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.

Friday, November 6, 2009


Here’s what Laotians eat for breakfast. A noodle soup and fried Chinese doughnuts. Some people slice their doughnut into shreds and add them to the soup. It’s weird but I’m told it’s good.

But let’s face it, breakfast is everyone’s most conservative meal. I mean, if you’re a yoghurt and granola with a mug of green tea person you’re not all of a sudden going to turn into a bagel with a schmear and black coffee (no sugar) person.

Breakfast at Hotel Villa Manoly

So this is my idea of a great Laotian breakfast. A classic “continental” breakfast plus tropical fruit as served at our hotel, Villa Manoly, the morning after we arrived.

French colonialism was a miserable thing for those lands they called “protectorates” but the one decidedly good thing they brought with them was how to make baguette. From Tunisia to Pondicherry to Laos they taught the locals how to make really scrumptious, crusty bread.

Banh Mi

Here’s the Laotian version of the Vietnamese “banh mi” called khao jii pâté. Lunch for two for a mere $2. There’s a lot of Vietnamese influence here because the French also imported – along with the baguette - Vietnamese to run their provincial government for them since they deemed the Laotians hopelessly lazy. We prefer to think of them as more laid back.

We moved into our studio apartment and went shopping for dinner and the next morning’s breakfast. We bought butter and local “fair trade” orange marmalade but there wasn’t a baguette in sight. The woman at the store mimed the arrival of bread to be at 4 p.m. We missed that appointment but the next day Bruce went to pick it up only to be told by someone else who spoke English that they have never sold baguette. Hmm.

The first night in our new digs I made a simple dinner of scrambled eggs with fresh shitakes. But something strange happened when I melted the butter.


Looks like butter, right? Silver foil paper, happy cow face, even butter written in English. But that odd smell, what was that? Coconut! The ‘butter” must be cut with coconut oil. Yuck. Who wants coconut oil in their eggs?

So now I didn’t have baguette and I didn’t have butter either.

Phimphone Market

In every cosmopolitan city from Rome to Saigon you’ll find a store like this. It sells stuff to ex-pats at really high prices. French cheese, salsa in a can, frozen lamb chops, even V-8 juice. This is where we purchased our real New Zealand butter. We’ll probably be back around Thanksgiving for cranberry sauce and maple syrup.

We found another ex-pat place called the Swiss Bakery which sold baguette but it had sugar in it and was spongy and definitely not crusty. Kind of like the Italian version of baguette they sell at the Coop in Spoleto.

There was only one solution to the problem. I went back to Villa Manoly and talked to Goi.


This is the extraordinarily charming manager of the Villa Manoly. His name means banana. That’s his nickname. It seems everyone in Laos has a name but is known by their nickname. He called out to the woman who serves the breakfast and she showed me on the map where to get the bread. Right on the road beside the main market. They offered to go and get some for me but I explained I really needed to know where to go myself. I walked all along the highway by the market in the midday heat and I couldn’t find a single goddamn loaf. And then suddenly, voila!

Bread Stands at the Bus Station
All clumped together at the entrance to the bus station just like the kitchen supply places on the Bowery. I bought five.

Butterfly Net?

Try to guess what this is for. It’s vital to Laotians for their breakfast beverage – Lao coffee. Laos grows some very good coffee on a moutain plain by the border with Vietnam. You put the grounds into this sock-like contraption, pour boiling water over them and press down with a spoon until the liquid runs through it into a jug. This is a colossal pain in the ass and very messy. Fortunately, Bruce spotted a knock off version of a French press coffee maker at a housewares store called Home Ideal and the Laotian sock is now being used to strain chicken stock.

I know, you’re right, you can’t believe my first Laotian food blog is about a “continental breakfast”. But I promise you the next ones will be much more indigenous.