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Cooking Lao Food for 40


Fresh, hot chiles

THIS is why I love food, communal food: it has the power to turn a gathering of strangers into a collective event. It makes the foreign experience feel less so. It happens every time we travel to Laos, when villagers bring us to their kitchen fires or hand us glasses of Beerlao and insist we help them celebrate (whatever the celebration might be). That’s the spirit I’d hoped to share Friday night, here in Albuquerque. Thank you, Slow Food ABQ and the Center for Peace & Justice! Thanks to all who came and made our food tasting & presentation happen.


Chiles on the grill, for jaeow

I admit, cooking for 40 is stressful (despite my love of mortars & pestles, sharp knives, open fires and woks). Jerry and I might have shared a few terse words in the process. But in the end, it worked.

We guessed on the number, and we guessed right. Sticky rice, purple rice, laap, tam maak hoong, three types of jaeow, and pumpkin/mushroom soup—almost nothing came home with us. The room filled, as did plates and cups. We showed photos, mostly of Lao food and scenery, but also farming amid unexploded bombs. The crowd stuck around to ask questions. Lots and lots of questions—kudos to you, Albuquerque! Thank you for the chance to answer and explain.


Pounded roasted sticky rice grains for laap


Prep time: a cluttered kitchen table

Several people asked about recipes, so I’ll try to point you in the right directions. We had sticky rice (soak the rice overnight, drain the liquid, then steam in a contraption like this), purple rice (cook in water like regular rice), tomato chile dip (jaeow mak len, recipe here), green chile dip (roast a bunch of New Mexico green chiles, then simmer and puree with lots of garlic and fish sauce), eggplant dip (jaeow mak keua: cook in a similar manner to the tomato dip, using roasted eggplants, chile, salt, roasted garlic, spring onions and cilantro); green papaya salad (tam maak hoong: David Thompson’s Thai version is a close and trustworthy approximation); minced tofu salad (laap: this version, without the eggplant or sesame); and pumpkin-mushroom soup. The latter is a northern dish, based on myriad varieties we’ve tasted in the hills:

Pumpkin-Mushroom Herb Soup, from northern Laos

5 cups water
1 medium pumpkin or winter squash cut into bite-sized chunks (I used kabocha)
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
3 small, hot chiles, chopped (more or less to taste)
1 head roasted garlic
3-4 fragrant lemongrass stalks, cut into 5-inch sections, outer skin removed, bruised to release flavor
2 tablespoons fish sauce (or soy sauce)
1 2-inch section of galangal, cut into chunks
fresh lime juice to taste
salt to taste
hefty bunch of basil, dill, cilantro and spring onion, roughly chopped

In a large pot or crock pot add water, pumpkin, chiles, garlic, lemongrass, galangal and fish sauce. Simmer until pumpkin begins to soften. Add mushrooms and cook until flavors are balanced and pumpkin is soft but not disintegrated (the kabocha is nice because its firm but edible skin adds texture and helps keep the shape of the squash pieces). The pumpkin/squash will make the soup sweet; you want to balance the ingredients for a good mix of sweet, salty, spicy, tangy and that aromatic freshness from the abundance of herbs. Add more fish sauce/salt if necessary. Ladle the soup over a handful of chopped herbs in a bowl. Drizzle enough lime over the soup to complete the flavor balance.


Garlic hot off the grill. Notice the G on the cutting board? Many years ago, we grew tired of our morning fruit tasting like garlic, so we started labeling our boards: G on one side, F on the other.

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