Friday, February 5, 2010

A Detective Story

A quasi vegetarian friend of mine wrote vis-à-vis my blog “I’m beginning to think there’s not much I could or would eat in Laos”. So, realizing that maybe I’ve been concentrating a bit too much on odd proteins, I resolved to return to the market and check out the greens.

Here’s an example of a veggie stand where you can get all sorts of Southeast Asian things you know like Thai basil, lemon grass, coriander, lime leaves, etc. and a hell of a lot of things you haven’t a clue what they are. I bought a bunch of every single mysterious green thing I could find. I brought them home and asked my Lao next door neighbor, Pa, what they were called and, as she told me, I tried to write - using the western alphabet - the word the way it sounded to me. Then my husband, Bruce, took photos of each individual leafy thing and we e mailed those pictures labeled with my Lao transliteration to the always helpful Caroline Gaylard and Joy Ngeuamboupha of “Tamarind” restaurant in Luang Prabhang. Could they send me their identification and possible use for same? Which they swiftly did. So here’s what that whole process and some time on the internet taught me.

Plus this guy. Here’s someone I would really have liked to have met. Alan Davidson. A serious “foodie” before the word was coined. He is most well known for writing and compiling “Oxford Companion to Food”. As the British Ambassador to Laos from 1973 until 1975 he gathered information for two seminal works on Lao food. One “Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos” includes the Lao as well as the Latin name for fish from the Mekong. There are also exquisite drawings; general info about each species; recipes etc. Most importantly, for my project, were line drawings of herbs, fruits and vegetables plus Lao/Latin names. In short, a wealth of information.

Like this. Because of Davidson I now know that the westernized Lao name is phak hom tet and the Latin is eryngium foetidum. In English it’s known as saw tooth herb. I first met this plant in Mexico where it’s used a great deal. It’s a similar taste to fresh coriander but you can put it into soups and stews without the flavor disappearing in the cooking process. In Laos it’s served raw with the ubiquitous plate of greens for your pho. If you hate coriander you’ll really hate this.

Here’s another Davidson ID. Phak tam ling (melothria heterophylla). No English word as far as I know. Another of Davidson’s Lao achievements was saving the handwritten recipe book of the royal chef of Luang Prabang. A man named Phia Sing. Davidson borrowed the notebook from Sing and had it photocopied and then later arranged for its publication as “Traditional Recipes of Laos”. With the overthrow of the monarchy in 1975 the original has since been lost.

Believe it or not these are little baby eggplants. Mak kheng. They’re no bigger than a large pea. I made Phia Sing’s recipe for chicken stew - Or Sod Kai - which calls for both phak tam ling and mak kheng. Scroll down for the recipe.

This is a vine leaf – phak ya nang (tiliacora triandra) . The leaves are pounded then put in water and the resulting liquid is added to soups to remove bitterness from other vegetables especially bamboo shoots. I didn’t even know fresh bamboo was bitter since I’ve only ever eaten it from cans. My neighbor, Pa, helped me make a bamboo soup using phak ya nang. Scroll down for the recipe.

The red calyx of this plant is what Caroline and Joy use to make their delicious drink, katiep. Mak som po dee (hibiscus sabdariff). Rosella in English. I’ve only ever seen it before dried as hibiscus flowers. In Mexico it’s flor de Jamaica. Whereas in Jamaica it’s called sorrel. It’s packed with vitamin C and is probably known to you as that zesty kick in Red Zinger tea. You can eat the leaves too – they’re kind of lemony tasting.

Pa calls this phak bai som seua. Caroline and Joy call it phak som pborn. Route 13 which connects Vientiane to Luang Prabhang was only fully paved in 1997. Even today it’s a full day’s drive. So it’s no wonder different towns have different names for the same thing. This feathery plant comes from a tree - Acacia pennata. I tracked the Latin down on the internet and felt really pleased with myself afterwards. It’s used as a souring agent in soups. Also said to be big in omelets in Thailand. I haven’t tried it yet.

I put this one in just because it looks so pretty. The Luang Prabhang name phak khai hom translates as frog’s egg vegetable. Can’t find any more info on it. It grows in rice paddies and is used (yet again) in soup.

As Caroline and Joy so gracefully put it. "Phak com kadaocom means bitter. They believe if you eat a lot of it it’s like an energy medicine in particular inspiring the penis…” Perhaps, therefore, it was appropriate that it was for sale right next to the lettuce, itself considered an aphrodisiac in Ancient Egypt. Plus ça change plus c'est la même chose.

Needless to say, I offer these recipes realizing it is nigh impossible to reproduce them anywhere other than in Laos!

Phia Sing's Recipe #24 
(from Traditional Recipes of Laos)
Or Sod Khai – Chicken Stew

  • 1 chicken cut into pieces
  • 3 sweet young round eggplants, sliced vertically
  • 2 large fresh chili peppers
  • 2 small shallots
  • 1 stalk of lemon grass
  • cooked sticky rice – a quantity about equal to your thumb – mash it together and grill it until it is golden (this is called khao jee)
  • 20 very small eggplant (mak kheng)
  • 1 handful phak tam ling
  • 1 handful hed bod or hed khao (mushrooms)
  • salt and padek or fish sauce
  • basil leaves
  • chopped scallion leaves

Chop chilies, shallots and lemon grass finely and then pound them together in a mortar until a paste.
Put 1½ pints of water in a pot and place it on the fire. When the water comes to a boil put in the chicken pieces and the pounded ingredients. When chicken is cooked add sliced eggplants, phak tam ling, the mushrooms, the piece of grilled rice, and either fish sauce or pa dek (strained). When the larger eggplants and the phak tam ling are cooked add the mak kheng. Taste and check the saltiness, then add the basil leaves and take the pot off the fire.
Serve the dish in a bowl, garnished with the scallion leaves and accompanied by a variety of fresh raw vegetables (such as cabbage, cucumber and yard-long beans).

JoJo’s notes: I couldn’t buy the hed bod or hed khao mushrooms since they seem to only be available in the rainy season. So I substituted fresh straw mushrooms, washed and sliced in half.

The sweet young round eggplants you can buy here look like green golf balls. And are indeed sweet, you can eat them raw.

Pak tam ling turned out to have a very gentle anise flavor. Similar to braised fennel.

I also think the mak kheng should be added a bit earlier. Not right before you take the pot of the fire. They seemed a bit harder than they should be. Maybe add them in with everything else or just slightly later.

Pa Thongsanuan's Bamboo Soup - Kheng gnaw mai

  • 1 kilo bamboo shoots thickly sliced
  • 2 handfuls raw sticky rice
  • ½ kilo oyster mushrooms, cleaned and thickly sliced
  • 10 small fresh chilies
  • 1 stalk of lemongrass peeled and smashed
  • 2 cups phak ya nang juice
  • 1 tablespoon shrimp paste
  • 3 tablespoons sieved pa dek
  • 1 chicken bouillon cube
  • salt to taste
  • 2 small bunches phak kha yang, washed and cleaned.
    Blanch bamboo shoots in boiling water and then drain and rinse. With the flat side of a kitchen knife or cleaver smash shoots.
    Soak the sticky rice in water to cover for 20 minutes.
    Return shoots to a pan with water to cover plus smashed lemon grass. Add phak ya nang juice. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
    Drain soaked sticky rice and pound with chilies until a paste, then dilute with water and add to pan.
    Add shrimp paste to pan.
    Sieve pa dek directly into pan.
    Add mushrooms, bouillon cube and salt to taste.
    Simmer for five minutes
    Turn off heat and add phak kha yang
      Serve over rice.

      JoJo's Notes: phak ya nang juice is sold here in the market already prepared. Pa dek is Laotian fish sauce. There’s a picture of it in the “What Makes It Lao Food” blog. You sieve it because it still has bits of fish and bone in it.

      This is phak kha yang.  According to Caroline and Joy it is only popular in bamboo soup in Vientiane.  So don't try ordering it in Luang Prabhang.

      The flavor of this dish is extremely distinctive and very reminiscent of Veracruz, Mexico’s hoja santa leaf. I don’t know if that’s because of the phak ya nang or phak kha yang or a combination of both.


      1. Great post JoJo, Mr. Davidson´s books are indeed essential reading if you like food or Laos.

        The Glossary section of The Boat Landing Cookbook also has an interesting section of Lao herbs and spices.


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