Sunday, December 20, 2009
Northern Laos is craggy, forested, mountainous country. There’s very little arable land and what there is is given over to sticky rice production. Water buffalo are highly prized and everyone seems to have some chickens and a couple of little black pigs running around the yard but other than that – plus kitchen gardens – you’re out in the forest looking for free food.
There’s a wonderful restaurant in Luang Prabhang run by an Australian (Caroline Gaylard) and her partner a Laotian (Joy Ngeuamboupha) called “Tamarind”. Joy does the cooking, Caroline’s front of house and they’re both dedicated to serving food that – although tailored for tourists – retains the flavors and spirit of Laotian cuisine.
But, for a really authentic Lao experience, you can order in advance and they’ll make you a dinner described as “Adventurous Lao Gourmet” a rare opportunity to try all sorts of foraged food. After a phone consultation a couple of days before in which I allowed that rodents made me a bit squeamish but everything else would be dandy we arrived for what turned out to be an unforgettable evening. Here’s what we had:
Sample Plate One – All to be eaten with loads of sticky rice.
A: Pak Goot which means curly vegetable. A kind of fern simply stir fried with oyster sauce.
B: Pounded river crab (mortar & pestle working hard here) with garlic and lashings of chilies. Absolutely scrumptious and one of our favorite tastes of the evening.
C: Soop pak. A Luang Prabhang style salad. Eggplant, sesame, and a vegetable that looks somewhat like okra (but isn’t) along with its bitter yellow flower, both called maak buap.
D: For those of you paying attention from earlier posts – here we have maak kok again – one of the secret ingredients in the papaya salad – only this time its been grilled on a barbecue and mashed. Bruce and I saw it “in situ” growing on a tree while trekking near the Chinese border. Yes, that’s right, JoJo actually went trekking!
E: Another big hit. Het bot. A kind of dried mushroom that seemed slightly sweet. Sautéed with kaffir lime leaves. I’ll try and bring some back to Italy since Caroline said you can buy it already dried in the market.
F: This is also a pre-prepared condiment. Pak Gat. A dried vegetable pounded with salt. Looks like pepper but it’s not. Great dabbed on your sticky rice.
G: River moss, dried in sheets with garlic and chilies and then flash fried is a very popular Luang Prabhang dish which you can also bring home. This is the same moss but not dried and, instead, mixed with fried garlic.
H: River moss again but this time steamed and mixed with dill, spring onion and wood from a kind of vine botanically related to the pepper family – sa khan. You can eat the piece of vine but I just sucked on the wood which has a spicy and, well, kind of woody taste.
Moving on to Sample Plate Two in which things start to get a bit stranger.
A: Here’s a relatively straightforward item. Ua no mai. Bamboo shoots stuffed with a mixture of pork, shallots, eggs and scallions and then batter fried. Delicious.
B: Next up, nor mai som. Pickled bamboo shoots with ginger. It seems that along with sustaining the nation on a daily basis sticky rice can also be used as a pickling agent. I haven’t a clue how. I’ll try and check that out.
C: Cured fish in sticky rice. The fish was tilapia not a native Lao fish but increasingly used all over the world because it’s so easy to farm. Originally from the Nile, I believe. This was pretty fishy – somewhere between the sour of a pickled herring and the salty of a kipper.
D: Here’s where it got a bit too weird, even for us. Fish guts - lower intestine fish guts with contents - if you get what I mean. Salty, intense. Makes sea urchin roe taste bland. A little dab on your sticky rice is all you need to get the idea. A teaspoon could flavor risotto for eight.
E: Moo foi. Pork marinated with turmeric, dried and then fluffed up. A nice break from the fish guts.
F: Sin dot. Laotian water buffalo jerky cured with ginger, galangal and sesame seeds. I’d bring some of that home, too.
G: Som Moo. Pork fermented using the ubiquitous sticky rice and then grilled in a banana leaf. Very tasty. A bit odd but the kind of odd you can get into.
H: In our phone conversation I’d asked Caroline if they could serve anything that was seasonal. So we got this smashing mushroom dish. Het bot – same as the dried ones – but fresh and stir fried with garlic and spring onion.
And last, but definitely not least, Sample Plate Three.
A: Steamed wasp larvae. You pick out the larvae from the comb and dip them in salt. If one of them is black you can still eat it but it’s more mature so you have to pick off the stinger before swallowing. This didn’t really taste like much of anything. It felt like the kind of thing you’d be grateful to have if your plane was downed in the jungle and you’d happened to survive and a friendly ethnic group was trying to feed you.
B: This was my Waterloo. It’s a waterbug, grilled. You crack it open and eat the insides. Maybe it was just too similar (if not exactly the same as) waterbugs that come out of tenement basements in New York's Lower East side when it rains, but to me it tasted like chicken livers gone bad.
C: Now here’s a bug you could learn to love. Bamboo caterpillar (Omphisa fuscidentalis) flash fried. It’s so popular here and in northern Thailand that the Thais are trying to farm it, but for now it can only be found in the wild. Tasty, tasty.
D: River eel threaded on bamboo sticks and grilled. You can eat the whole thing, bones and all. Bruce thought it would be a great thing to take on a picnic. Very, very nice.
E: Frog cooked in bamboo leaves. Also very good but unfortunately we were running out of steam, perhaps from an over indulgence in sticky rice with the first plates, which was a shame. It was a lovely dish.
F: Elephant ear leaves, pounded and steamed then grilled in banana leaf. Nice flavor. On our trek we learned that you can take the root of the elephant ear plant, dry it for a couple of days and then make it into a tea. If the tea tastes sweet – you’ve got malaria. If it tastes bitter - you don’t. Amazing what you can learn as you’re desperately scrambling down the side of a mountain in flip flops!
This is the one dish I had especially ordered and it was fantastic. Or lam. A specialty of Luang Prabhang with bits of buffalo skin and that pepper vine (sa khan) in a stew of buffalo meat, local greens, saw tooth coriander, cloud ear mushrooms, chilies and tiny little eggplants the size of a pea. We were so full we could only sample a taste of this incredible dish. I really want to go back to the wonderful “Tamarind”, trimming our gastronomical sails a bit next time, and order this again.