Poon Pa (Pun Pa) Luang Namtha-style

I was shown a new recipe for pun pa at the Boat Landing on our last visit. This is spicier than the one in the Cookbook and also contains mashed simmered apple eggplants. If these are not at hand, use cubes of purple eggplant.

Pun pa

Poon pa, Luang Namtha-style

Simmering fish and eggplants

Simmering fish and eggplants

Pounding

Peng pounding the fish and egpplants

Pun Pa 1.5

Pounding grilled ingredients

Pun pa 2

Peng adds pounded grilled ingredients to fish mixture

Cooking pun pa

Cooking poon pa

Poon Pa (pun pa) Luang Namtha-style, cooked by Peng

Ingredients

7 apple eggplants (or one purple eggplant, cut in 3 cm (1′) cubes
1 bulb garlic
3 shallots
5 green chillies (long and thin) threaded on a toothpick
1 small fish (cat fish, slippery stuff removed,  or tilapia)
2 C water
1 lemongrass stalk, bruised with the back of a knife
½ t salt for broth and another ½ t when frying mixture
1 T oil
1 T garlic, chopped
2 T soy sauce
Small handful mint and coriander leaves, chopped
Small handful spring onions, chopped

Vegetable accompaniment

1 thick wedge cabbage
2 wedges pumpkin or gourd
1 bunch Chinese greens (pak kaat kieow)

Method

  1. Grill the garlic bulb, shallots and chillies over a charcoal fire, gas ring, barbeque or electric over grill, turning regularly.  Each ingredient will have a different cooking time. The garlic bulb, shallots and chillies are ready when blackened on the outside and softened on the inside. Remove ingredients to a plate when ready.
  2. Heat the water in a wok or frying pan and add salt and lemongrass. Bring to the boil and add the fish and eggplants. Simmer for 7 minutes and then remove from the stock when ready and set aside. (Be careful not to cook the fish for too long or the stock will gel. If the eggplants are not yet soft continue to simmer them after removing the fish.) Transfer the stock to a bowl for later use.
  3. In another pan set the vegetables to simmer in salted water. They should take about 15 minutes on a low heat once brought to the boil.
  4. Put the cooked eggplants into a mortar and pound to a pulp. Remove the skin and bones from the cooled fish and add it to the mortar. Pound.
  5. Peel the garlic, shallots and chillies and in a separate mortar, pound them to a fine paste. Add this paste to the fish mixture.
  6. Rinse the wok, reheat and add oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the chopped garlic and sauté until aromatic. Then add the fish mixture and soy sauce. Fry for a minute and spoon in some of the broth. Continue to fry the mixture on low heat for about 5 minutes in total. Taste and add salt and more soy sauce if needed. Mix in the chopped mint, coriander and spring onions. Taste and make any final adjustment to the flavours.

 

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Braised minced pork with fermented fish sauce ອົບປາແດກ Op padek

Boat Landing doyenne, Joy Khantisouk, was taught this dish by her mother, who is a great cook from Luang Prabang. The dish doesn’t use much of anything, but the combination of tastes melds into a perfect savoury accompaniment to simmered vegetables and sticky rice.

Op padek

Clockwise from top left: Op padek, mushroom lahp, simmered vegetables and ginger, egg and ivy gourd leaf soup

Joy and Dolly

Joy and Dorothy with food from the missed demo at the Boat Landing

Kees and I missed Joy’s demonstration of the dish because we did not know it was happening, although she was doing it solely for us and we were in the room next door. You have to have worked or associated with Lao people before you can understand how this sort of thing happens – which is often!
So far, the biggest occasions we have missed are Khamsouk’s graduation, for which we came to Laos especially, but her College Director asked her to attend an early ceremony (she couldn’t refuse him and didn’t want to disturb our plans), and Kees missed out on our own farewell baci from the Rural Research and Development Training Center in Vientiane because it was a well kept surprise; a huge affair two months in the planning. Kees had a prior engagement in Luang Namtha, seven hours drive away, but could have made it by driving down from Luang Prabang at 4 in the morning if he had realised the true purpose of the occasion. Unfortunately he had been told repeatedly that it was a house warming for someone else and thus he gave repeated notice that he could not attend. We should have listened between the lines! Why were they repeatedly asking what they knew already? Duh, thick falang!
Anyway, we ate the superbly flavoursome op padek dish with Joy, plus a delicious mushroom lahp and a ginger, poached egg and ivy gourd soup (whose demonstration, of course, we also missed). The happy news is that Peng later demonstrated the op padek dish for us so we can share it with you.

Two notes to this recipe: The original dish is very strong and salty but not at all fishy from the amount of padek used, so if this is your first time using padek as a main ingredient or you are concerned about salt consumption take it easy on the padek at first and then increase the amount tasting it and leave the Knorr stock powder out. For die-hard padek lovers, a greater amount of padek will get you swooning with joy. Secondly, in the tropics the herbs would be cut just before adding to the dish so that they don’t wilt in the meantime. In cooler climates, its OK to pre-chop them.

Here is the recipe:

 

Braised minced pork with fermented fish sauce ອົບປາແດກ Op padek

Ingredients

4 large garlic cloves
3 red or brown shallots
7 long green chillies
2 T lemon grass, finely sliced (a fine bladed mandolin works brilliantly)
1½ T raw garlic, chopped
2 T vegetable oil (or pork fat)
½ t Knorr seasoning powder or stock cube (optional, omit or otherwise add salt, or soy sauce depending on the saltiness of your padek)
2 T lemon basil (pak I tou Lao or maenglak Thai), chopped
2 T coriander (cilantro), chopped
2 T spring onion, chopped
4 whole leaves Kaffir lime, torn
1 large duck egg-sized handful minced pork
2 eggs
¼ – ⅓ C fermented fish sauce (padek), or use Isaan/Thai nam pla or other substitute. If you are tentative about the strength and saltiness of your sauce, try 3 T (45 ml) first, and adjust the quantity after tasting.

Vegetable accompaniment

2 wedges of cabbage
1 bunch of Chinese greens (pak kaart som) or other stalky leafy green
4 apple or small Japanese eggplants or pumpkin
5 C water

Method

  1. Grill the garlic cloves, shallots and chillies over a charcoal fire, gas ring, barbeque or electric oven grill, turning regularly. Use a wire rack or a frying pan which can sustain heat. Each ingredient will have a different cooking time. The garlic, shallots and chillies are ready when slightly blackened on the outside and softened on the inside. Remove ingredients to a plate when ready.
  2. Heat a wok or deep frying pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot, toss in the chopped garlic and sauté it for one minute until aromatic. Then add the meat and seasoning powder, stir frying to mix. Add the padek (or substitute) and the torn lime leaves. Simmer on low.
  3. In another pan, set the vegetables to simmer in five cups of water. Turn occasionally. They should take between 10 to15 minutes on a low heat once brought to the boil depending on how thick the cabbage was cut and how soft you like the vegetables.
  4. If you cut down on the padek, now is the time to taste and add more so the padek has a chance to absorb into the meat before adding the eggs.
  5. Peel the grilled garlic and shallots and cut into small rough slices. Scape any blackened skin off the chillies and slice them the same size.
  6. Finely chop the basil, coriander and spring onions if not already done.
  7. After the pork mixture has simmered for about 5 minutes, add the eggs and stir fry until the mixture thickens. Add the sliced lemon grass, shallot and garlic slices. If the mixture gets too thick, thin with some of the vegetable stock. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. It should have a salty, spicy punch with a rich under-taste. Add the chopped herbs, turn off the heat and mix together. Transfer to a serving bowl.
  8. Remove the vegetables from the cooking water and transfer to a serving plate. If you like, save the cooking water for stock for another dish such as the base for an accompanying mild soup – gaeng jeut, just add 2 T soy sauce, some sliced Chinese greens, daikon (white Japanese radish) and pepper. Serve with sticky rice. For non traditionalists, op padek is particularly good with brown jasmine hom mali rice.

What to do with leftovers – heat up and serve with corn tortillas, add to fried rice.

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Media welcomed into Khmu (Khamu) family

Media's baci

Media"s baci

Khamsouk’s child recently had her baci where she was named, and welcomed into the wider Khmu family in Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha Province. The Khmu have merged Lao and their own earlier traditions for the ceremony which is held after 28 days following birth, during which mother and child remain in the house, resting on a bed close to a fire. This is thought to contract the uterus, and also gives mother and child time together rather than mother going straight back to work. The offerings part of the ceremony calls the wandering khwan (the 32 guardian spirits that are part of every person) back into the person, restoring equilibrium. This needs to be done for a new baby and mother because birth is traumatic and the new family are setting off on a new life journey.

Baci for Media and her parents

Baci for Media and her parents

Baci for Media

Baci for Media and her parents

The tying of strings on the baby’s and parent’s wrists is accompanied by a set of blessings wishing good fortune, long life etc. It is a wonderfully positive process where everybody bestows their good wishes on baby and parents while tying the strings. I find myself with a widely beaming smile and a loving peacefulness and openness every time I attend a baci.

Khamsouk's mother

Khamsouk's mother tying strings on her daughter

Feast following Media's baci

Feast following Media's baci

Feast

Khmu baci feast in Ban Chalensouk


The baci was, of course, followed by a feast. (I bet you thought I’d never get to the food!)
There were people eating both inside and outside the house; the photo on the left is of the senior men. Khamsouk’s mother is holding Media.
You may have noticed the offerings on the table in the second photo (above) for calling the spirits. They include a boiled chicken and a cooked egg, which was slightly peeled during the ceremony (the chick has successfully hatched?), rice, khanom (crackers and other treats), fruit, lao Lao (a rice spirit of the alcoholic persuasion, not a khwan!), the strings for tying later, money, etc. It is especially important that the chicken and egg are eaten by the main participants, it is “strong food” laden with blessings and power. The chicken stock is made into a soup. There is also a fish soup, grilled fish and accompanying pounded spices for seasoning and sticky rice.

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World Award for runner up Asian Cookbook

STOP PRESS

Just found out we’ve been awarded the runner up award, second prize in the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards – “Best Asian Cookbook” – in the World. Earlier Gourmand awarded the book “Best Cookbook for Lao PDR”.

It is an honour for us and for our cooks in Laos who shared their knowledge and assisted us in recording this wonderful food.

Thank you Joy, Chan, Toeuy and all the other people who assisted us. This prize is as much about you and your great food preparation skills.

 

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Breakfast at Ban Chalensouk

It was the day Khamsouk’s baby had her baci, the formal ceremony in Khmu culture (and slightly differently in Tai culture) where the baby girl is named (Media, yup, as in communication), accepted into the family, and wished a good life; and her parents, Khamsouk and her husband, are acknowledged and “blessed” in their new role. If Media is anything like her mother she’s well named!  This ceremony is held approximately one month after the baby has been born. For the previous 28 days the mother follows a traditional form of resting close to the fire, eating a restricted diet, and the baby may have a tenuous hold on life. Khamsouk followed this practice. My next post will share the ceremony and the food which followed, but here is a snippet to whet your appetite – our breakfast before the baci ceremony. We arrived at 10 am and we were going to have another feast at midday after the baci! We were late because our tiny car had two flat tires achieved getting to Luang Namtha from Luang Prabang.

Breakfast at Ban Chalensouk

Breakfast for two at Ban Chalensouk (the huge banana-leaf-wrapped parcels of sticky rice not shown)

From top left: Khmu (Khamu) yellow eggplant sa (this is very bitter), lemon grass dipping sauce, jeow houa sikai , simmered bitter bamboo (naw mai kom, which don’t taste bitter at all when young like these ones), a gelatinous pork dish from the market was unfamiliar, it may be made from pig’s trotters and only tasted so-so, yummy freshly grilled tilapia fish stuffed with lemon grass, ping pa, and in the centre, a pork lahp with sliced innards, again from the market.

Bitter bamboo shoots

Simmered bitter bamboo shoots

Lemon grass jeow

Lemon grass jeow

Bitter bamboo shoots are available in the dry season when other shoots are no longer abundant. One peels off the skin of a shoot, breaks off a piece and dunks it into the lemon grass jeow, which makes a stunning accompaniment. The jeow contains finely sliced galangal root and lemon grass, as well as garlic. These are pounded with salt and lime juice is then added. Finally chopped spring onion greens are stirred in. I think that the jeow would be just as delicious using ginger root and such a substitution would be consistent with Khmu culture because they often use small traditional ginger (which is more pungent than commercial ginger) in their dishes where other Lao would use galangal.

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Nang Noi’s birthday rice noodles

Kees and I arrived at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha after a long bumpy drive in our fire-engine red Honda Jazz from Luang Prabang. This car in SE Asia is considered a teenager’s car but in New Zealand, its a Nana-mobile.  OK, I’m a Nana and Kees has teenage tendencies – so its a good fit for us, even if it is not really suitable for travelling in Laos. We thought we might have to lift it onto a barge at one stage! Still, it, like us, coped with anything, even though the trip cost us two shot tyres!

No sooner had we checked into our bamboo “chalet” by the river, and showered off the dust than we were summoned to Nang Noi’s 20th birthday celebration.

Namthip and Nang Noi

Namthip and Nang Noi at Nang Noi's 20th birthday

Nang Noi (Little woman) had been looking after Namthip as an after school activity since she was about 12 years old. Now Namthip is 9. As you can see it was cold in Luang Namtha!

Everyone gathered outside the Boat Landing kitchen around three low bamboo tables, which had the makings for a version of Lao hotpot sin dat (without the meat as fish was used instead). A huge aluminium bowl of green vegetables, herbs and bean sprouts had been washed and torn into manageable pieces and fine dried rice noodles had been soaked and drained. A rice serving bowl holding delicious spicy home-made chilli sauce was at hand and two electric hot pots filled with stock bubbled away.
The vegetables were piled into one pot of stock – loads of them and simmered. Meanwhile, the fish pieces poached in the other pot. To serve, vegetables were removed with chopstick to a soup bowl, rice noodles and a bit of broth added, topped with fish. The diners added sauce to their liking and mixed up everything together. Accompanied with Beer Lao, this is a great way to celebrate a birthday with minimal work and maximum fun and informality.

Nang Noi's birthday feast

Noodles for Nang Noi's birthday - plus a few extra dishes of course!

Nang Noi serving a bowl of noodle soup

Nang Noi serving a bowl of noodle soup


Namthip practises beer serving

Namthip practises beer serving but Peng doesn't drink alcohol!


The leisurely meal and socialising took several hours, but we toddled off to bed early after catching up with everybody. 7 hours on the road takes its toll! However, the road is much improved from November last year, when it took us 11 hours in a van.
 

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Namthip learns to cook

Lao children learn how to prepare food by watching and doing from an early age. In the villages they help their elders with fetching water, gathering vegetables and foraging, catching insects, field crabs and fish. Learning starts with imitation of older children and adults, often their carers, and as the young person’s skills develop, their assistance becomes an important contribution to the household. Namthip, Joy and Sompawn’s daughter, lives at the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant in Luang Namtha, so instead heading off to forage she is more likely to be in the kitchen – the heart of extended family action!

Namthip is now nine and already competent helping in the kitchen, which she does informally and for fun.  While Kees and I were recording a recipe for Poon Pa, Luang Namtha -style, Namthip wandered into the kitchen and got in on the action. Her presence was immediately accepted and incorporated into the pace of the kitchen by Peng and the other kitchen staff. She started off stirring the occasional pot while the cooks were otherwise occupied, then moved on to stringing chillies for the Poon Pa.

Namthip learning to cook

Namthip observing how to string chillies for grilling

Namthip stringing chillies for grilling

Namthip stringing chillies for grilling

When she put the chillies on the grill Namthip noticed larger chillies and garlic were also grilling for another jeow (spicy dipping sauce).

Grilling chillies and garlic

Grilling chillies and garlic

Namthip took over the chopping of these grilled chillies for young sweet chilli jeow using the same technique as is used for chopping meat or fish for lahp or sa. She’d obviously done it many times before.

Namthip mincing chillies for jeow

Namthip mincing chillies for jeow

As Namthip demonstrates, the most comfortable position for mincing (lahp) is to work at floor level while sitting on a low stool. When mincing grilled chillies or meat, cut the ingredients into small pieces first, then finely chop with a small cleaver or knife on a wooden or plastic chopping board. Work from one side of the ingredients to the other, and use the knife to fold the minced ingredients back to the centre. Also do fold the ingredients at right angles, so everything is evenly minced. Namthip shows these moves:

Mincing chillies

Mincing chillies 2

Mincing chillies 3

Mincing chillies 3

Mincing chillies 4

Mincing chillies - moving chillies to centre

Mincing chillies 5

Mincing chillies 5

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Lao Breakfast at Rattanakone

While in Luang Prabang we have been staying at this great little guest house – the Rattanakone Guest House – in Ban Thongchaluean, very close to the peninsula and the Mekong, also a hop, skip and a jump from Joma. Apart from a comfy bed, powerful hot shower and happy laid back family staff, they sport wonderful breakfasts - khao tom and noodle dishes. There is no menu, everyone gets the same, whatever has been chosen for the day. Showing intense interest in tasting you favourite dishes does definitely influence the cook though! Here is the khao tom, which is rice soup, with little meat balls, garnished with Vietnamese sausage, finely sliced omelette, spring onions, coriander (cilantro) and deep fried garlic. Its served often served with lime wedges, sugar, pepper, dried chillies fried in oil, fresh chillies, ginger, pickled turnip, fish sauce, Knorr or Maggi seasoning sauce and occasionally crullers – the Chinese style deep fried dough that look like reproducing mitochondria ??!! where did I get that idea?  Anyway, it tasted yum, and sets you up for the day.

Khao Tom

Khao tom - rice soup

It took me a long time to get around to eating khao tom (stupid me) because rice soup sounded unappetizing to my Western sensibilities. I finally came around while flatting with Malaysian Chinese students in the 1970’s. I think it was the fermented turnip that put me off at first! It has a very powerful smell.

Another breakfast served here is nem  kao (neem khao), folded and rolled squares of steamed rice pasta, stuffed with a fried mixture of mildly spiced pork and finely chopped cloud ear mushrooms. The stuffing  is only added on one side towards the end of the roll. Accompaniments include pounded fresh chilli sauce, a sweetened soy sauce, lime juice and ground peanuts. Rice noodle rolls originally come from China (Cantonese cuisine) and Vietnam. The version served at the Rattanakone probably is Vietnamese influenced, given the prominent business role the Vietnamese play in Laos and its use as a breakfast rather than as dim sum.

Neem Khao rice noodle rolls

Nem kao, rice noodle rolls

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Food and photos in Luang Prabang

Last week Kees was coaching young botanists (new grads form NUOL) and other staff from the Pha Tad Ke Garden in Luang Prabang. The garden isn’t open to the public yet as it is still being landscaped and plants take a long time to grow, but it should open in a couple of years time. The garden is on the opposite side of the Mekong River to Luang Prabang so getting there every day involved a tuk tuk ride followed by sliding down a steep river bank, into a very skinny, very long boat (shake shake…) and across the river. Early mornings the mountains and river banks were shrouded in mists. Two pullover temperature. Then the morning exercise came – clambering up the bank (the river is very low!) We did this for five days.

Botany staff and Kees

Photography workshop

After a morning’s work we’d eat lunch, cooked in the local village. Here is a sample of the dishes:

Soop pak

Soop pak

The sook pak had both ginger and sesame seeds and lots of succulent long beans. This was accompanied by sticky rice and a chicken lahp which had beautifully balanced flavours.

Chicken lahp

Chicken lahp

Another day we ate aw lahm, which sported the whitest, freshest pieces of sakharn I’ve ever had and lots of  black mouse ear mushrooms.

Aw lahm

Aw lahm

A very mildly spicy, mildly sweet-sour chicken dish incorporated finely sliced lemon grass. It also had Kaffir lime leaves and lots of onion.

Fried chicken with lemongrass

Fried chicken with lemongrass

Of course, one day flash-fried kai pen (river weed) was served:

Kai pen

Kai pen river weed

While Kees and The young botanists were using the big Canon cameras I tripped around the botanical garden with my little “slip in your purse” Fujifilm Finepix with auto disabled. I haven’t got around to examining the photos in fine details, but here’s one of the inside of a sida flower (guava)

guava flower

Bee's view of a guava flower

And this is torch ginger flower:

Ginger flower

Ginger flower

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Preparing ingredients for jeow

Essential to the flavour of Lao food, and the first step in many Lao recipes is the preparation of flavouring ingredients. Most jeow (chilli dipping sauce) recipes call for the roasting of such produce as whole bulbs of garlic,  shallots, apple eggplants and chillies, and maybe additional flavourings such as ginger, lemon grass, water beetles etc.

I’ll share the traditional way of doing this first, followed by how to do it in a Western kitchen. Either way, the goal is smoky flavoured, cooked until soft ingredients that are easy to pound or mash.

Roasting ingredients in embers

Roasting garlic and shallots in embers

Traditionally, unpeeled heads of garlic, shallots and apple eggplants are roasted in embers (jee) or grilled (ping) before they are pounded to make jeow, Lao dipping sauce. They must be turned occasionally until the outer skins are thoroughly blackened. After cooling, peel or break off the burnt skins. Don’t bother about removing all the burnt skin as its smoky flavour is valued.

Grilling ingredients for jeow

Grilling ingredients for jeow pa (fish jeow)

Thread chillies on a toothpick or sharp strip of bamboo and lay on a wire rack or splatter guard over a charcoal stove or gas flame. Grill until charred, but not completely blackened. After cooling, remove the burnt pieces of skin  before pounding the chilli pulp.

Grill chillies to this level of "doneness"

Grill chillies to this level of "doneness"

There are a few issues with these methods. First, with the charcoal stove, there is the hassle of waiting until the embers are subdued enough not to immolate your garlic and other goodies. You want things black, yes, but you are not aiming for a job as a charcoal burner! Controlling the embers is not a problem for most Lao within the Lao PDR where a charcoal (or wood) stove is used for everyday cooking.

Second, with a gas flame,  bits of charred garlic skin often float around the kitchen causing alarm to others, and chillies slide off the wire rack and into the gas flame to become totally burnt offerings that then need to be fished out through the wire rack, causing alarm to the cook.

Garlic grilled over gas - just about ready

Garlic grilled over gasflame - just about ready

A piece of tinfoil or a splatter guard under the goodies foils (sic) the escaping chillies but doesn’t do much to contain the floating fragments of skin. The answer is to place the ingredients  on either tinfoil, a rack or vegetable barbeque tray and grill the ingredients in a toaster oven or oven grill, while turning occasionally (the ingredients, not you!). Don’t cover them in tinfoil because you want them to blacken for the smoky flavour, not stew. Of course, firing up the gas barbie is the obviously outdoors answer to these modern problems!

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