Monday, November 16, 2009

So, what makes it Lao food?

You can read books and download recipes, but when it comes to cooking it really helps to actually see someone make something.  Television is clearer but since I don't expect to see "Cooking the Lao Way" on the Food Network anytime soon, Bruce and I decided to get some hands on experience by taking a cooking class here in Ventiane.  Here's a bit of what we learned. 

Green papaya salad is popular all over S.E. Asia but the Lao version is a bit different.  And, by the way, green papayas are not even in the same family as yellow papayas.  Which is why, until we took the class, I could never find them in the market.  I  don’t think they look the same at all - more like a huge cucumber.

When it comes to making Lao food if you don’t have one of these you’re sunk.  Laotians with their kok (mortar) and sak (pestle) rival the Mexicans with their molcajete when it comes to pounding stuff together.  In this case you start with a mixture of lime, chili, and garlic all smashed to a paste.

Then you put in the green papaya which you’ve peeled and shredded.  You make hash marks in it and then cut it into strips.  Be sure to keep turning the papaya around while you’re doing it.  If you don’t it’s bad luck.  And don’t get any of the seeds in the middle mixed in – they’re bitter.

Now you put that in your mortar along with sliced cherry tomatoes and the mystery fruit.

They call this maak ko  - English translation: plum.  But it ain’t like any plum I’ve ever seen.  Smells like grapes and has a very large pit.  Anybody know what it really is?

Or this?  Maak Khua, translated as yellow eggplant.  Anyway, it all goes into the mortar and gets smushed about.

This is what makes it Lao.  Paa dek is the fish sauce of Laos.  Pretty grim looking stuff, I know.  Since Laos is landlocked they make this mixture from fresh water fish from the Mekong mixed with other stuff that then sits around for a year or two.  Yes, that’s right - a year or two - before it goes into pretty much every dish in the land.  It tastes kind of like liquid anchovy paste.

So you add a spoonful or two of that and, finally, chuck in a bit of sugar and you’re ready to eat green papaya salad (tam maak hung) with the other definitive Laotian food – sticky rice.

If you’re Laotian you eat sticky rice every day.  That habit is even used as a definition of Lao ethnicity by anthropologists.  To make it you have to soak it for at least a few hours or overnight.  Then you rinse and drain it and put it in this lovely woven basket.  It looks like a lot, but sticky rice doesn’t swell when it cooks so what you see is what you get.

This is a Laotian stove.  And, no, we didn’t take this photo out in the wilds, this is what everyone, even in downtown Vientiane, cooks everything on.  Charcoal in the bottom; grills and pots on top.  You steam your sticky rice over hot water over this brazier for thirty minutes.

Then you stand in awe as your cooking instructor, La, flips the whole thing over in the basket. Three more minutes on the fire and you’re done. To see La in action, click here:

It’s always served in these adorable baskets with lids on.  You make a small ball of rice which, naturally, sticks together and use it to scoop up your food.  It’s especially useful for  finishing up the last of the sauce.  And don’t forget to put the little lid back on.  Failure to do so is bad luck too.

This market stall makes nothing but papaya salad and will customize your order.  You can stipulate more or less chili,  how much paa dek, etc..  Notice how there’s two kinds: one with just liquid; the other with bits of fish in it.  It’s sort of like peanut butter you can have the crunchy or the smooth. Then you pick which of the mystery fruit you want in it or have a change of pace with a whole green banana (peel and all) banged in instead.  I’ll have to try that next time.

1 comment:

  1. Greetings friends far away - This is without contest the best of the bests food commentary, and the dishes - yummmy - except for the waterbugs !!!!
    Jo Jo you got it down lady - so many tempting dishes nd best of all - you will be cooking these dishes for us in Umbria this summer -ooooops did I give it away.

    Love and kisses from Michael and Carol andLuca Buon ghehawwm Chok gooo Srjark