The Heart of Lao Cuisine

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Each year more than 200,000 tourists visit Luang Prabang in northern Laos. Most depart with memories of the UNESCO World Heritage site’s orange-robed monks collecting alms at dawn, riverbanks glowing pink at sunset, and lanes lined with Buddhist temples, timber stilt-houses and colonial French villas. But few leave with an understanding of its cuisine.

“I think people are kind of stumped when it comes to Lao food, certainly Luang Prabang food,” muses Australian Caroline Gaylard. She is enjoying the late-afternoon lull at Tamarind, the tiny restaurant specializing in authentic Luang Prabang cuisine that she runs with her Lao husband Joy Ngueamboupha. On their farm 20 minutes from town, Ngueanboupha also teaches visitors how to cook his native province’s dishes (Luang Prabang city is the capital of the Lao province of the same name).

Featured on few menus abroad, overshadowed by the better-known specialties of its more visited neighbors (pad thai and pho may ring a bell, but what about mok?), and more often defined by what it isn’t (not as spicy as Thai food, nor as refined as Vietnamese) than what it is, Lao’s is the mystery cuisine of Southeast Asia.

The former Lao royal seat of Luang Prabang is considered the country’s culinary heart. Sited on a peninsula formed by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, it was an ancient point of intra-continental trade and part of French Indochina for over 50 years. Baguettes and coffee, Vietnamese dishes such as pho and banh cuon (steamed rice flour dumplings filled with pork and mushrooms), and Burmese and northern Thai-influenced kao soi, noodle soup enriched with a ragu-esque pork and tomato mince — all these show the foreign culinary infuences on the city.

But Luang Prabang cuisine is primarily local, rooted in the city’s proximity to what were once the largest and most productive rice fields in all of Laos, to the jungle carpeting (to a lessening degree, thanks to recent deforestation) the hills on its edges, and to the waters of the Mekong, Nam Khan and their tributaries.

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“The food here is hot, salty and often bitter — the flavors are fresh and bold,” says Gaylard, adding that as in the rest of relatively poor Laos, cooking in Luang Prabang is about “making use of what you’ve got.”

She offers as an example or lam, a deliciously hearty eggplant-based meat and vegetable stew that’s thickened with toasted glutinous rice and often made with the meat and skin of water buffalo, which are still used to till fields. Or lam is spicy from fresh chilies and sakan, a woody stem foraged from nearby forests, and derives its depth of flavor from padek, an odiferous condiment made of fermented river fish. It’s packed with herbs and vegetables -– string beans, usually, along with whatever is in season and favored by the cook.

A stroll through Luang Prabang’s largest morning market brings Gaylard’s observations into perspective. The center of the market, open to the sky, is occupied by women and a few men doing business from wooden tables and bits of pavement covered with plastic. The air is suffused with the punchy greenness of the herbs — mint, cilantro, anise-y Thai basil, dill, culantro, scallions — and leafy vegetables (watercress, lettuces, water spinach, a vine called pak tam ling and pakkat, a family of mustard) that predominate in local dishes. They’re cooked, of course, but also eaten raw in large quantities at every meal. Some of the leaves are shockingly bitter; others, like fleshy-leafed som pon and delicate mimosa leaf, impart sourness to soups.

Eggplants of every size and style

Eggplants are a mainstay of Luang Prabang dishes; Gaylard reckons that there are over 100 varieties. Green golfball-sized eggplants thicken or lam, short purple Japanese eggplants — together with long green chilies — are grilled, peeled, and pounded into dips called jaew; small round white eggplants are boiled and eaten with fishy jaew, and pea-size eggplants are added to soups and eaten raw.

Puffs of smoke signal a water buffalo “satay” vendor; the meat is tough but the persistent chewer is rewarded with a beefier-than-beef richness. Luang Prabang cooks adore the extra layer of concentrated flavor that grilling gives meat and vegetables. Meat intended for long-cooked dishes such as or lam is often lightly barbecued first, and every market has one or more vendors selling charred fish, various cuts of pork (and pork offal), and chickens ready to take home and eat with jaew and glutinous or sticky rice, Laos’ favored starch. At the entrance to the market, several shops selling everything needed to outfit a Luang Prabang kitchen (knives, mortars and pestles, chopping blocks) prominently display charcoal braziers made of clay that are used as grills or single-burner stoves.

Inside the dark market building is evidence of the ingenuity that results from the need to preserve foods. There are bags of kai pen — river algae that’s been pounded, spread on rattan trays, seasoned with sesame seeds and bits of tomato and dried in the sun — ready to deep-fry or grill and eat with jaew bong, a spicy-sweet Luang Prabang jaew made with rehydrated buffalo skin. There are dried mushrooms fried with chilies, shallots and wild lime leaves (a perfect beer snack), and discs of tua nao (mashed, salted and dried soybeans) that add umami and body to stews and stir-fries. Stalls devoted entirely to padek, which can be sniffed out three yards away, display 10 tubs of varying strengths and consistencies.

“Luang Prabang cooks waste nothing,” says Gaylard, leading the way into the meat section. This slippery-floored part of the market is not for the faint-hearted, but a meander among its aisles drives Gaylard’s point home. Every single part of the pig is sold here including the animal’s blood, in liquid form (to add to soups or stir into chopped raw meat laab) or in jelly-like cakes. Under a USAID poster outlining proper hygiene practices, a table displays hunks of beef — and a whole cow fetus. In the water buffalo section are bags of greenish bile, which is used to tenderize the animal’s chewy meat.

Unfamiliar and sometimes “challenging” ingredients aside, Luang Prabang cuisine is accessible to most palates. In Tamarind’s hands-on cooking classes Ngueamboupha teaches students to transform grilled vegetables and chillies into jaew reminiscent of Mexican salsas. Or lam would appeal to any lover of comforting meat and vegetable stews, and mok — fish coated in a paste of lemongrass, shallots, chilies and dill and steamed in banana leaf, is an intriguing play of Southeast Asian and Western flavors. The dishes only hint at what Luang Prabang has to offer the curious eater, but judging from the ever-packed tables at Tamarind, its cuisine strikes a chord.

“If you’re the kind of person who’s really into food you should come to Luang Prabang,” enthuses Gaylard. “The food here is really different to anything you’ve eaten before.”

Mok

(adapted from Tamarind Cooking School recipe)

Serves 2

This delicious steamed fish in banana leaf distinguishes itself from similar dishes found elsewhere in Southeast Asia (Cambodian amok, Thai hawmawk, and Penang-style otak-otak) by its lack of coconut milk and incorporation of dill, an herb that appears often in Luang Prabang dishes.

The most difficult part of mok is probably learning to make the banana leaf packet; once you’ve mastered it, this step goes quickly. The paste takes less than 10 minutes to make, and after that it’s just time in a steamer. If you can’t find banana leaves (often sold frozen at Southeast Asian groceries) Joy Ngueamboupha suggests substituting large blanched napa cabbage leaves.

Ingredients

1 large pinch of coarse salt
1 garlic clove, peeled and cut in half
1 stalk lemongrass, lower 3 inches only, thinly sliced
1-2 small fresh Thai chilies, each cut in half
6 shallots, sliced
4 scallions, white part only, sliced
Stripped fronds from 4 stems of fresh dill
4 lime leaves
½ tsp glutinous rice starch
2 fillets of a firm, mild fish, about ¼-⅓ pound each
4 five-inch wide pieces torn from a banana leaf, softened over an electric or gas burner (see slideshow)
Toothpicks
Additional dill stems

Directions

  1. Place the salt in a mortar, add the garlic clove, and pound to a paste (you can also use a mini-chopper or blender)
  2. Add the lemongrass, pound to a rough paste. Follow with the chilies, shallots, scallions and dill, adding them one by one and pounding after each addition.
  3. Add the lime leaves and pound each once or twice, just to bruise.
  4. Stir in the glutinous rice starch.
  5. Add the fish fillets and turn them in the paste to coat.
  6. Soften the banana leaf pieces by moving them slowly, shiny side down, about 2 inches above a gas or electric burner. The dull side of the leaf will become shiny, indicating it’s soft.
  7. To assemble the banana leaf packets, lay 2 pieces side-by-side vertically, overlapping in the middle by about 2 inches.
  8. Place a fish fillet in the middle, vertically, and place a stem or two of dill.
  9. With one hand slide the leaves into your other hand. The fish should be resting in your palm lengthwise.
  10. Bring both long sides of the leaf up over the fish and use your thumb and pinkie to loosely hold them in place.
  11. Starting with the part of the leaves closest to you, push the unfolded part up and toward the leaves’ center, then fold each of the resulting side “wings” forward to close the packet. Repeat the same procedure at the other end.
  12. Use a toothpick (or two) to secure the packet at the top by threading it from one side of the banana leaves through the other.
  13. Steam for 20 minutes, then serve with sticky or plain white rice and a simple jaew (recipe below).

Eggplant Jaew

Ingredients

pinch of coarse salt
½ clove garlic
1 small fresh chili, or 1 dried chili soaked in hot water for 10 minutes
1 scallion, green part only, sliced
a few sprigs of fresh cilantro
2 small eggplants charred and peeled
fish sauce (optional)

Directions

  1. Pound salt to a rough paste with garlic and chili. Add scallion and cilantro, pounding after each addition, and finish with eggplant. You should have a chunky puree. (Or, roughly puree all ingredients in a food processor.)

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.comRobyn 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.

Photo at top: Chilies drying. Credit: David Hagerman

Slideshow: David Hagerman

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