Vilaylac Thepvongsa, at home, at work
What a tragic month for Asia: Burma. China. The price of food. I’m listening to Melissa Block breaking down as she describes the search for bodies, the stench of death, in China’s earthquake rubble, and I’m having flashbacks to the 2004 tsunami. When does it end?
Today, I just don’t feel like dwelling on it all. So today, I give you brighter thoughts. I will tell you about Vilaylac and her little Lao place….
I’ve had a thing for pickled pork ever since I first ate Vilaylac Thepvongsa’s savory salad at her Vientiane restaurant. She doesn’t actually make her own pickled pork—a long and complex process, she says, but she buys her cousin’s homemade variety. She smashes the soft meat with palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, peanuts, chopped green onions and herbs, and rice that has been cooked in coconut milk, then fried. She spreads the mixture on a bed of lettuce, tops it with whole roasted red chiles and serves it with a mound of basil, mint and lettuce. I can’t get enough.
Vilaylac’s pickled pork salad
So I return again and again to Vilaylac’s cramped little restaurant across from the Ongteu Temple. She tells me the history of her place, which is also her home. A decade ago, she ran a big restaurant on the Mekong, with 40 tables and sunset views. But then work began on the main riverfront road, and the area became a mucky mess. Taxes went up, business went down, and Vilaylac temporarily closed. She re-opened in her own living room, just a few tables, with a bedroom off to the side and her kitchen behind.
Vilaylac grew up with a brother. “I learned volleyball, I learned basketball, but I never learned cooking.” Today she reads cookbooks and watches food shows on TV, but that’s it; the rest is in her head and on her tongue, the flavors of home.
She invites me into the kitchen, where she uses a two-burner tabletop stove sitting on concrete bricks. To cook sausage, she has a tiny electric grill. Aside from these, she works with basic tools and traditional utensils. Vilaylac has made a life of this kitchen, “because I love so much.”
Vilaylac cooking fish
Vilaylac shows me how to make her version of stir-fried fish with chile, basil and soy sauce. It’s a beautiful dish with finely balanced salty, sweet and aromatic flavors. And it’s easily re-created in most any kitchen:
Stir-Fried Fish with Chile and Basil (Based on Vilaylac Thepvongsa’s recipe)
A healthy portion of white fish, thinly sliced in small pieces (anything that holds together well, without an overpowering fishy flavor)
Lots of garlic
Hot red chile, sliced thinly
Pinch of palm sugar
Pinch of bouillon or 1/4 cup soup stock
Drizzle of dark soy sauce
Heap of fresh holy basil*
Heat the garlic and chile in a hot wok with oil. Stir. Toss in the fish and stir-fry quickly on high heat. Add a little water, sugar and soup or bouillon. Stir, then add basil and soy sauce, primarily for color. That’s it! It’s quick.
The dish should be hot, but not be overly sweet. Vilaylac says this is similar to the Thai stir-fry with chile and basil, “but different cooking. In Thai, more oil, more sugar. In Lao, little oil, little sugar, more chile.”
* Holy basil is available at Asian markets. You can substitute Thai basil, but it won’t have the same distinctive aroma of holy basil.
Ban Vilaylac (Vilaylac’s House) Restaurant
On the small road between Fangoum Quay and Setthathirath Road, across from Ongteu Temple