Friday, March 19, 2010


People often ask me what I think is the main difference between Lao and Vietnamese food. My first answer used to be that Vietnam has thousands of kilometres of coastline so seafood plays a huge part in the cuisine. Laos is landlocked so river fish is the staple here.

But recently I went back to Luang Prabhang and took two cooking classes. One run by the restaurant “Tamarind” and the other a one-on-one with the doyenne of Lao food, Vandara. After these lessons, I’d have to say the use of the mortar (kok) and pestle (sak) - which figured in almost all the food we prepared - may be more germane.

There’s even a whole repertoire of pounded dishes made to go with sticky rice called jeow (rhymes with Day-O like the Harry Belafonte song) whose recipes are actually ones you can reproduce at home. Dear reader, do I hear an electronic sigh of “finally” exhaled down the information highway as you read these words?

I cadged the following four recipes from Joy Ngueamboupha and Caroline Gaylard who published them in their charming cookbook “Tamarind’s Little Book of Jeow” Here’s a bowl of jeow mak len, a tomato salsa which, except for the fish sauce, could be served with a bag of tortilla chips at your next Cinco de Mayo party. I always wonder what Old World cuisine was like before 1492 when the chili was introduced from meso-America. Can you imagine Southeast Asian or Indian food, or practically any cuisine, without it? It seems there’s a substance in chilies - capsicum - which stimulates endorphin production (the feel good hormone) and explains why people rapidly become addicted to them. Chocolate, another New World food, has the same properties.

This is jeow mak keua – eggplant dip. The eggplants and chilies are grilled before pounding and with a slurp of olive oil and substituting mint for coriander you could be eating this in Turkey. Of course, no fish sauce. Although if you were eating it in ancient Rome 2,000 years ago, no chilies, but there’d definitely have been fish sauce. The Romans called it garum and chucked it into everything. It was so popular, that the overwhelming, noxious odor of rotting fish guts led the Roman government to outlaw the manufacture of garum in the home.

Here’s my sak with pounded fresh ginger soon to have the addition of pounded peanuts and then lightly pounded pork cracklings. Jeow king. Nothing grilled; just a lot of elbow grease. This was great with barbecued chicken and sticky rice. The leftovers I mixed with ground pork and then stuffed into wonton wrappers for wonton soup. I feel that if I’ve thrown food away – I’ve somehow deeply failed.

Here’s jeow si khai whose principal flavor component is pounded lemon grass. This we ate together with little pieces of poached tilapia wrapped up in lettuce leaves. The mixture would also make a super stuffing for a grilled fish.

O.K., I lied! This is an essential ingredient for the classic Luang Prabhang jeow bong and you can’t make this at home. But how could I resist a recipe that calls for “ ½ a strip of dried water buffalo skin, grilled until done, then scraped smooth, cut into thin small slices and soaked in salt water”? I got the recipe from Phia Sing the royal chef whose hand written collection was published by Alan Davidson as “Traditional Recipes of Laos”. But how do you know when it's "done"?

Bo, my gatekeeper, who is rapidly becoming my sous chef, demonstrated that cooking water buffalo skin can’t be accomplished by placing it on a grill the way we westerners would do. No, you thrust it into the coals until it turns black and all the hairs have burned away. Then you bang it with your pestle to get all the charred bits off. In fact, the Lao “grill” everything right in the fire which produces the smoky flavor that is such an integral part of Lao food.

This trio is another Bo recipe, who, by the way, also taught me that you can use the outside surface of your mortar as a knife sharpener! Bo’s jeow is about as basic as you can get. Grilled chilies, garlic and shallots peeled and pounded. Fish sauce, natch, and then, to Bo’s taste, a whole lot of MSG. That led me to the internet to find out exactly what it is.

MSG was created by a Japanese chemist, Kikuna Ikeda, in 1907. It was patented in 1909 and here’s a bottle from that same company, Aji-no-moto, still being manufactured today. Wikipedia states that it’s a salt which appears naturally in food – previously extracted from seaweed and wheat gluten - but now from either fermented sugar beets, sugar cane or molasses. It goes on to say that there is no real evidence supporting the claim that it makes you feel physically peculiar when you eat it. But, come on Wicki, we all know that’s not true. Or maybe just us falangs (Lao for foreigner – like gringo) have a problem with it.

Natacha du Pont de Bie in “Ant Egg Soup”, her book about traveling through Laos and learning about Lao food, writes that "Bo’s jeow” was also the former King of Laos favorite jeow. Unlike Emperor Bo Dai of Vietnam who lived out his days in Paris, or King Sihanouk of Cambodia who never really lost power, the politically na├»ve King Savang Vatthana was not so fortunate. After the revolution in 1975, he and his wife, Queen Khamponi, and Crown Prince Vong Savang were all sent to “re-education” camps in the northeast of Laos where after many years they finally died from malnutrition and neglect. Such a simple jeow befits what seems to have been a simple man.

Bo and the King’s Jeow
12 small fresh green chilies (or less if you can’t take the heat)
4 cloves of garlic
3 small shallots

Grill the first three ingredients. Remove the stalks from the chilies and peel the garlic and shallots. Pound them together with salt to taste.

I make this and then fold it into a fresh tomato sauce for pasta. Zowie!

Jeow si khai
Pound one fresh chili, one clove of garlic and a pinch of salt to a paste.
Finely chop 2 or 3 stalks of lemongrass and then pound them in until softened.
Mix in two teaspoons of lime juice; a half teaspoon sugar and a teaspoon of fish sauce.

Jeow king
Pound 100 grams of peeled and chopped fresh ginger
Add two tablespoons of peanuts and pound thoroughly.
Add ½ teaspoon of salt and 30 grams of pork cracklings then pound until well mixed.
Add fish sauce to taste.

Jeow mak keua
Prick three small Japanese eggplants, one fresh chili and four cloves of garlic. Grill them until charred. Peel.

Pound chili; ¾ teaspoon of salt and the garlic to a paste. Add eggplant and ½ cup chopped coriander. Pound again until a soft paste. Add fish sauce to taste.

Jeow mak len
Pound four cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt and one fresh chili to a paste. Roughly chop eight medium tomatoes. Add tomatoes to mortar and pound a bit to blend flavors.

Put a teaspoonful of vegetable oil in a pan and lightly fry the roughly chopped white part of five or six scallions. Then add the tomato mixture to the pan and cook, stirring continuously, until they have broken down.

Add the roughly chopped green part of the scallions, then ¼ cup of chopped coriander and cook for only a minute.

Add a little dash of fish sauce and a small squeeze of lime. If it seems too sour add a pinch of sugar.

I tried grilling the tomatoes before chopping them and I like the extra flavor that gives.


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  2. Ciao Jojo,
    Now this is what life is all about. I started reading and just couldn't stop! Kudos to you and Bruce for having such an adventurous spirit, great appetite for food, and the skill to share it all with friends. Part of what I like most in your blogging is the beautiful writing. It's 5:00am here now, and all I really want for breakfast is a big bowl of Jeow mak keua.

    BTW, you mentioned MSG. I am convinced that there is a big dose of MSG in anchovies. That's why we put them in bolognese; not to taste the anchovy, but to amplify the other flavors. The culinary phenomena is called Umami. That is, the 5 flavor receptors on our tongue can be 'tricked.' They don't send five channels of data to the brain. The tongue encodes the data which is then decoded by the brain into taste. Umami causes the coding process to send more complex data than there really is. Thus, a person perceives a more 'savory' flavor. Worchestershire sauce (tamarind and anchovies) is loaded with umami from MSG, so I put a couple of drops in my salad dressing.