Category Archives: Ingredients

Acacia fronds ຜັກລະ pak la

Acacia fronds ຜັກລະ pak la

Acacia fronds ຜັກລະ pak la

Pak la have long fronds and are used in Lao recipes as a bitter ingredient, such as in bamboo soup. They may be chopped and fried into an omelette. Another variety of acacia with shorter fronds, pak ka, may be substituted. Outside of Luang Namtha, the long fronds are also called pak ka. Acacia fronds are readily available year round in Laos and Thai wet markets.

Animal from the forest

“What are you eating, Khamsouk?” “Animal from the forest!” I peer at her plate of brownish stew with sticky rice accompaniment. Unidentifiable, I muse, but maybe barking deer. Best not to enquire further. Khamsouk, Kees and I were in a roadside restaurant in Pak Mong at 11 in the morning having lunch on our way from Luang Prabang to Luang Namtha. We were eating early because the road between here and Oudomxai (60 km) was so bad we would not arrive at Oudomxai for lunch before 2 pm, a potential disaster for all those Lao with clock-work tummies set at mid-day for aharn tian (lunch). Kees and I had ordered fer, a Vietnamese-inspired noodle soup ubiquitous throughout Laos. We hadn’t had a chance to eat fer on this trip so we were hanging out out for it. In the rush to get our “fix” we had missed the trays of pre-prepared dishes lurking in the shopfront glass cabinet. But Khamsouk hadn’t! Oh well, I thought, peeved at missing the opportunity to sample bush tucker, at least fer is the best dish for not getting the trots while travelling! (Such considerations are necessary on a long, steep and winding road with no loos and lots of exposed cliff faces). In Khamsouk’s opinion, the unidentified meat was too spicy so she didn’t finish it, but she was delighted to identify the other dishes in the display cabinet for us.  Here they are:

Frogs

Tasty frogs (kop) with crunchy bits and cute feet

Animal from the forest

Animal from the forest

Jeow padaek

Dry fermented fish relish, jeow padek

Bamboo larvae

Dry fried bamboo larvae

The shop also served vegetable soop, an aw lahm (spicy stew), steamed local vegetables pak neung, two different kinds of insects, smoke dried meat siin yang (source unknown) and grilled baby fish. After finishing the photographs and buying snacks for the journey we got back on our way, with one stop to pour water on the brake linings at a local village, where Khamsouk showed us the local guava mak sida – very delicious. New leaves from the guava tree behind her are finely chopped and put in Akha pork balls.

Khamsouk and guava

Khamsouk holding local guava mak sida by tree

She also showed us a wild vegetable growing close to the local water source – pak hart. It is steamed to be eaten with a jeow, and added to stews (both aw and gaeng). It has a numbing effect on the tongue.

pak hart

pak hart

We arrived in Oudomxai at 3 pm and finally in Luang Namtha at 8 pm – 11 hours and 308 km from setting out from Luang Prabang. Goodness, we needed that Beer Lao when we arrived at The Boat Landing!

Bamboo shoot stew with pork ແກງ ໜໍ່ໄມ້ ໃສ່ຊີ້ນໝູ gaeng naw mai sai sin moo

This is one of three recipes for gaeng naw mai from the cookbook “Food from Northern Laos”. It uses fresh bamboo shoots and yanang juice. The recipe was recorded in ant egg season (April – May), so ant eggs and acacia fronds were added. The recipe is perfectly fine without the ant eggs, and you can add a mix of beans, mak buab (or zuchini), squash tendrils, Lao basil and sawtooth herb (or coriander) cut in  5 cm pieces instead of the acacia fronds or leave the greens out entirely.  Up to you!

N.B. One of the other recipes, gaeng naw mai som uses pickled bamboo shoots and the other, gaeng naw mai sai padek uses a piece of fermented fish from the padek pot as well as your choice of meat.

Serves four to six.

Ingredients

500 g – 1 kg  (1 – 2 lb)  fleshy pork bones chopped into small pieces (3 cm [1 in])
1 – 2 large handfuls yanang leaves to taste (or half a tin or more of yanang extract)
Water for soaking yanang leaves
3 T oil
5 cloves garlic
1 small white or red onion, chopped into thumb-size pieces or several shallots
5 T padek, boiled for 5 minutes to sterilize (or less to taste, or add some fish sauce at the end)
10 – 12 long reddish chillies
1 thick bamboo shoot, pre-cooked, finely sliced lengthwise and blanched (or about 2 cups tinned bamboo shoots)
2 C oyster mushrooms
2⁄3 C cloud ear mushrooms
1 bunch acacia fronds (pak la) (or your choice of greens)
1 C red ant eggs (optional)

Method

  1. Put yanang leaves into water and soak. Rub, squeeze and collect the liquid (or use tinned yanang extract).
  2. In a large frying pan or wok, add the oil. When hot, add the garlic, stir briefly and then add the onion. When the onion is transparent, add the pork pieces, frying until sealed and succulent looking (about 5 minutes).
  3. Put the yanang juice in a large pot along with the padek and chillies. If using yanang extract, add sufficient water to create a soupy stew. Bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Add the pork and simmer for 5 more minutes. Stir in the bamboo shoots and simmer a further 5 minutes. Lower heat if needed and add the oyster mushrooms. Stir to mix gently.
  4. Line up the fronds, so they face the same direction. Curl them on top of the stew; do not mix in. Leave to simmer for a few minutes, and then slip in the red ant eggs and cloud ear mushrooms trying not to disturb the fronds. Simmer for a few minutes more. Take off the heat and serve with steamed sticky or plain rice.

Bamboo shoots ໜໍ່ໄມ້ naw mai, no mai

Bamboo shoots - naw lan, Sirundinaria microphylla

Bamboo shoots - naw lan, Sirundinaria microphylla

Several edible varieties are used in Laos. The photographs show bamboo species naw lan (Sirundinaria microphylla) and naw van (Dendrocalamus hamiltonii) on sale in Ban Khone market in Luang Namtha.

Fresh shoots need to be boiled and shredded before frying with meat, most commonly pork. Add them to soups and stews. Some shoots can be bitter. The addition of yanang leaf juice to a recipe reduces the bitterness.

Bamboo shoots - naw van, Dendrocalamus hamiltonii

Bamboo shoots - naw van, Dendrocalamus hamiltonii

Fat, new shoots that have been teased apart with a needle may be stuffed with pork. Shoots can be pickled with salt. After fermenting, they are used in soup with fish and pork. Villagers boil and sun dry shoots to sell to restaurants or companies for export. It is one way the forest provides cash income for subsistence farmers.

When preparing fresh bamboo shoots, wear gloves to avoid their spiky hairs while removing the outer leaves. A twisting motion helps pull off in one

Cooked naw van with crab paste jeow, a local speciality of Luang Namtha

Cooked naw van with crab paste jeow, a local speciality of Luang Namtha

piece. What remains is the fresh, cream-coloured shaft. If the shoot base is dry, chop it off. Cut the bamboo in vertical sections. Put in a pot, top with water and bring to the boil. Let boil for 5 minutes, then remove the bamboo. Throw out the water which will be bitter from the shoots’ hydrocyanic acid. Repeat twice. The bamboo is now ready for use. Certain types of shoots do not need this priming when they are fresh, very young and fast-growing with a low acid content. They can be cut to size as required by the recipe and used straight away.

For tinned bamboo shoots, it is best to buy whole or halved shoots rather than pre-sliced, which have been exposed to more processing. Rinse well and cut in pieces to suit the recipe. Both blanched and tinned bamboo can be stored in the refrigerator for a week covered with water in a closed container, providing the water is changed daily.

Bamboo shoots, large, sweet ໝໍ່ໄມ້ຫວານ naw mai waan

Bamboo shoots, large, sweet ໝໍ່ໄມ້ຫວານ naw mai waan

Bamboo shoots, large, sweet ໝໍ່ໄມ້ຫວານ naw mai waan

Treat as above. These bamboo shoots are mild and sweet-tasting.

Banana flower ໝາກປີ mak bpee

This is the sterile male organ at the end of the banana bunch. The bunch grows from the female, self-fruiting flower above the male flower. Two species of banana flower are commonly used for cooking, one a green flower, the other purple. The long green flower is better as it does not go brown when cut, whereas the less expensive purple flower discolours very quickly.

Banana flower ໝາກປີ mak bpee

Banana flower ໝາກປີ mak bpee

Soi technique for cuting banana flower

Soi technique for cuting banana flower

To prepare the flower for a sa, lahp or kao poon (a Lao noodle dish), remove the tough, outer petals and any large stamen until the creamy, inside leaves are exposed. Finely slice from the tip across the width of the flower directly into a bowl of water that has a little bit of salt or lime juice added. If using in a soup or stew, simply hand shred the leaves into pieces and immediately add to the pot. Do not use the outside stamen, but the inner ones may be cooked. Banana flower is also a traditional medicine for maternal health care as it encourages lactation. Belgium endive may be substituted.

Basil

There are over 504 varieties of basil, including many hybrids, so identifying those used in Laos can be confusing. Lao like to use small, young basil leaves whereas Thais seem to prefer larger, more mature basil.

Lao basil ຜັກອີຕູ່ pak i tou

Lao basil ຜັກອີຕູ່ pak i tou

Lao basil ຜັກອີຕູ່ pak i tou

The most common basil used for cooking in Laos, rather than for eating raw, is pak i tou. This basil has been identified definitively as Ocimum africanum.Lour. by Dr Somrun Suddee in a full revision of the tribe Ocimeae subtribe Ociminae (S. Suddee, personal communication, Jan 20, 2009; Suddee et al, 2005). This basil is most commonly put in Lao gaeng (soups) and aw (stews), such as gaeng bawt, aw lahm, pumpkin soup, fish moke and stuffed bamboo shoots. For soup, add at the end of cooking. The nutlets (seeds), which produce mucilage when wet, are used for making soup or a sweet dessert. In this website, Lao basil is referred to as pak i tou Lao to distinguish it from the variety in Laos called pak i tou Tai (sacred basil, holy basil or krapow in Thai) or pak boualapha (sweet basil, Thai basil or pak horapha in Thai). Pak i tou Lao has green leaves and stems and white flowers, but the leaves and calynx, which cups the flower, may have a purplish tinge. Raw pak i tou Lao does not have a strong taste; the flavour emerges upon cooking. The stems are slightly hairy. The basil may, but not necessarily will, have a slight citrus smell, but not taste. This basil species is of hybrid origin, derived from a cross between Ocimum americanum and Ocinimum basilicum (Paton & Putievsky, 1996). It freely hybridises with O. basilicum in cultivation; intermediates are not uncommon. In the Thai language, pak i tou Lao is one of the basil varieties called maenglak. A mild lemon basil or Western sweet basil may be substituted.

Holy basil, sacred basil Ocimum tenuiflorum, Ocimum sanctum ຜັກກະເຜົ່າ pak kapow, ຜັກສະເຜົ່າ bai sapow, ຜັກອີຕູ່ ໄທ pak i tou Tai

Holy_basil

Ocimum sanctum ຜັກກະເຜົ່າ pak kapow

There is a big, bushy red variety with purple-pink flowers. It has a peppery clove or allspice taste. Freshly picked, it can be tongue-numbing. The green-stemmed variety with green leaves tinged with red is most commonly used in Laos. When put in soup, it is added at the end of cooking. It is used for Thai stir fries; pork with basil leaves is a common dish. In Lao dishes, it is stir fried with ginger or onion as a flavouring component. This basil is called bai krapow, or simply krapow, in Thai.

Sweet basil, Thai or sweet basil, Asian Ocimum basilicum ຜັກບົວລະພາ pak boualapha, pak boulaphe

Sweet basil, Thai or sweet basil, Asian Ocimum basilicum ຜັກບົວລະພາ pak boualapha, pak boula phe

Sweet basil, Thai or sweet basil, Asian Ocimum basilicum ຜັກບົວລະພາ pak boualapha, pak boula phe

Sweet basil, Thai or sweet basil, Asian Ocimum basilicum ຜັກບົວລະພາ pak boualapha, pak boula phe

Sweet basil, Thai or sweet basil, Asian Ocimum basilicum ຜັກບົວລະພາ pak boualapha, pak boula phe

This basil has an anise or licorice taste. It has purple stems and flower heads and long, narrow leaves. It is the most common basil accompanying lahp and Lao noodles. In Laos it is rarely used cooked. In Thailand, however, it frequently appears in green curries and other sauced dishes. This basil is called horapha in Thai. It is used as a medicine for dizziness. Pak boualapha (Lao) may also be used to identify Ocimum gratissimum called niam in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Blood, usually duck or pig ເລຶອດ leuat

Cutting coagulated blood

Cutting co-gulated blood

Eating blood or blood products is extremely common in Laos. Noodle soups, especially kao poon, frequently contain cubes of boiled blood cake as does a sidewalk staple, cold glass noodles with vegetables. Akha pork balls (page 109) usually contain fresh duck blood. Speciality duck restaurants serving a salad based on fresh blood are massively popular. If you are game and have access to a freshly killed duck which is far from any whisper of avian flu, here is how to make the salad.
Duck blood salad

Duck blood salad

Drain the blood from the duck and set aside. Cook the duck liver and mince it, adding a little bit of salt. Make a liver lahp by adding mint, chopped red and green chillies, spring onion greens, garlic and basil. To the duck blood, add fish sauce and 5 tablespoons of water. Mix together and pour over the lahp. Sprinkle roasted sticky rice powder over the mixture and enjoy. To ensure blood is fresh, put a drop in a bowl of water. Try to cut the drop with a toothpick tip. If the blood stays whole, the blood is fresh. If it can be cut, it is congealed and not fresh. Do not eat it! Black pudding can be substituted for blood cake.

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.

Chilli paste awng with pork ນ້ຳພິກອ່ອງ ຊີ້ນໝູ ຫຼື ເຕົາຮູ້ nam phik awng sin moo

This jeow, which is eaten as a condiment for steamed or simmered vegetables, is claimed as both a Lao and a northern Thai dish. It is also prepared in northeastern Thailand as a local recipe. The Luang Namtha version uses the local kao soi fermented bean sauce, whereas the southern versions utilize shrimp paste and lemongrass. Its popularity is no doubt due to easy preparation from readily available ingredients. The jeow compliments greens superbly and tastes great!

Chilli paste awng with pork ນ້ຳພິກອ່ອງ ຊີ້ນໝູ ຫຼື ເຕົາຮູ້ nam phik awng sin moo

Chilli paste awng with pork ນ້ຳພິກອ່ອງ ຊີ້ນໝູ ຫຼື ເຕົາຮູ້ nam phik awng sin moo

Ingredients

1 small head garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
4 T vegetable oil
1 T fermented chilli soybean paste (see Ingredients section for substitutes)
1 C (225g/8 oz) pork, minced (optional)
½ t sugar
1 T thin soy sauce
Chilli powder to taste (optional)
2 large tomatoes, chopped
Water or stock to adjust mixture to a thick salsa consistency
1 small bunch spring onions (scallions), greens only, chopped finely
1 T coriander (cilantro), chopped finely (optional)

Accompanying vegetables

1 bunch Chinese flowering cabbage (and slices of pumpkin and gourd [optional])
Water to cook vegetable accompaniments

Method

  1. Heat the oil in a hot wok. Toss in the chopped garlic and stir fry briefly. Remove the garlic if it is browning too fast. Add the fermented soybean paste to the oil and fry, squishing the paste down so it cooks, but does not burn or stick. Add the minced pork or tofu as well as the garlic if it has been set aside. Add the sugar, soy sauce and tomato. Flavour with chilli powder if desired.
  2. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat and tomatoes are cooked and integrated with the other ingredients into a rich, chunky sauce. Add water or stock to thin if necessary. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  3. When finished, stir in the onion greens and coriander. Transfer to a serving dish such as a Chinese rice bowl.
  4. Steam or simmer the greens for 5 minutes until they turn vivid green, but remain crisp.
    To eat, take a long stalk of green and bend it over repeatedly until it is the length of a little finger, wrapping any floppy bits around the middle to form a bundle. Use this to scoop some of the sauce to the side of the serving bowl and eat in one mouthful.
Steamed vegetables to eat with jeow
Steamed vegetables to eat with jeow

Variations

  • The finished jeow is superb tossed through pasta. It’s worth making for that alone.
  • Use a thick version of this jeow to make Sloppy Joes. Lightly grill a baguette, slit it and add the jeow. Add lettuce, cucumber and tomato.
  • For a delicious pasta sauce, stop cooking while the tomatoes are still chunky, before they cook down. This variation is a bit of serendipity discovered when making the sauce in bulk. The bottled gas ran out before the tomatoes could cook as long as intended. A new sauce was born.
  • Substitute tofu for the pork.

Chilli wood, pepper wood Piper ribesioides Wall., Piper interruptum Opiz. ໄມ້ ສະຄານ mai sakahn, sakhan, sakharn, sakhahn, mai sakhaan

Chilli wood, pepper wood Piper ribesioides Wall., Piper interruptum Opiz. ໄມ້ ສະຄານ mai sakahn, sakhan, sakharn, sakhahn, mai sakhaan

Chilli wood, pepper wood Piper ribesioides Wall., Piper interruptum Opiz. ໄມ້ ສະຄານ mai sakahn, sakhan, sakharn, sakhahn, mai sakhaan

A very spicy (peppery and chilli tones), woody vine with a lingering aftertaste used in Northern Lao food. It is slightly numbing to the tongue. Used in Luang Prabang and Luang Namtha provinces in aw lahm, it enhances a dish’s flavour. It is  also added to some river weed and taro (bon) dishes. It is  an appetite stimulant. It is sold in lengths of very thick vine trunk. Smaller sections – 3 cm x 1 cm (1½ in x ¼ in) – are chopped from the whole with a cleaver immediately before adding the bits to an aw lahm. If not used immediately, it will either dry or go black very quickly. Choose mai sakahn that is not dried out and which is insect-free. Mai sakahn can be kept in the freezer.

The closest substitute for a 3 cm (1½ in) mai sakahn piece is a combination of 1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns, 5 Sichuan pepper berries (or the local version, mak ken), plus 1 dried red chilli and 1 bitter leaf, such as celery, placed together in a tea infuser and submerged in the stew. Remove the infuser and its contents before serving.

aw lahm with bufalo skin

aw lahm with buffalo skin and chilli wood