Maybe you’ve had a night like this: You head to a friend’s with plans to cook. You bring recipes and garlic, chiles and limes, an ungodly heavy mortar and pestle—all stuffed into a pack. And when you walk through her door, you begin to unwind.
Wine is poured and music played. Cheese and olives are offered, and kale chips are made. The husband lights the grill—but you kinda, sorta forget about it because you and your friend get chatting. You sip the wine. You chat some more. You sip some more. You chat.
And suddenly, the hours have scurried away.
That’s what happened the other night when a good friend and I planned to make Lao jaeow—several types of spicy chile dips with a whole stash of ingredients. I brought the Little Book of Jeow from Tamarind and Food from Northern Laos. But we barely opened the books. We barely cooked (we barely cooked jaeow, I should say—she somehow managed to whip up a delicious batch of potato-leek soup for us to savor amid all of our other non-jaeow-making endeavors). We never got to the lemongrass, the ginger, the peanuts. We never touched the big bag of frozen homegrown chiles she’d been saving specifically for jaeow. I looked around and thought: we’ve made a mess of the kitchen.
But we made a masterpiece of the night.
Because we had oodles of fun, and sometimes the fulfillment of plans isn’t most important in life.
In the end, we did succeed with two fiery batches (pictured at top): a great, smoky, grilled tomato/chile/garlic jaeow; and a salty jaeow with dried red chiles and fried shallots.
How did we do it? My friend wanted a recipe, something to retrieve for any future attempts at re-creation. I told her we didn’t follow precise instructions. But I promised to write it all in a blog post, and then she’d have it on record.
So here goes:
Dried red chile & shallot jaeow
We began with two big handfuls of dried red chiles like these. I tossed them into a hot wok with a little oil and stir-fried until crisp and warm but not blackened. I sliced, very thinly, two large shallots and stir-fried them in enough oil to cover (peanut would be best for this). It all went into the food processor, along with a good dose of sea salt, and that’s it. Of course, traditionally, it’s all pounded with mortar and pestle. You’re aiming for a combined smoky flavor from the dried chiles with the delightful fragrance of shallots. Use on anything you want—but especially Asian-style noodle soup.
Jaeow Mak Len (grilled tomato/chile/garlic jaeow)
Here, we began with a few cups of plum-sized tomatoes, two heads of peeled garlic cloves (locally grown varieties are best, as they tend to be juicier with a much fresher, more potent taste), and a few cups of green and yellow chiles. I’ve made this jaeow with just about any type of fresh chile I happen to have on hand (obviously heat levels will vary accordingly). That night, we had gueros and jalapenos. And they were hot.
We skewered the ingredients (using metal; if you use bamboo, be sure to soak them first or they will burn) and grilled over very hot coals. If you happen to have a tool like this, use it. It allows you great control over your vegetables as they cook. You want them slightly charred but not ruined. After the veggies cooled, we removed the charred bits (Some people are really finicky about removing every little bit of pepper skin. I’m not.) and put them into a food processor with several glugs of fish sauce (you can use salt instead). Typically this recipe would include cilantro, but neither one of us had it, and guess what: it really didn’t need it. It’s one of the great things about jaeow: you’re allowed to experiment, to improvise.
With just a few twists, I think this recipe could easily morph into a Mexican-style salsa. Cumin? Lime? Try it. Eat it with sticky rice, eat it with corn chips. Eat it with friends.