Sweet, sour, bitter and salty: Lao cuisine is unique

LUANG PRABANG is an enchanting city in northern Laos located in a valley at the confluence of two rivers — the Mekong and the Nam Khan.

Luang Prabang also has possibly the most tranquil Night Market in Asia.

Lao food is unique, a wonderfully diverse cuisine that incorporates the Lao taste for sweet, sour, bitter and salty.

Dishes will always include lots of sticky rice (known in the West as glutinous rice) noodles and a soup usually based on chicken, fish and pork, a variety of vegetables and fresh herbs. The concept of starter, main course and dessert doesn’t exist.
Laos is a very poor country so in order to get enough protein into their diet, people have had to eat anything that walks, slithers, flies or swims.

The protein supply often comes from river fish though in the mountainous north they have had to adapt to eating such ‘delicacies’ as rats, moles, bats and frogs.

Even the larvae of wasps and flying and crawling insects, bugs, ants, and ant eggs don’t escape the wok. Absolutely no part of any animal killed for food is wasted, every single scrap of pig, chicken and fish is used and the head of a chicken or a fish is considered to be a great delicacy in a soup.

The offal is used in all sorts of inventive ways, often in noodle soups or barbecued over charcoal in the little clay outdoor cooking stoves that are still widely used.

The dishes are all shared and everybody dips in with their spoons, forks or hands. Several uniquely Lao flavours are a bit of an acquired taste, a Luang Prabang speciality called Jeo bong is a very popular chilli dip where the recipe calls for 50 dried red chillies to start with.!

Pa Dak is another distinctive flavour, it’s made from rotting fish and anchovies with salt and water added.

Most households would have had an earthenware jar with this pungent mixture rotting away by their front door-step but nowadays many people just buy it or shrimp paste from the Pa Dak ladies in the Market. Just follow your nose to find them.!

Pa Dak is not only a brilliant flavour enhancer but also another vital source of inexpensive protein.

Wild foods like bamboo shoots, fern fronds, fungi and wild honey, foraged from the hills and forests are also incorporated into the menu in season and then there are the delicious fruits like mangoes, papaya, pineapple, ramboutan jackfruit and bananas.

There are several cooking school options in Luang Prabang, The highly recommended Tamarind was full so I booked into the Tamnak Lao Cooking school for a day course. We had a terrific day and I was delighted to learn a variety of Lao dishes that I can easily reproduce to make a little Lao feast at home.

Luang Prabang Salad

This recipe serves one or two people if eaten alone. If eaten with other dishes, the salad would be enough for three or four people.

This salad is always served at special occasions. Learn how to make delicious but very easy mayonnaise that never curdles.

A mixture of Salad Leaves

Fresh watercress sprigs

1 sliced tomato

1 sliced medium cucumber

1 tbsp crushed unsalted peanuts

1 tbsp mince pork (optional)

2 hardboiled eggs

1 sliced hardboiled egg (if unable to slice, quarter the egg)

2 tbsp olive or sunflower oil

2 tbsp white wine vinegar

1 tbsp sugar

½ tsp white pepper – finely ground black pepper can also be used

¼ tsp salt

Coriander for garnish (cilantro)

First, prepare the mayonnaise.

Take two of the hardboiled egg yolks and place in a food processor, blender or pestle and mortar. Add the oil, vinegar, sugar, pepper and salt slowly Blend until smooth.

Make the salad.

Spoon half the mayonnaise onto the salad leaves and watercress and mix well.

Place the salad leaves/watercress on a plate or in a bowl in a pyramid shape.

Place the sliced cucumber around the bottom and the sliced tomato above it.

Place the sliced egg on top of the cucumber and tomato.

If the egg has been cut in quarters, place them around the bottom of the salad.

Use any left-over egg white to garnish the salad.

Sprinkle the crushed peanuts and some of the coriander on the top of the salad.

If using the pork, fry it in a little oil and when cooked place it over the top of the salad.

TIP: If you like the flavour of mint you can add it to this salad, we did and it was delicious.

Feu Khua – Fried Sticky Rice Noodles with Chicken and Vegetables

This recipe serves one person.

A great tasting dish to learn how to cook with rice noodles which are so popular throughout Asia.

100g (3½oz) chicken breast cut into pieces*

150g (5oz) rice noodles**

1 egg

2 cherry tomatoes OR 1 large tomato***

¼ onion quartered and sliced thinly

2 cloves garlic (crushed in a mortar or use a garlic crusher)

120g (4 ¼ oz) Asian green vegetables ****

2 tbsp oyster sauce

2 ½ tbsp oil

½ cup (4 fl ozs) water

1 tsp corn flour mixed with enough water to make a thin paste ½ teaspoon soy sauce

1 lime or lemon

1 chilli

Mix together:

½ tsp sugar

¼ tsp salt

1 tsp white pepper

Place the rice noodles in a bowl with cold water for 30 minutes or for 4-5 minutes in hot water.

Swirl with a spoon so they separate. Drain well. Place the two tablespoons of oil in a wok, and heat.

Put the noodles in the wok and stir for several minutes until the noodles are well cooked (beginning to turn golden).

Break the egg onto the noodles and spread all over the top, until the noodles are coated with egg.

Turn and continue to cook until crisp on both sides. Place the noodle/egg mixture onto a plate, cut into pieces.

Place the remaining oil into the wok with the crushed garlic and stir until the garlic begins to change colour.

Add the chicken and stir fry until cooked through. Add the green vegetables and ¼ to ½ cup of water (this helps cook the vegetables) keep stir frying until the water begins to reduce.

Add corn flour, a little water, oyster sauce, soy sauce, tomatoes, salt pepper and sugar and mix well.

Add the onion — it shouldn’t be overcooked.

Keep stir frying quickly and when the onion is cooked and the ingredients are well mixed, add the rice noodle/egg mixture and stir fry well together.

Place on a plate to serve.

As side dishes, quarter the lime or lemon and slice a chilli thinly.

Put both in a small dish. You can also put a tablespoon of soy sauce in a small dish with quarter sliced chilli added.

* Chicken, pork or beef can be used

** If fresh rice noodles are not available, use any other type of noodle as long as they are not too thin. If using dried noodles, before use, soak them until they soften.

*** If using cherry tomatoes, cut them in quarters. If using large tomatoes, cut into six pieces.

**** Use any Asian green vegetables or other available green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, rocket (arugula) and carrots – a great way to use up those vegetables that sit in the fridge.

TIP: Use more or less garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, salt, pepper and chilli to your taste.

Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo — Fried Eggplant with Pork

This recipe serves one person.

Very easy dish to make and very delicious too.

60g pork

3 large onions (if small use three extra)

1 Asian eggplant – long eggplant*

2-3 garlic cloves – depends on your taste

2 tbsp oyster sauce

¼ tsp salt

½ tsp sugar

2½ tbsp oil

Cut the spring onions into 2cm lengths. If the white part is large, also cut in half lengthways.

Cut the eggplant into 3cm lengths, then cut each piece in half lengthwise (if using European eggplant cut into cubes).

Crush the garlic in a mortar or use a garlic press.

Heat two tablespoons of the oil in a wok, add the eggplant and stir fry until it begins to soften and turn a golden colour.

Do not overcook and make the eggplant too soft. Note if you want to use less oil, use one tablespoon oil and add extra water so the eggplant softens and is highly golden in colour. Place the cooked eggplant in a dish, sieve and set aside. Place the remaining oil into the wok with the crushed garlic and stir until the garlic begins to change colour. Add the pork and stir frying until cooked. Add the salt and sugar.

Keep stir frying and add the oyster sauce, onion and cooked eggplant.

Keep stir frying until the onions begin to soften — it must be cooked but still firm. Taste and add more salt if required.

* Asian eggplants have many names, such as Chinese or Japanese eggplants.

Asian eggplants do not need to be salted before cooking. If you get one with lots of black seeds, throw it out as it cannot be made edible.

The Asian eggplant can be replaced with one medium European eggplant (aubergine).

If you are using a European eggplant and it is full of black seeds, salt it before use.

To salt sprinkle the cut eggplant with salt and leave for 20 minutes until the moisture is drawn out of the eggplant then wash, dry and use per recipe.

You can now buy aubergine (eggplant) without black seeds which does not require salting.

Hot tips

Freedom From Hunger: Soup for Life – Gorta’s annual fundraising campaign was launched at Ballymaloe Cookery School on Friday, February 13.

Food entrepreneurs Cully and Sully are supporting the event for the second year in-a-row.

They have pledged to donate 5c per carton of soup during National Soup Week from Monday, March 5 to Sunday, March 11.

Across Ireland 250 restaurants will donate €1 for each bowl of soup sold.

See www.soupforlife.ie for a list of participating restaurants.

If you want to get involved why not make a delicious pot of soup and invite some friends around, ask your guests to make a small donation to Gorta.

Details: email soup@gorta.org or phone 1850 80 80 80

Mary Jo Mc Millin’s name may not be familiar to many but her restaurant and catering business in Oxford, OH, USA had a cult following and those who attended her classes gained a repertoire of delicious dishes and recipes.

She loves Ireland and has been visiting for over 30 years.

Mary Jo was particularly famous for her braises and slow cooked dishes and of course her baking.

She will be teaching a one day cookery course at Ballymaloe Cookery School next Saturday, March 10.

Learn two fool-proof menus and the secrets of several of Mary Jo’s sought-after cakes and pastries and French bread.

Phone 021-4646785 to book or online www.cookingisfun.ie


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