Monday, April 19, 2010

Cooking with Mr. Sing

I really only have one Lao cookbook.  “Traditional Recipes of Laos” the collection of Phia Sing the royal chef from Luang Prabhang edited by Alan and Jennifer Davidson.  So I resolved to hone my home cooking skills by recreating recipes from the book.  My first idea was to go through the book and cook everything in it.  But even weeding out those with ingredients that seemed too hard to get even in Laos –  “pickled fish roe membrane” or “dried quail (matured until almost moldy)” – there were still over 100 recipes to try.

I decided to narrow the field to recipes that would epitomize different cooking methods and techniques and see what I could learn from that.  Here goes.

Recipe #10 Sousi Pa Gnon – A ‘Hot’ Dish of Small Catfish

The second ingredient is written as follows “1 fully grown coconut, split open – grate the meat and squeeze two extractions of coconut milk from it”.  This is the kind of instruction that makes me want to turn the page.  Have you ever actually split open and grated the meat of a coconut?  It’s hard and it takes forever.  But here in Laos there is a magic machine that leads you to read on.  Click here to see it at work.

Then all you have to do is pick out the bigger brown shell bits; add some lukewarm water and squeeze away until you get a nice thick milk – actually more like a cream.  You drain and reserve that and re-squeeze the coconut with more water until you get the second extraction.  A bonus is that your hands get all soft and lovely from the coconut oil.

I couldn’t understand Mr. Sing’s initial instruction: “Put the first extraction of coconut in a wok on the fire until it becomes creamy”.  I mean, isn’t it creamy already?  But the next phase of the recipe is to fry a pounded mixture of shallots and chili peppers in it.  I realized that I had to reduce the coconut cream, getting rid of its water, until all that was left was the oil as a frying medium.  Cool.

So I did that, and then added the fish, the second extraction of coconut milk some kaffir lime leaves; salt and fish sauce.  Here it is with a handful of coriander and scallions on top.

Recipe #18 Keng Som Kalampi – Sour Cabbage Soup
Recipe #64 Jeow BongBong Sauce

For a royal cookbook #18 is a very homespun recipe.  Pork bones; cabbage; scallions; lemon grass and two fresh tomatoes all boiled up in water until the veggies are cooked.  The reason I made it is because it’s supposed to be served with jeow bong.  Remember the water buffalo skin being grilled in the fire in the jeow blog?  That’s part of  recipe #64.  The rest of 64’s ingredients include 10 dried chili peppers grilled until brittle; 5 small shallots and 5 small heads of garlic blackened in the fire; 2 slices of galingale.  Once these are all pounded together to a paste you stir in the previously grilled and then salt-water-soaked buffalo skin bits.  Bruce, my husband, felt that the chewy texture of the buffalo skin made the flavors of all the other ingredients stay longer in the mouth.   And the punchy flavors of the jeow were balanced by the simplicity of the soup.

Recipe #44 Kanab Pa Gnon – Catfish Grilled in a Banana Leaf

In Laos it seems that everything that isn’t actually grilled over an open flame is grilled in a banana leaf.  Here’s a market stand devoted to the sale of nothing but.  And don’t try to buy just a couple of leaves – you have to get the whole pack or else they get very huffy.

This recipe mixes small catfish with finely chopped pork belly; pounded lemon grass, chilies, shallots and pork cracklings; plus some scallions and sweet basil leaves.  I guess the pork is to add some fat to the dish.  You wrap it all in a double layer of banana leaf and grill it.  I couldn’t find small catfish so I bought a bigger one and filleted it and cut it up.  But I have to admit I really don’t like the flavor of catfish.  It’s got a muddy aftertaste that a lot of river fish seem to have.  I’ve decided from now on to stick with tilapia which, although a bit boring, nevertheless isn’t a bottom feeder.

Recipe #27 Pa Fok – Minced Fish Cooked in Packets

This was a real winner.  Lots of pounding going on but so worth it.  Pound together skinless fish fillet (tilapia); shallots; black peppercorns until a really sticky mush.  Then stir in some coconut milk and beaten egg plus fresh coriander and some fish sauce.  I know these directions are vague but so’s the recipe.  Then you spoon the mixture into banana leaves.  By the way, in order to make your banana leaf more pliable, you run the shiny side over an open flame to soften it.  I learned that in Veracruz, Mexico along with my tamale in a banana leaf folding and toothpick closing technique which came in handy here.  Then you take all your banana leaf packets and steam them for a while – like 15/20 minutes.  I know, it really is a very vague recipe.  But what you get is divine – like a Laotian quenelle.

Recipe 54b Ua No Mai – Stuffed Bamboo Shoots

I got a kind of false start on this one.  I found fresh bamboo shoots, already peeled, at the market, brought them home and cooked them.  Bamboo shoots are evidently quite bitter and despite cooking them for over half an hour they were still pretty hard to take.  I went online and learned that the Japanese cook them using the rice soaking water to dispel the bitterness so I tried that and it seemed to work.  But I couldn’t go on to the next step since I had the wrong kind of bamboo – too skinny to stuff.

I needed fatter shoots which could be slashed through the middle making a kind of pocket into which a mixture of minced pork, shallots and scallions gets smushed.  Mr. Sing suggested making the slits with a needle but we used a box knife.  They probably didn’t have box knives in Luang Prabhang back then.  What a pain – this slashing/smushing is the kind of fiddly cooking assembly that I loath.  Mr. Sing prescribed wrapping these stuffed shoots in banana leaves, steaming them and then batter frying them but that seemed like overkill.  I was, however, a bit afraid that the whole incredibly labor intensive thing would disintegrate in the oil – so I floured them first and then fried them.  Mr. Sing would have you fry them in lard but I used vegetable oil .  They probably didn’t have vegetable oil in Luang Prabhang back then either.    Unfortunately, they turned out to be absolutely scrumptious but if I ever make these for you you’ll know that I really, really love you to pieces.