Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Return

Just days before leaving Laos for a summer back in Italy two things happened to make my return to Vientiane in September something I could really look forward to. The first was a new place to live. A house on stilts on the banks of the Mekong in the middle of a coconut grove. We call it “The Treehouse”. Almost as exciting as the view was the fact that a traditional Lao market was steps away.

The second was being invited to become co-chair of the Cultural Study Group an offshoot of Women’s International Group – an organization of ladies who do good works. Cultural Study Group organizes lectures and presentations for the ex-pat community about Lao culture so foreigners can get to know more about the place they’re living in.

I learned while away that our first presentation would be tied to the launch of a new cookbook “Food from Northern Laos” by Dorothy Culloty with photos by Kees Sprengers. Amazingly, I had already been in touch with Dorothy via my friend in Luang Prabhang, Caroline Gaylard, of the restaurant “Tamarind”. Caroline had told me that Dolly – as she’s known to her friends – had beat her to the punch with a super book on Lao cooking yet to be published. I got in touch with Dolly and she e-mailed me enticing chunks of the book along with her husband Kees’s luscious pictures. So now they’d been published and I was about to meet them, talk food and get my very own copy of the book. How serendipitous was that?

Besides talking about Lao food and showing slides from the book, they also prepared a table full of Lao-style hors d’oeuvres for us all to nibble on afterwards. Meanwhile, their “adopted granddaughter”, Khamsouk Philatorm, a young woman from the Khmu ethnic group who had just taken her first plane ride down from the north hauling local ingredients, demonstrated Lao cooking techniques like slicing banana flowers and how to peel rattan. You can eat the core of rattan raw or cooked. Yes, I do mean that stuff you make furniture out of.

I took my autographed copy of “Food from Northern Laos” home and started cooking up a storm. Every recipe was a winner! The book includes not just classic Lao fare like Or Lam and Laap but also dishes from, and information about, the various ethnic groups that live in the north. The Tai Dam or Black Tai came from Vietnam in the nineteenth century and the women are particularly renowned for their weaving. Here’s the recipe for:

Tai Dam Pork Stew


  • 4 cups of water
  • 1 t salt
  • 2 T oil
  • 1 stalk lemongrass – trimmed to 10 cm (4 in)
  • 2 chilies (or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp chicken stock powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 200 grams (6 oz) thinly sliced pork
  • 1/3 cup roasted rice powder
  • 1 bunch Chinese flowering greens cut in 5 cm (2 inch) pieces
  • 1 bunch dill – two fingers width.
  1. Put the water and salt in a medium pot and bring to a boil
  2. Meanwhile, heat a wok or frying pan. Add the oil and when it is hot, stir fry the lemongrass, chilies and sliced pork for a minute. Season with salt and chicken stock powder Fry 1 minute more until the meat changes is color and is lightly cooked.
  3. Add the meat mixture to the boiling water, reduce heat, and then simmer for five minutes or longer for really tough meat.
  4. As the meat becomes tender, stir in the ground, roasted rice. Stir constantly, very gently simmer the stew as the rice thickens it (at least 7 minutes).
  5. Add the Chinese greens. Simmer. Remove the stew from the heat when the vegetable stems are cooked but still crisp (about 3 minutes). Taste and adjust salt.
  6. Cut the dill into 5 cm (2in) lengths and stir in.

What makes this dish uniquely scrumptious is the roasted rice powder. It gives the stew a nutty flavor. To make it you dry roast rice - either sticky or plain - until it is a deep golden brown and then pound it up in your mortar and pestle or use a coffee grinder. Making this gave me a kind of déjà vu of making gumbo. I always get nervous making the roux. Is it brown enough now? Or not enough? If I don’t take it off now will it suddenly burn and taste bitter? But then I thought, well, it’s only a couple of tablespoons of rice. If you mess it up you can start again.

At the beginning of the book there is an exhaustive listing of Lao ingredients – with photos, the English name (if any), Latin name, Lao name transliterated and Lao name in Lao script. By toting the book to my market ladies round the corner I was able to communicate that I was looking for say, prickly ash berries, Lat. Zanthoxylum rhetsa, Lao mak ken.

These taste a lot like Szechuan peppercorns and may, in fact, be a wild variety, but they seemed more zingy to me. Maybe because they’re fresher. You want to get rid of the little black seeds because they’re bitter. I used them in this recipe from the Tai Lue people.

Pork Spicy Salad, Muang Sing Style


  • 250 g (1/2 lb) lean pork finely chopped
  • ¾ cup carrot chopped into ½ cm (1/4 in) dice
  • ½ cup shallot, chopped
  • 3 T duck fat or vegetable oil
  • 2 T garlic, chopped
  • 2 T fish sauce
  • ½ - 1 t chicken stock powder
  • 1 – 2 t chili pepper, ground
  • 1 – 2 t prickly ash berry (mak ken), ground
  • 2 – 3 T Vietnamese mint (or a small handful each of small coriander and mint)
  • 1 medium green chili, finely chopped (or more to taste)
  1. Prepare all the chopped ingredients except the herbs.
  2. Heat a wok. Add the duck fat or oil. When hot, add the chopped garlic followed by the minced pork, fish sauce and instant stock.
  3. Stir fry for 2 minutes until opaque.
  4. Toss in the chopped carrot and shallots and swoosh about with a wok spoon or spatula. Sprinkle in the chili pepper and mak ken. Mix. Keep stir frying until the carrot and shallots are lightly cooked and the pork is done. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
  5. Remove the wok from the heat. Finely chop the herbs and mix into dish. Picture of dish.

One of the dishes Dolly, Kees and Khamsouk made for the Cultural Study Group presentation was a dish of the Akha people. Originally from Yunnan, China and Burma they migrated to northern Laos starting in 1850. The women still wear the most beautiful costumes. Here’s a photo taken by Kees.

This recipe for Akha pork balls presented a couple of challenges. One of the ingredients was “a sprig of young guava leaves (optional)”. Not knowing how to say that in Lao, I was about to leave it out when my neighbor, Gwyn, who’s lived in Southeast Asia for many years pointed out that I had two trees in my garden! Here’s my guava leaves with the Mekong in the background.

The other difficulty was locating “1 Tablespoon of pig or duck blood” to use as a binder. Fortunately, Dolly had anticipated this and suggested substituting “1 Tablespoon of egg yolk” which I did. Here’s the recipe.

Akha Pork Balls


  • 1 – 1 ½ C minced pork
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • ½ t salt
  • 1 small green chili (not bird’s eye chili)
  • ¾ - 1 t stock powder
  • 1 sprig young guava leaves (optional)
  • 3 T mint
  • 3 T sawtooth herb, finger width cluster chopped
  • 3 small spring onions, whites and greens, chopped
  • 3 T Vietnamese mint, finger-width bunch, chopped or 3 small coriander plants, stalk and green, chopped (use if no Vietnamese mint)
  • 1 T pig or duck blood (substitute 1 tablespoon egg yolk)
  • 1 C hot water
  1. Pound the garlic, chili, salt and instant stock together with a mortar and pestle for a minute. Add the herbs and then pound the mixture together until thoroughly blended. Add the minced pork and pound again for a least five minutes. Pounding breaks down the meat fibers and make for light meat balls which stick together. Taste and add more salt if needed. Add the duck blood or egg yolk and mix together.
  2. Put the hot water in a small pot. Roll pieces of mixture into 2 cm (3/4 in) balls. Place them in the water as the balls are rolled. This stops the balls from breaking up. Set the pot on the fire, cover and simmer for up to 15 minutes until the meat balls are cooked through. Top up the water if the water levels gets too low and the meat balls start to stick to the pot. Remove from heat and transfer balls to a bowl.

Sawtooth herb was one of the mystery leaves from “Detective Story”. Eryngium foetidum. I find it reminiscent of fresh coriander but more so. I think you could use more fresh coriander instead if you can’t find it.

I found the Vietnamese mint at the market by showing the photo to the woman I buy most of my veggies from. She went around the market yelling (in Lao) “So who here’s got Vietnamese mint” until a bunch was found for me. I love my market and the women in it. But more on that later.

With apologies to Dolly, I always leave out the stock powder she calls for since it’s mostly MSG and it doesn’t agree with me.

There’s so much more I want to try. A dish with dried fermented bamboo shoots. A chili paste with freshwater crab. A smoked fish stew with apple eggplants. Every day I wander past the vendors at the market to see if I can buy some obscure ingredient – water bottle gourd, rattan, fiddlehead ferns, acacia leaves, etc. If I’m lucky I snatch up my find and head back to “The Treehouse”, crack open this definitive tome, and start chopping and pounding my little heart out.