Tag Archives: Khamsouk

Our Khmu lead cook showing us many recipes and different ingredients, herbs and other types of Lao cooking

Baci for Media and her parents

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


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.

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.

Khmu khao poon

Khao poon (also spelt kao poon or kao pun) is a noodle dish widely made and consumed throughout Laos. This Khmu version with fermented soybean paste and minced pork was cooked by Khamsouk Philatorn, who used to make and sell it at the Luang Namtha Chinese market as a part time job while attending secondary school. The instructions below should make enough for about 30 people. Family and friends in Ban Chalensouk helped with all the chopping and shredding of the ingredients and with eating the finished product!

A serving of khao poon has four components:

  • Finely chopped or shredded vegetables, which are placed in the bottom of a big soup bowl
  • Hanks of soaked and drained khao poon noodles or rice vermicelli, which are added to the bowl
  • A spicy soup, ladled over the top to warm and partially cook the other ingredients
  • Condiments such as soy sauce, chilli sauce and lime which are added to the individual’s taste.

The whole lot is mixed together and eaten with chopsticks and a Chinese soup spoon.


1 large bunch yard-long beans

1 large bunch spring onion tops

1 large bunch mint

1 kg boiled bamboo shoots

1 big bunch coriander (cilantro)

2 – 4 banana flowers, outer petals removed

6 limes (2 for acidulating the banana flower water and the rest for individuals to add to their soup bowls)

3 -5 pieces  galangal root (big handful – the smaller rhyzomes are hotter and spicier)

3 heads garlic

One half to one handful of red chillies

2 onions

Khao poon noodles or rice vermicelli

1 C oil

1 kg coagulated blood or use 2 black puddings instead

1 kg minced fatty pork (You can use more mince pork if you like and cut down on the blood)

Generous half cup of fermented soybean paste (or make your own, see fermented soy bean paste)

Knorr (stock) powder and/or msg.

Prepared Khao poon vegetables

Prepared Khao poon vegetables

Step 1: Vegetable Platter preparation

(Get as many people to help as you can)
  1. Finely slice the bunches of yard-long beans and spring onion tops and  arrange beside each other on a big tray.
  2. Take 1 kg of boiled bamboo shoots, remove the tough outer leaves from the shoots and tease into fine shreds with a toothpick. Add to the tray.
  3. Chop the bunch of coriander (cilantro) and add to the tray.
  4. Pull the leaves off the mint and add to the tray.
  5. Finely shave the inner part of several banana flowers into a bowl of water to which a couple of squeezed limes have been added. Squeeze dry and add to the tray.
Pounded mixture for soup

Pounded mixture for soup

Step 2: Preparation of ingredients for the soup

  1. Finely slice several roots of galangal.
  2. Peel and finely slice the cloves of 3 heads of garlic.
  3. Finely chop  one half up to a handful of red chillies.
  4. Slice 2 onions vertically.
  5. Put the garlic and chilis in a mortar and pound thoroughly to a rough paste.

Preparing the noodles

Preparing the noodles

Step 3: Preparation of the noodles

  1. If you are using dried noodles, soak the khao poon noodles or rice vermacelli in warm water until soft. (khao poon noodles will need hotter water and will take linger than rice vermacelli.)
  2. When soft, use a chopstick to line up and remove a small hank of noodles from the water. Let drain, then use your hands to make into a tidy oval hank. Repeat, lay one hank overlapping the other to form a circle in a colander lined with banana leaf. Set aside. This step can be done while the soup is simmering.
  3. If using fresh noodles already in hanks, pour some warm water through them to refresh them, arrange them to suit on a banana leaf-lined sieve, and let drain until serving time.

Adding pork to the soup

Adding pork to the soup

Step 4: Assembling the soup

  1. Heat 1 cup of oil in a big pot.
  2. Add the pounded chili mixture and fry until golden and smelling sweetly fragrant.
  3. Add the galangal and onions and continue to brown.
  4. Add the minced pork and fry until it is well mixed, then add the fermented soybean paste. Brown all together, then top the pot up to two thirds with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Taste, and add Knorr and msg to suit. Continue to simmer for 30 more minutes.
  5. Adding the blood to the soup

    Adding the blood to the soup

  6. Cut the coagulated blood or blood sausage into 3 cm (1 1/4 in) cubes and add to the soup. Simmer for 10 – 15 minutes more until the blood has changed to a dark colour.

Step 5: Serving

  1. To serve, for each diner, place a small amount of all of the vegetables in the bottom of a deep soup bowl. Add one or two hanks of noodles. Spoon over the soup, making sure some of the minced pork and blood product are included.
  2. Make soya sauce, chili sauce, msg, salt and ground white pepper are available on the table so people can adjust their portion to suit their own taste.
    (N.B.: The family made their own weak soy sauce by boiling salted black soya beans in water, mashing them and decanting the liquid).
Khamsouk's younger brother eating khao poon

Khamsouk's younger brother eating khao poon

Baci at Ban Chalensouk

Baci at Ban Chalensouk

Baci at Ban Chalensouk

In my last article I described the preparation of Khmu food before the baci ceremony, held in October 2010 at Ban Chalensouk, Luang Namtha province in Northern Laos. Kees and I were happy to be honoured guests and to help our ‘grand daughter’, Khamsouk, celebrate her graduation from college and triumphant return to her village.

The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees

The Moh Pohn ties the first string on Kees

Spiritual and ritualistic practices are important to most Lao people. The baci, also called sou khuan, is an ancient pre-Buddhist ritual traditionally conducted by Tai speakers, now widely practised by other Lao citizens, including Kmhmu, who have their own spiritual beliefs and way of doing things. The baci is the most popular Lao traditional ceremony celebrated at special events, whether a marriage, a homecoming, a welcome, a birth, a welcome or even to help cure sickness. Tom Butcher and Dawn Ellis, in their book ‘Laos’, London, a wol book: Pallas Athene, 1993, describe the baci ceremony in detail. This particular baci was held in Khamsouk’s new shop/house. It’s wired for electricity ready for when the power is hooked up. That won’t be for some time yet, though.

Tying strings

Kees trying strings on Khamsouk

The baci ceremony includes the ritualistic tying of cotton threads to ensure blessings of the spirits on specific persons, activities, or places. It is also an important gesture of reconciliation and is believed to restore the natural order of things (Source: LNTA).

After the baci, we adjorned to the tables outside for the feast and lamvong dancing to a local (highly amplified) live band. Lamvong is a circular folk dance, with the women on the outside of the circle and the men on the inside, and each couple dances slowly around each other while progressing around the main circle.

Dancing the lamwong

Dancing the lamvong at Ban Chalensouk. Khamsouk's mother (on the far right) dances with her husband.

Young people dancing

Khamsouk and friends dancing lamvong

Its certainly not hip-hop.  Messages are far more subtle. But it IS a dance of courtship and building of social relationships (without looking at each other or touching, however). It certainly holds people’s interest, old and young – the dancing went on for 7 hours, mainly lamvong, with maybe half an hour of line dancing interspersed! Its a bit risky doing line dancing in Laos for too long!

Lao hai Kmhmu

Lao hai Kmhmu

In the afternoon the lao hai was opened and we imbibed. This is home made Lao rice wine fermented in a pottery jar (hai). Its very tasty and never drunk alone, always at least two people suck the equivalent of 2 glasses full from straws (or these days, IV leads). The jar is then replenished with the same amount of water, and two or more other people take over the drinking. The people who get first crack at the jar get the strongest alcohol, because the water dilutes the brew over time. Occasionally it is stirred with a stick to mix in the water.

Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk 2

Drinking lao hai at Ban Chalensouk - Khamsouk's Dad on the right

Lao hai drinking

Dolly and friends enjoy Lao hai. Both men touch the IV line so the drink is shared.

With Beer Lao, toasts of Lao lao and Lao hai, it is very difficult to remain vertical after a while. Naps are highly recommended throughout the festivities, which gaily continue regardless of where the guests are for a while!  Starting at 11 am, the band packed up at 7 pm. So a slow fade out on this article The next blog will cover making khao poon, Kmhmu style ‘the morning after’.

Party at Ban Chalensouk

Party at Ban Chalensouk - still doing the lamvong at 6 pm!

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:


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!

Visit to Laos Oct 2010

Kees and I are just back from Lao PDR and 2 weeks of fabulous fêting and feasting! I’ve got lots that I want to write about and will do so over the next couple of weeks. Kees is now sorting his way through hundreds of photos so we can put some in this blog and on his zenfolio site.

Highlights were the baci and party held in the Khmu  (Khamu) village of Ban Chalensouk in  Luang Namtha province, organised by the unstoppable Khamsouk.


Baci preparations just before the ceremony

We have heaps of photos to share of the two day celebration, including food preparation for the meal after the baci (all the ingredients were local products grown or gathered: sticky rice; vegetable soop (mixed cooked vegetables with galangal, chillies and pounded roasted sesame seed – yum!; sa siin moo – a lahp-style dish with heaps of finely shaved banana flower, and an excellent forest bamboo shoot soup with pork).

Preparing Sa siin moo for post Baci feast

Preparing sa siin moo for post baci feast

Other photos are of the baci and party (7 hours of non-stop dancing!) and other meals there – three before lunch the next day – plus photos and ‘how to’ for Northern-style khao poon, the Lao national dish of noodles and accompaniments all mixed together with a flavoursome soup. I hadn’t had time to record this before publishing the book so it was a top priority for this trip.

Northern-style khao poon

Northern-style khao poon

Northern khao poon is very different from the Vientiane version – the Northern version has lots of blood and blood products whereas the Central and Southern versions have pig’s head, liver, lungs and fish, plus blood products. I hope that does not put you off – each version tastes delicious, and the blood was very, very fresh.  You can also make a very delicious khao poon leaving out all the inside bits, so not to worry!
I also want to tell you about WIG (Women’s International Group) and the presentation we did in Vientiane about northern Lao food. This will include what we did to serve Lao food as canapés at the gathering of 70 plus people.

Visit to Laos

Kees and I are off to Laos on Saturday. Can’t wait! We’ll arrive in Vientiane on Sunday evening, then on Tuesday head up to Luang Prabang. We also hope to go to Luang Namtha, depending on road conditions in the rainy season. Evidently roads are pretty bad up there right now, with landslides in the mountainous countryside. The rainy season is great for food though, with a profusion of  young bamboo shoots, gourds, mushrooms and other delights!

On 7th October Kees, Khamsouk and I will be doing a presentation on food from northern Laos for the WIG Cultural Studies group. We will use Kees’ photos, Khamsouk’s demos and talk about Northern Lao ingredients and types of dishes, then concentrate on Akha, Kmhmu’ (Khamu) and Lanten food within their individual cultural contexts. The presentation and book signing will be held at Monument Books, in Vientiane. They will also be stocking the book. I’ll post information about time etc of the presentation as soon as we know. Posters will be up around town soon.