About the Rambler



Welcome to my ramblings on dinner & drink, people & places, our planet’s health & the future of food. I’m a journalist, author and media trainer. My kitchen forever smells of garlic and curry. And much like my mother, I start thinking of dinner long before breakfast….

Brighter Horizons: Eating at Vilaylac’s

Vilaylac A

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.

pickled pork

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 B

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)

Ingredients:

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*

Method:

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
Vientiane
856-21-222049
vilaylac81@hotmail.com

8 comments to Brighter Horizons: Eating at Vilaylac’s

  • Hi Karen,
    Thanks for the post. The news coming out of Asia is really depressing indeed.

    Am I right in thinking that this dish would be made with river fish, since Laos is inland? What would you use as a substitute in the States? I am a transplanted beach kid now living in the Midwest, and I find the lack of ocean fish here really hard to deal with. It’s available, but if it’s fresh, it comes with an enormous carbon footprint, which makes me feel guilty about eating it. I’m trying to learn more about freshwater fish and how to prepare it.

  • Hi Tisha,
    Yes, this recipe is made with river fish. And I have to admit I have trouble with fish in the US, particularly inland. Especially when environment is such a big factor. I’ve been spoiled by wonderful Southeast Asian fish, caught daily, bought at the local market; big, fleshy fish that are full of flavor but don’t smell so fishy. And no tiny bones…. you will never find an equal here. I grew up on the Midwestern Friday night fish fry, and I’m having a hard time thinking in those terms to come up with a local fish that would fit really well with this recipe. That said, I’d probably go with something like a tilapia. And I’d consult the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch regional guides. You can find the Central US version at http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_regional.aspx?region_id=6. I’ve found it to be a valuable resource, listing best choices, good alternatives and what to avoid.

    Or… try something else and see what it tastes like. The great thing about this recipe is that the basil and chile add bold flavors and deep dimensions to the dish. You might be able to toss in an entirely different fish and make it work. You can also substitute meat.

  • Mmm, sounds delicious. I don’t think I’ve ever had holy basil with fish, but I like the idea of it.

    I was wondering though- when Vilaylac describes the difference between Thai cooking and Lao cooking, is she describing this dish in specific, or differences between Thai and Lao cooking in general? I’d always thought that Thai food used a lot more chili, and (in my limited experience) that Lao food used more sugar to counter the chili that was added. -X

  • Xander, thanks for bringing this up. Vilaylac was speaking specifically about this dish, but also in general about Thai and Lao food. (She also has visited Cambodia, and told me she loves the food but always has to ask for more lime and chile.) Yet, in recent months, I’ve heard from so many people the impression that Lao food is much milder than Thai. I have to say, in my experience, it’s a huge misconception. If you’re eating bland, sweet or mild Lao food, it’s most likely prepared that way because the cook *thinks* that is the way you would prefer to eat it. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single Lao person I know who does not LOVE hot food. Visit any rural or local market and try a dish – any dish. Chances are, it will set you on fire.

    Sugar is an interesting note, too. Aside from desserts, I can’t think of many traditional Lao dishes that use much sugar, if at all. This topic came up in a recent cooking class I took at Luang Prabang’s Tamarind (which is excellent, by the way). First page of our take-home recipe packet was a discussion of “What makes Lao cuisine different?” Sweetness is considered bad for the body, hence little sugar is used. But bitterness – in vegetables and herbs (and beef or buffalo bile) – is considered a healthy combat to malaria and other diseases. So, in addition to heat, Lao food has a strong bitter element.

    Funny, on my latest trip to Laos, to Khammouane province, I met a guy who loves chile so much that he eats it in huge quantities, to his stomach’s detriment. He frequently suffers digestive troubles, but he simply can’t quit gulping down a plate of jaew or hot Lao curry. “I know, I know,” he kept saying. “I must stop.”

  • Souavarat

    It’s an addiction! Chilies are in almost everything. If its not incorporated in some form or fashion, it can usually be added whole to adorn the dish as garnish and more often than not, those garnishes will be eaten. Well, in my family, the garnishes usually get eaten.

    The use of sugars and sweeteners are most often used to counter balance sour elements in a dish; sauces definitely. Traditional lao dishes like laabs, gois, and the country stews never use any kind of sweeters. Soups as well usually don’t get a spoonful of sugar to added to them…although i must add that when it comes to noodle soups(khao piyag, khao poon…), stir-fried “pho” noodles, caramelized dishes(thom kem), sugar does play an integral part. Certain yums(seafood, innards…) and the toms(green papaya, long beans, green mango…) are always with sugar.

    These dishes that do utilize sugar are what my dad would deem “city cuisine” as oppose to more “country grub”…he’s an old, set-in-his-ways, sticky rice and jeow pa-dak sort of guy, so he’s pretty much locked in his mindset of what’s consider what in terms of traditional Lao foods.

    But seriously, the chiles thing is crazy! My father has finally succumb to the effects of years and decades of over indulgence in the fiery fruit and he has to cease or at least cut back…peptic ulcers and other such gastro-intestinal complications will come to head.

    But you know what? It does not stop him from growing several dozen chile plants every year for loyal chili-heads who look to his garden every summer for their chili fix. The Arkansas summers produce an abundance of ripe, red, yellow, and orange varietals that i cannot name to save my life. The majority of the loyal fans buy pounds and pounds of fresh chilies and freeze or dry them for usage later on in the year. Alas my dad makes due with less chilies in his diet.

    Ultimately, it comes down to personal tastes. As with everything, one girls hot and sour green papaya tom might be another girls sweet and salty, hot and sour green papaya tom…hmmm? i’m not sure if my analogy worked all that well there but i hope you get the gist what i’m saying.

    Thanks again Karen. Always informative and interesting.

  • Souavarat, thanks so much for commenting. I love the story of your father and his chiles, and I fully agree it’s an addiction. I met many people in Nagaland who feel the same way. But they also spoke of *their* chile’s ability to cure stomach ailments.

    I might have to keep your father in mind as a chile supplier!

  • Vilaylac’s pickled pork salad looks fabulous, and plenty hot!
    Aside from a couple of trips to Japan, I’ve never been to Asia, but the word “chiles” conjures up for me the sweet and pungent autumn smell of New Mexico Hatch green chiles being roasted in a big barrel in the parking lot of the super market in Taos. Can’t get them like that anywhere else! I could eat them for breakfast…

  • Karen

    Annie,
    New Mexico greens are an entirely different ballgame! People were just beginning to roast their chiles last year when we left the country, so we missed most of the season. But we did catch a good 10 days or so of that quintessential New Mexican scent on the air. Beautiful.

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