If the cuisine of Laos is little known outside the country, then the cooking of Luang Namtha, its northernmost region, is all but invisible. That may change if the slim, richly illustrated “Food From Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook,” (Galangal Press, 2010) by New Zealanders Kees Sprengers and Dorothy Culloty gets the attention it deserves.
Bordered by China on the north and the Mekong River on the northwest, with Myanmar on the opposite bank, Luang Namtha is home to 29 different ethnic groups. (In Laos, ethnic Laotians compose a minority of the population.) Though each boasts its own specialties, their cuisines are bound by a common use of simple cooking techniques (grilling, steaming, braising, frying) and ingredients foraged from the province’s forests, netted from its many rivers, and grown on mostly subsistence farms tilled on land cleared with slash and burn techniques.
Sprengers, a photographer, and Culloty, a development consultant when she’s not researching food culture “at the rice roots,” are residents of Thailand and have been visiting Luang Namtha since 2002. On their first trip to the relatively remote region they became friends with the Laotian owners of The Boat Landing, a riverside eco-resort. Since then, they have returned several times each year, Sprengers to document the daily lives of the area’s various ethnic groups and the rapid social change taking place in Luang Namtha, and Culloty to collect recipes at the hearths of village women and in The Boat Landing’s kitchen.
The result is as much cultural record and culinary guide as recipe book. Nearly half the pages of “Food From Northern Laos” are devoted to background information on Luang Namtha; the province’s major ethnic groups; and northern Laotian culinary culture, ingredients and kitchen techniques. The Ingredients section is particularly thorough, with explanations and photographs of more than 100 fruits, vegetables, herbs, funghi, seasonings, condiments and noodles. Many ingredients — pak goot hai, a tongue-numbing wild leaf, and kai mot daeng, or red weaver ant’s eggs, for instance — are unlikely to make an appearance in the average American kitchen. But their inclusion hints at the breadth and depth of Luang Namtha’s cuisine and renders the volume a must for any Asian food reference library.
In the book’s Techniques section, Culloty describes the knife work Laotians use to render soft limes self-juicing and how to slice handheld vegetables and herbs Laotian-style (away from rather than toward the body). Sprengers’ photographs show us how to wrap ingredients to be steamed or grilled into a neat banana packet. Travelers heading to northern Laos would be well-served by a photocopy of the book’s Lao index, which lists every dish, technique and ingredient covered in the book next to its Lao script.
If “Food From Northern Laos” has one failing it may be that the lengthy lead-up to the recipes doesn’t sufficiently hype the cuisine the book is devoted to. Culloty’s writing style is low-key — you’ll find no voluptuous dish or meal descriptions here. Newcomers to the food of northern Laos will have to see for themselves just how the culture, ingredients and techniques Culloty and Sprengers have so thoroughly documented come together on the plate. They can rely on her recipes to produce rustic dishes that boast a remarkable depth and complexity of flavors.
Take the jeow (dipping sauces that accompany every meal), for example; few of the recipes have more than nine ingredients, including salt and oil, some have as few as five. Making jeow mak pet is a simple matter of charring small green chilies and garlic over a gas flame or grill or in the oven, and blending them with cilantro, garlic, salt and powdered chicken stock or fish sauce in a mortar or blender. (In her recipes Culloty stays true to the Laotian dependence on manufactured stock cubes and powder, though substitutes like fish sauce are usually suggested) The result, eaten dipped up with sticky rice (the staple starch in Laos) is fresh and bright with an undercurrent of smokiness. It might be eaten with jen bpaa sai pak tiam (a whole fish simply floured, deep-fried with garlic, and served with chopped cilantro; Culloty doesn’t note it, but meaty fillets work well too) and gaeng mak eu, a simple pork and green pumpkin soup fragrant with basil, spring onions and lemongrass.
Many of the dishes echo the flavors of places both proximate to and half a world away from Luang Namtha. Jeow mak len, a dip of roasted chilies, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro, is a Mexican salsa without the lime. (You won’t miss it.) Stir-fried cucumber with duck in oyster sauce shows strong Chinese influence, the meaty rice noodle soup fer is the local take on Vietnam’s pho, pork laap is similar to the Thai Isaan-style laab but, without the lime juice-induced zip, is mellow and earthy. Northern-style watercress salad (actually hailing from Luang Prabang, Laos’ former royal capital some nine hours south), with hard-boiled eggs, arugula, tomatoes and lime-soy sauce-fish sauce dressing, is a true marriage of northern Laotian and French (Laos was a French protectorate from 1893 to 1954) flavors.
Recipe head notes generally provide enough information about flavors and possible substitutions to enable those new to northern Lao cuisine to determine whether to give them a go. Some recipes, for lack of ingredients (not everyone will have access to the whole fresh bamboo shoots required to make oua naw hoke) or courage (there may be limited takers for Lao stew with dried buffalo skin) may never be tried. But Food From Northern Laos is more captivating for their inclusion.
Galangal Press, the book’s publisher, is Culloty and Sprengers’ own company. They decided to self-publish after receiving feedback on their manuscript from a number of mainstream publishers, who wanted to remove the Lao script, reduce the number of photos, shorten the Ingredients section and “make it just another cookbook,” says Culloty, who would like to write a more mainstream Lao recipe book at some point. This time around though, “the most important thing was to preserve the cultural knowledge.”
Zester Daily contributor David Hagerman shoots for the New York Times, Travel+Leisure and Saveur, among other publications. To view more of his slide shows, go to davidhagerman.photoshelter.com. Robyn Eckhardt is a food and travel journalist based in Penang, Malaysia. She also is a contributor to Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia and has been published in Saveur, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal Asia. Her last article for Zester was a double book review, Veggies and Grains Deluxe.
Photos, from top:
Tam mak hoong (northern Laos-style green papaya salad). Credit: Dave Hagerman
“Food From Northern Laos” cookbook. Credit: Dorothy Culloty