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.
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?
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.
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: