Thursday, October 11, 2012

Week 40: A Journey to Laos

This week’s exploration of Lao cuisine introduced me to the customs and culture of a country absolutely unfamiliar to me.  My experience with Laos’ cuisine existed only regarding its relationships and influences with its bordering countries of Thailand, Cambodia, China, Vietnam, and Burma/Myanmar. Unlike its neighbors, Laos is land-locked with a mountainous terrain so underdeveloped that the word “wilderness” is often employed to describe its landscape, and not hyperbolically.  Because of this environment, its cuisine evolves from fresh, raw ingredients native to the land.  Its most famous dish, laap or larb, is a testament to this connection as it originated as a dish of raw, minced meat from a hunter’s fresh kill seasoned with onions, chiles, and herbs, such as mint and cilantro.  Another testament to the influence of the wild on Lao cuisine is the common occurrence of dried water buffalo skin in stews and chile pastes.  With no coastal borders, local freshwater fish, such as catfish, are used to create fresh fish dishes, as well as Laos’ most popular fermented fish sauce, padek.  Most meals are accompanied by fresh vegetables, and no Lao dinner would be complete without sticky rice, which is traditionally rolled into a ball and eaten by hand.  Whereas the dishes of its neighboring countries are famous for their “sweet and sour” or “sweet and savory” flavor profiles, Lao dishes are never sweet.  In fact, they are most frequently described as bitter due to their extensive use of fresh greens and herbs.  With this basic primer, I planned our Lao menus to further my understanding of the country’s cuisine and flavors.

Sticky Rice (khao niao) and Stuffed Lemongrass (ua si khai)
Sticky Rice, also known as glutinous rice, is the mainstay of Lao cuisine.  I read so many descriptions of its textures and qualities before making it, and I must say that making it, touching it, and tasting it are truly the only ways to really understand how it differs from other rice varieties.  It is definitely sticky, but in a way that it sticks to itself, the steamer, the serving bowl…but not one’s hands while rolling it into a neat little ball to pop it in the mouth.  I steamed it in a bamboo steamer lined with parchment paper.  (Banana leaves would have been more authentic but I didn’t have any in the freezer.)  While it is not as fragrant or flavorful as Jasmine rice, it does have a slightly aromatic flavor.  Interestingly, in addition to steaming this rice, Lao also toast the grains, grind them, and add them to dishes for a nutty flavor. 

stuffed lemongrass
and sticky rice
When researching authentic Lao dishes online, stuffed lemongrass, or ua si khai, constantly appeared in my search results.  Most likely, these numerous references are related to the fact that the chef from a popular Lao restaurant, Tamarind, in Luang Prabang offers Lao Cooking classes that tourists the world over have attended, and this is a dish he teaches.  The dish can be traced back to a compilation of handwritten recipes by a former chef of the royal palace at Luang Prabang.  I selected the recipe for two reasons.  I was curious to see how much of the lemongrass flavor would infuse into the stuffing, and I thought it looked cool.  Most of the recipes I found were pretty similar, so I selected a recipe with ingredients that sounded most appealing to me, which means I stuffed my lemongrass with garlic, scallions, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves, and ground pork.  I was surprised to find that making the “basket” in the lemongrass stalk is quite simple.  I cut a slit about 4 inches long with a paring knife, then turned the stalk a quarter turn and cut another slit until I worked my way around the stalk.  After that, I squeezed the stalk from end to end until the slits started to give and opened up for me to work a small handful of the stuffing into the lemongrass basket.  Some recipes recommended letting the stuffed lemongrass stalks rest overnight in the refrigerator so that the flavors would have more time to infuse.  I only let mine rest for an hour before coating them in egg and frying them for a few minutes.  With only an hour, the lemongrass flavor definitely came through, and it provided a nice, delicate aroma for the dish, as well.  I love it, and I was really proud of myself for creating such a beautiful dish.

Green Papaya Salad (tam mak hoong) and Duck Laap (laap ped)
green papaya salad
 A few weeks ago, I explored Thai cuisine, and although I had the best of intentions for making som tam (Northeast Thailand’s version of Green Papaya Salad), I just didn’t have enough time that week.  I knew that it was a dish influenced by the Lao border, but I did not realize that the dish actually originated in Laos.  I wish that I could say my presentation was authentically Lao in every way, but I think it was more likely a combination of the two.  I read as many descriptions of the Lao version as possible and finalized on these notes for ensuring some Lao authenticity: 
  • Both Thai and Lao versions include green papaya, garlic, peanuts, and chiles.
  • Lime juice is downplayed in the Lao version and sometimes not included at all.  Instead, a mortar and pestle is used to mash the shredded green papaya which releases some of its juices into the salad.
  • Lao salads generally include two types of tomatoes:  a larger, pulpier fruit and a small juicy one.  One should be sweet and the other a bit sour.
  • The Thai version generally includes palm sugar for a flavor profile of sweet, sour, and spicy, but Lao versions are more often only salty and spicy.  The saltiness comes from padek, Lao fish sauce.
  • Lao versions often include raw crabs seasoned in the fermented fish sauce.
mortar and pestle
 I followed these guidelines with the exception of the raw crab to make a fresh green papaya salad with fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic, Chinese long beans, tomatoes, cilantro, scallions, red Thai chiles, peanuts, and a splash of fresh lime juice.  The salad was delicious, and I didn’t even mind the bits of chopped, dried shrimp.  The toughest part of making this salad is figuring out how to shred the papaya.  I tried using a mandolin, and it didn’t work at all.  So, I cut long slits into the fruit and thinly sliced off the top layer into a bowl.  Then, I mashed it using the Lao-style mortar and pestle I could not resist buying at Vihn An.  It worked really well, and I think it gave the salad a rustic, authentic look.

laap ped
Laap, also known as larb, is an herb-infused salad made with chopped meat, fish sauce, lime juice, and toasted glutinous rice powder.  The flavor profile is sour, salty, and spicy.  While in Laos the dish is most commonly made with raw meat, it is also served with cooked meat.  The choice of meat used in this dish ranges from fish to fowl to wild buffalo.  I opted to make my laap with cooked duck and followed a recipe that included the following ingredients for seasoning:  fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, roasted glutinous rice powder, roasted chili powder, fresh mint leaves, fresh scallions, and fresh cilantro.  I served it with wedges of cabbage, blanched long beans, and Thai red chiles.  The flavor combination was really nice, but then again, I am a big fan of duck.  The only indiscernible ingredient was the rice powder.  I tried to taste its supposed nuttiness, but it just wasn’t there; however, I think it aided in binding and thickening the mixture, which is a definite positive.  Overall, it was a nice dish, and I can imagine that the flavor combination of these herbs and seasonings with a raw gamy meat, or even raw beef, would be even better.

My week of Lao cuisine was quite interesting.  While the dishes were nice, the most enjoyable part of the week was considering each dish and its place in Southeastern Cuisine.  Considering how a dish has influenced other neighboring countries or how those neighbors influenced it motivated me as I read about the history of Laos, its geography, and it cuisine.  All in all, a thoughtful week.

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