Lao fish with herbs, grilled in banana leaf
Lao food, to me, is synonymous with summer. Even if it’s not summer when you eat it, the flavors will take you to a warm, sunny day. It’s the abundance of fresh herbs, and the heat of those crisp little chiles. It’s the scent of lemongrass and shallot; and the flavor of smoke (as Jarrett Wrisley writes so eloquently about). But mostly, I think, it’s the outdoors—because just about every Lao meal is pounded, smoked, grilled, stewed or even fried outside. And even when it’s not outside, chances are, it’s still cooked over fire, possibly in a little kitchen cubbyhole separated from the sun and wind and rain by just a few wood planks or bamboo slats. And it still smells like the outdoors.
I confess, I’ve been holding out. I’ve had my hands on a couple of Lao cookbooks that have entered the scene in the past year or so—and it’s about time. The country’s varied cuisines simply don’t get enough attention.
Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook, by Dorothy Culloty with photos by Kees Sprengers, delves into the food and culture of diverse ethnicities throughout the remote, mountainous northwestern region of Luang Namtha. The book stems from the Boat Landing Guest House, the province’s first ecotourism lodge, which opened in 1999. I’d heard of the place often—first, as a respected venture promoting both people and environment; then, sadly, amid the tragic disappearance of Pawn, one of the owners. His wife, Joy, still runs the business with her extended family. More of the story is printed in the cookbook, but many of the details remain unknown or relegated to rumor.
But the book—the book is a celebration of the region’s lifeblood. It contains descriptions of the area’s hilltribes, common local ingredients, lessons in culinary etiquette, photos of daily life, and commendable efforts to turn dozens of dishes into doable recipes with precise measurements and directions. That’s no simple feat, considering recipes aren’t part of the traditional Lao repertoire. Mothers teach their daughters to cook using memory, taste and smell; with seasonality the constant variable. If you’re the type of cook who needs structure; if you’re not overly familiar with Lao food (but you want to give it a shot)—this is a book worth trying.
But if you’re keen on kitchen adventure, and you’re coming to the table with an understanding of Lao flavors and how they interact—you might fancy an alternative book.
Lao Cooking and The Essence of Life, by Vincent Fischer-Zernin a.k.a. Xaixana Champanakone, presents Lao cuisine the way it’s made in villages and homes—no tablespoons or teaspoons, no numbers or fractions. Many of the recipes offer zero precision, instead instructing the cook to start with fundamentals a,b and c; then play around with things like x, y and z. That’s exactly how I’ve seen Lao grandmothers cook—though I wouldn’t have a clue how to do it, had I not had the experience of seeing it.
This book is a great travel guide, in the sense that it spends some 70 pages of primer on Lao culture and philosophy—everything from the bo pen yang (never mind) attitude to the concept of face to an examination of hygiene (under the heading “The Food Comes Out”). My favorite, perhaps, is the explanation of Time (illusion): “Upcountry, time by the hour does not exist.” So true. “Appointments happen when they take place.” That explains a lot. “Sunrise is the time to get up and sunset is the time to go to sleep.” Better get used to it if you want to enjoy your time in Laos.
Personally, I love having both of these books. Both have separate but distinct places on my cookbook shelf. And both have recipes I couldn’t resist.
So then, shall we get on with a couple?
Roasted (Grilled) Fish in Banana Leaves (Mohk)
(Adapted from Lao Cooking and the Essence of Life by Xaixana Champanakone)
Start to finish: 1+ hour
This is a recipe for “about any minced meat or vegetables plus assorted herbs wrapped in banana leaves,” steamed or grilled. Banana leaves often can be found in the freezer section of Asian markets; if they are not available, aluminum foil can be substituted.
The author suggests slicing and pounding lemongrass, fresh or dried chiles, shallots and peppercorns into a keuang hom (“things smell good”). Then add fish or meat with a combination of herbs. No measurements given. Keep an open mind. “Use anything you have in the fridge or garden; give instinct a free reign.” That right there, I think, is the essence of Lao cooking.
So I started with two lemongrass stalks, coarse outer leaves removed; several fresh hot chiles, a dollop of pa dek (fermented fish) and a couple of shallots. Then I added a large handful of sweet basil, a couple of strong green garlic chives and a handful of dill.
That all got pounded to a pulp. (Actually, I made two batches—one spicy, one not, in order to appease differing tongues.) Then, separately, I pounded the fish (Alaskan cod, thawed and cut into chunks). I did all that pounding outside, on the back patio, using my granite mortar and pestle.
I mixed it all together with a little coconut milk and a drizzle of fish sauce, then filled several banana leaves for grilling. Now, there are many complicated ways to make elaborate banana-leaf packets. Lao Cooking has a series of diagrams; Food from Northern Laos has diagrams and instructions. It’s really not that complicated if you’re not too picky about appearances. Start with two leaves cut into squares or rectangles. Soak in warm or hot water until pliable. Lay the leaves atop each other (shiny side down). Fill the center with a little heap of that pounded goodness, then wrap like a present (or any which way you please). Fasten with toothpicks. Grill.
Steamed Green Beans with Sawtooth Herb, Ginger and Sesame
(Adapted from Food from Northern Laos: The Boat Landing Cookbook by Dorothy Culloty)
*This is an Akha recipe traditionally made with either ginger or sesame seeds, but not both. As the author suggests, you can be a “non-traditional hedonist” and use both. So I did.
Start to finish: 40 minutes
1 large batch of green beans
1 head of garlic, roasted
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, roasted and peeled
2-3 tablespoons of sesame seeds
2-3 tablespoons of soy sauce (I used tamari)
1 teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of fish sauce
1 handful of mint, chopped
1 handful of sawtooth herb
a few spring onions, chopped
1 handful of Vietnamese mint (the distinct flavor of this herb adds a key component to the dish)
1 bunch of cilantro, chopped
Chop or halve the beans. Steam or boil a few minutes until lightly cooked, then move to a separate bowl.
Dry roast sesame seeds until golden (but not browned). Set aside.
Pound the peeled, roasted garlic with salt and ginger. Add to the beans, mix, then add remaining ingredients.