest rice. The meaning of life is to plant and harvest rice. The spirit of life is rice. Rice is everything. Without rice there is nothing.

Baci, communion

The Festivals are like lighthouses showing the way through the darkness of the months ahead while the Baci joins you on the journey.

When the need is felt for some urgent reassurance in the pursuit of one’s life, or there arises the occasion to invoke the spirits’ benevolence for safety on the road and good fortune in business, a Baci is called for.

Then it is time to make merit upon one’s safe return home or recovery from sickness or out of gratitude for some good luck bestowed upon us. And there is always Birth, Engagement, Marriage and Anniversaries. Death is a different matter.

Communion with the Spirits

The triangular, marigold bedecked central piece of the ceremony, like the multiple storied funeral pyre,represents Mount Meru, the abode of the gods, center of the universe in Hindu mythology.It’s all very down to earth. Once the serious part, the invocation of the spirits, has been dealt with the mood turns festive; the time has come for the ‘tying wrist’ or matt kaen using a white cotton string. ........

Offering, meritHelping those in need by offering your assistance provides you with the opportunity to make merit with this good deed. You have already been rewarded that very moment, ....

Time, illusion

Upcountry, time by the hour does not exist. There is, of course, the natural rhythm of time to plant, harvest, celebrate, bathe, eat, kee (you guess) and rest. Time is immaterial. Time is free with little to do to occupy time. .......

Smiles, wonderful

People smile out of pleasure and for fun. They ‘smile a bo pen yang’ out of consolation and commiseration; when faced with failure, defeat, accident or bad luck; when in pain or feeling hot-cold-wet-tired; having made a fool of oneself or just passing a stranger in the street; when helping or correcting somebody, when sorry or ashamed of having messed up; or about anything else. ........

Detail of the face of Buddha, Wat Sisaket, Viangchan

Greeting, intricacy

Sabaidee is the word of greeting between people. This statement of ‘we are comfortable’ is constantly used among themselves and towards total strangers out of curiosity, politeness and to put you at ease. It builds bridges instantaneously.

Mealtimes and the weather make for variations which reflect one’s immediate concern and sympathy. Breakfast, lunch and dinner - time arrives with clockwork precision and people will not greet you with sabaidee but ask the immediate question on their minds : gkin khao le yang? This inquiry ‘have you eaten rice yet’ is made out of concern for your wellbeing.

When having a meal they will say gkin khao, ‘eat rice’, to politely advise you that they are not to be disturbed while at the same time making an inviting gesture with their hands to join them, ghin khao! There is nothing more important at this very moment in eternity, and nobody else should go hungry, either. The big basket full of sticky rice will always feed another mouth or two.

The otherwise happy-Sabaidee is replaced, as well, when venting one’s frust and fury at the weather. Freezing-your-toes-off is treated to the solicitous inquiry ‘nao boh? are you cold?’ while melting asphalt is commented upon with the feeble exclamation ‘HAWN! HOT!’ and pouring, drenching rain is dismissed with the definite statement ‘fon Tok – it Rains’. Other than that it’s sabai all the way. ......

Festivals, passage

The festivals are the marker stones of the year and the passing of life.

Planting     Harvesting     Thanksgiving     Renewal

These boun are reason enough to celebrate with huge fun affairs, blessed with phenomenal amounts of Beerlao. A few people will visit the temple on these holidays to pay polite lip service to Buddhism - you never know.

The depth to which these festivals are ingrained in the soul cannot be fathomed by hitec westerners living on microwaved TV-dinners. With the dependability of the moon’s cycles they reassure people in their deeply imbedded feeling of, and need for, ‘belonging’ to face together the never ending struggle against the seasons’ uncertainties.

Today this very sense of community is threatened by greed, the driving force of invading capitalism. The festivals, eternally repeated, distorted and abused or not, affirm the continuity of old times.

They sustain with fun and joy; they give purpose to life! It takes humility to accept this simple, profound reality to understand a people in all their yearnings and fears. .......

Cooking Meditation

The Contemplation of Cooking

There is the housewife’s routine, the fast food factory, the restaurant drudgery, industrialised catering, ridiculous 3-star chefs and then there is Cooking Meditation. This may end up being quite refined but starts off with the humble garden barbecue; food cooked on the spot and amidst everybody and everything, simple and delicious. It’s the gathering around the hearth of bygone times for warmth, food and companionship. Has anything changed?

To cook means to expose raw ingredients to heat with the help of cooking utensils and thus turning them into edible food. You are all in one

dreamer    creator    chief    chef magician    alchemist
technician    mechanic    chemist    biologist
handyman and dishwasher.

There are a few simple ways to get the job done, and the market delights with foodstuff of different

textures    types    origins    colours    character

all available at no great expense. It’s no mystery, either. Everybody around you is using some or more of these with lesser or greater success, out of necessity or for no other reason than indulging in pleasure.

As an introduction for you to get started with ease I shall provide a simple guide to tools and techniques, a general description of ingredients and some ideas of how, when and in what combination you might use these. Be patient, it’s all here.

‘Tasty and healthy, light and fresh, easy and fun’ should be challenge and motivation enough for you to give it a try. And when ‘the spirit catches you’ resulting in your

brain, mind, soul and heart        nose, ears and eyes
wrists and fingertips     palate and tongue

eventually becoming ONE with the products in your hands, you have reached a very advanced state of contemplation. Total concentration - the mind is flying, soaring. Creation! Others may meditate cramping their muscles; your meditation is cooking, simple and fun. ......

The Sophistication of Simplicity

What really is sophisticated cooking other than to work with the least number of ingredients to create culinary art. This is more likely to happen in a jungle in Laos or Lao village hut than a 3-star kitchen in France, or Bangkok for that matter.

Sophistication is Perfection in Simplicity

The Essence of Lao Cooking - The Essence of Life

Simple, light and fresh; that’s it. There is no other cuisine in the world that so instinctively follows these utterly convincing principles. What else could be more easily produced and be healthier, more wholesome for the body, than Lao food. Simplicity reigns supreme, it rules our lives. The soaring beauty of this simple acceptance of all things simple is the inspiration for living one’s life.

The Lao celebrate it everyday with food in the company of family and friends in some form or other. It happens along the sidewalk, in the garden, underneath the house, on the floor or around a restaurant table. Be happy with the food provided, you are already lucky. Why labour in pursuit of the illusion of more. What for? Bo pen yang!

Happy people are content people. Learn to be content with what you’ve got and you’ll be happy.

LAO Food

Lao Food, never heard of it

The Cooking of Lao Food - Simplicity

The cooking is done wherever it is possible to light a fire. This requires nothing more than firewood and arranging three rocks in a circle to serve as fireplace onto which pots can be placed.

All you need is a steam pot and bamboo basket to steam the sticky rice or anything else and a pot to cook other food. The rest is grilled on wooden skewers or wrapped and roasted in banana leaves. A mortar & pestle to make the life sustaining papaya salad or jeow (Lao style dip) and to pound the herbs and spices for cooking complete this short list of necessary utensils.

That’s it, can be taken anywhere. Sophistication in simplicity - the cooking of delicious food.

More Cooking Utensils than you will ever need

Out of necessity, food has to be freshly cooked because electricity is a fairly recent phenomenon in Laos and still not widely available in the countryside, meaning no fridge and thus no food storage. That’s why the fresh markets (talat sot) all over the country are busy in the mornings and again late afternoons. Everything is newly slaughtered, caught, fished or trapped and gathered twice a day : weeds, leaves, herbs, roots, honey, frogs, insects. Wood and charcoal fired stoves are commonly used even in today’s Viangchan. .....

A feast typically consists of a soup (tom or gaeng), something grilled or steamed (ping or neung), a sour dish (som), a sauce or dip (jeow), greens (pak), a stew (or) and a mixed dish (goy or laab) or a fried one (khoua). An everyday meal will do with sticky rice, a dip and .....

Tam Mak-houng - The Wheel of Life

Tam stands for ‘pounded’, mak-houng is ‘papaya’.

The ‘Pounded Papaya’ Salad, the celebrated National Dish. It appeals to the Lao palate like Brie to the French, pasta to the Italians, sauerkraut to the Germans (no longer, it appears), fish n’ chips to the Brits, hamburgers to the Americans, kimchee to the Koreans, sushi to the Japanese, vegemite – well, I won’t go into that nor into peanut butter - and the stereotypes go on forever. In the case of tam mak-houng, though, it is actually a serious national addiction; there is hardly a meal without it. Its availability provides total well-being while its absence means misery when having to travel abroad. I kid you not.


Kai Louhk (Egg with Child)

Boiled duck and chicken eggs in which the embryo hads developed to a certain stage, yours to choose. It is served all along the Maekhong River up and down the country, a hot favourite.

Kai Nio Ma (Horse Piss Egg)…

called ‘black’ or ‘thousand year old’ eggs. The eggshell turns reddish and the inside black after having been injected with a benign acid. In pre-hitec days eggs were put on, and covered with, straw which was then soaked with horse (ma) piss (nio) for many weeks - in other words a thousand years - until they finally changed colour, texture and taste thanks to the urine’s acidity.

Kai Kem (Salty Egg)

Eggs immersed in extra salty water for about one month; a process equivalent to cooking which turns the watery egg white into solid white and the egg yolk into solid red, ready to eat.
The Universal Table Setting

A tool for everything

Who needs that stupid overload of eating tools on a western restaurant table which only serves to confuse and embarrass the uninitiated and succeeds to seriously annoy me. I’m ex- Lausanne Hotel School where we were taught all this nonsense as the expression of western sophistication. For enlightened simplicity take another look above.

Hands On

Lao and Esan people love glutinous sticky rice (khao nio) as their main staple food which is eaten with fingers, delicious! Knead a big ball of it in the cup of your left hand. From this you tear small morsels to dip into and pickup bits of the various dry food on offer. A Chinese spoon is provided to help yourself to soups and stews like nam, tom, gaeng and or. The use of one’s fingers to eat explains the prominent availability of washbasin, soap and towel in private homes and restaurants which allows you to wash your hands before and after meals.

Food is served on a low, mostly oval shaped, woven rattan platform (pha khoa) with people sitting cross legged on the floor. I am not invoking any privilege but old age to kindly ask for the mercy of a chair. Asians are brought up without unnecessary contraptions like chairs and beds, and are therefore totally at ease sitting around Buddha style. In western oriental romanticism this is mystifyingly called the Lotus Position.

Traditionally minded people, and not only the older generation, make a nop over their empty plate once they have finished eating by way of giving thanks for having been provided for.


BASICS, read the Gospels before starting to cook

Fish and the Maekhong

in front of the House-on-the-River, Viangchan

G o s p e l   I   -   S E A S O N I N G Energise the flavours

Seasoning a dish is the final touch to bring out the multiple flavours in cooking :

Fish Sauce    Brown Sugar    Black Peppercorns    Lime Squeeze

a   Hold your fish sauce or salt, or use sparingly only, until the cooking has been nearly completed and the liquid reduced to the desired thickness, or the dish may become too salty in the end!

b   Add a little sugar when nearing the end of the cooking process before adding the fish sauce.

c   Prepare the pepper(corns) by using your pestle to first crush these, top-down, on your cutting-board and then continue roller-crushing. In my case, I use generous portions which I add in the early stage of cooking to give it time to soften and release its full flavour.

d   Squeeze lime to add its tart, zesty freshness as a finishing touch to anything and everything.

Noodle Soups    Sen Nam / Kwitio Nam

Glass Noodle Soup Classic (Gaeng Joed Woonsen)
This spells joed like in bland; no chillies anywhere in sight.

Chicken, pork, beef, shrimps, squid, fish - minced alone or mixed any which way
Morning glory & spring onion - cut to spoon size
Rat ear mushrooms & pickled garlic; ginger - large thin slices
Fermented fishGlass noodlesTofu (taohou) - bought ready made

Asian Snacks    Kong Kgaem

Fried Cashew Nut Salad (Yam Met Mamouang Toht)
Cashew nuts
Spring onions & chillies; limes cut in half to be squeezed

Dry-fry cashew nuts; remove from fire and put onto a plate.
Sprinkle with sliced spring onion, chillies and salt; squeeze lime juice over it all.

Chilli Dips    Lao Jeow and Thai Nam Prik

'Roast & Peel’ p. 66    ‘Seasoning & Breathing’ to finish each dish p. 81

Lao Jeow : there is jeow , and there is jeow . Sauces and dips are called jeow as long as these contain chillies. Here is a choice of the famous side-dishes or dips; for the sauces go to p. 121.

The classic jeow is either fairly dry or a paste, and eaten as dip with sticky rice and a combination of raw and scalded vegetables.

•  Fresh cucumber and long beans; raw or pickled bamboo shoots
•  Scalded cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and mak-oek (looks like small eggplant)

The three base ingredients are chillies, shallots & garlic which need to be thoroughly roasted. The province of origin, or a particular herb, vegetable, meat, fish or insect that adds its distinctive flavour, gives its name to a jeow.

Well, my Chilli Paste contains exactly these three main ingredients plus extra refinement! That’s your ready made, hassle free base to build on. Tame its spiciness by adding plenty of roasted shallots and garlic.

Thai Nam Prik

is nothing other than the glorification of wonderful kapi aka shrimp paste, and there is shrimp paste, and then there is shrimp paste, all delightfully different. Admittedly an acquired taste but once you catch on you’ll become an aficionado.

Thai Salads    Yam

Yam means ‘mixed together’ which is souhp in Lao. The famous Thai preparation in the form of a lime juice based mixed salad is unknown in Laos.

The Base

… is made of any kind of meat seafood egg or vegetable as main ingredients.
These are scalded grilled boiled or fried. Add onion lettuce tomato or cucumber.

The classic dressing seems to have inspired today’s oh-so fashionable Salsa Fresca.

  Sliced chillies, onion, garlic, celery and coriander
  Lots of lime juice seasoned with fish sauce and (palm) sugar

Combine all in a bowl and mix. Note : mince the celery and coriander first or one leaf will overpower everything else with its intense flavour.

Like papaya salad, yam warmly embraces a touch of fermented fish.

Refrigerate dressing and cooked ingredients separately; mix together when serving.

For any green coloured yam made of eggplants or morning glory, use only RED chillies for easy identification and demining later.

The difference between one yam and another is, of course, the principle ingredient.

Here are some varieties not so often found in restaurants.

Salads and Vinaigrettes    Pak - salad lae Nam

Avocado and Eggplant Salad

    Avocado - scoops
    Eggplant - sliced
    Cucumber & tomato - cut in small cubes
    Dill, mint & basil - minced
    Lime juice, no extra oil in this dressing*
    Chilli paste

Fry eggplant slices in olive oil* until dark brown; set aside.
Prepare dressing by incorporating everything above from dill to chilli paste.
Mix main ingredients with dressing.

* The eggplants will have soaked up enough olive oil while being fried that there is no need for more.

Raw and Pickled    Dip lae Som / Dong

Lime-Pickled Fish Salad

    Fish meat - thinly sliced
    Lime juice
    Lemon grass & shallots - thinly sliced
    Herbs as available or of your choice
    Crispy fried garlic

Except herbs and crispy garlic, combine all ingredients and mix well. Use a deep bowl to make sure that meat is well covered in lime juice.

Marinate for at least twenty minutes in fridge, or longer if dinner isn’t ready yet.

Serve chilled with herbs and crispy fried garlic for that crunchy texture.

Eggs    Kai / Krai

Asian Stuffed Omelette (Krai Ya-sai)

… much, much lighter and juicier than any tired old omelette or frittata!

As in a frittata, any combination of ingredients (see previous page) will do but need to be minced or, at least, thinly sliced. This omelette is done in two steps.

    Start with sweating minced shallots and garlic in butter until light brown;
    add your choice of whatever and fry until done. Do seasoning and set aside.

Wafer thin omelette
    Mix eggs with water to the ratio of two to one, season with fish sauce
    and pepper.
    Heat butter, add mixture and fry gently.
    When starting to firm up, give pan a shake or two to make omelette
    float about easily.
    Fry and shake until solid. Turn off fire.
    Place already cooked ingredients in the middle of this omelette; fold all
    four sides up and over to cover nearly - not important, see hereafter.

    Put your serving plate upside-down onto omelette; hold the pan handle
    with your lefthand while holding down the plate with your right. In one swift
    movement turn the whole thing completely over to place omelette on
    the serving plate. Easy!

Soups    Tom, Gaeng

‘Roast & Peel’ p. 66    ‘Seasoning & Breathing’ to finish each dish p. 81

The simmering of fish bones !

Fish bones release an unwanted, jelly-like glue
when boiled for more than twenty minutes.

Lao Classic Fish Soup (Tom Pa / Pla)
A clear and honest fish soup, as simple as it gets!

Boil whole fish until meat is done. Take out and remove meat.

Continue to simmer bones no longer than twenty minutes.

Remove bones, add meat; tamarind would lend a sour (som) touch.

Season with salt and pepper; sprinkle with spring onions for decoration.

Fish and Seafood    Pa / Pla lae Ahahn Thale

In the preparation of herbs and spices as flavour base for a dish it is your choice to

•  mince these finely with a big knife on the cutting board, I rather like that bit of texture
•  pound these with mortar & pestle into a smooth paste.
Exceptions where specified
•  galingal, cumin and ginger, cut in large thin slices
•  shallots and garlic, smashed
•  herbs, whole leaves

Shrimp Curry with Pineapple (Gaeng Goong Zappalot)
  Shrimps or prawns - fresh or salt water, preferably with heads
  Pineapple - cut in small cubes
  KG  Galingal (kah)
         Lemon grass (houa sikai) & lime leaves (bai kihout)
         Chillies & peppers
         Shallots & garlic
  Dried shrimps - ground with mortar & pestle
  Shrimp (kapi) & tamarind pastes
  Coconut cream

Separate heads from tails; remove shells from tails and set meat aside.

Boil heads and tail shells in little water. Smash these gently with pestle to help release the flavours and continue to simmer for half an hour. Pour stock through a sieve and return to pot.

Add coconut cream, the KG, shrimp & tamarind pastes and dried shrimps. Simmer a while.

Add shrimp tails and cook until done, two to four minutes depending on size.

Reduce to thickness of a creamy curry and add pineapple when serving.

Beef, Pork or Chicken – Duck or Venison

Sihn (meat) Ngoua, Gai reu Mou - Phet reu Fahn

Lao Roasted in Banana Leaves or Aluminium Foil (Mohk)

That’s about any minced meat or vegetables plus assorted herbs wrapped in banana leaves which is then steamed or grilled. Whether it’s meat, fish or frogs, seafood, red ant eggs and vegetables like bell peppers, tomatoes, long eggplants or mushrooms - go for it.

Wrapped in banana leaves sounds very romantic, aluminium foil will do the trick as well.

Lemon grass, fresh or dried chillies, shallots, peppercorns … sliced and pounded into keuang hom (‘things’ smell good) which form the base to Phia Sing’s variations

•  Fish I Pa daek - Coriander and dill
•  Fish II ‘Sweet’ basil leaves -Spring onions and dill
•  Meat Lime leaves - Spring onion & coriander

If you like, add a touch of coconut cream or an egg to this pounded paste before wrapping.

Looks all too familiar? Use anything you have in the fridge or garden; give instinct a free reign.

Vegetables Pak

Mushrooms, Bell Peppers and Ginger
… I must say this preparation is a revelation, so totally unconventional, simple and tasty.
    Mushrooms - a choice thereof
    Bell peppers & peppers, go for colours - cut in thick, short stubs
    Ginger, plenty - finely minced
    Vinegar & lime juice
    Honey and a touch of salt only

Fry all ingredients with butter. Add a little water and simmer until peppers start to soften, your decision how you like ‘em.

Move to serving plate.Reduce liquid to minimum; season with vinegar etc. Pour over vegetables.


Smoked Salmon Mousse

  Smoked or poached salmon
  Garlic & shallots, plenty - roasted
  Lime skin peel - finely minced, a touch, for its texture and bitter & sour flavour
  Capers - whole
  Herbs Lao ‘Fish’, see p. 51
   Horseradish, a touch
  Chilli paste, maybe a touch
  Cream cheese
  Bell peppers or peppers - thinly sliced, for decoration

‘Roast & Peel’ whole garlic and shallots, pass through blender to produce a foamy mass.

Pull salmon in flakes by hand. Mix all together in a bowl and work very hard with a spoon.

Keep working with strong, circular, squashing movements which incorporate air in mixture turning it ino a naturally light mousse.

Add capers for flavour, texture and colour.

Collage of Illustrations