If you’ve read my previous post — a 9-day diary of Lao village food — you’ll fully understand the importance of chile in every Lao meal. And you’ll recognize that chile takes the form of jaeow, a paste that’s pounded with mortar and pestle.
One morning, I follow Huang and Louen, the two cooks, into their thatch hut to see just what sort of magic happens in there. I expect a simple process—but not quite as simple as this: Huang peels the skin off a clump of fresh garlic, the homegrown type with tiny cloves and purplish stems. Into the mortar they go. Meanwhile, Louen de-stems about 25 hot little red chiles that have been cooked in ash. She pats them twice (to remove the ash), then into the mortar they go. So, too, do a few teaspoons of salt and copious amounts of MSG (common in Lao food). Louen pounds the mix on the packed mud floor while the fire burns hot in the corner.
That’s it. It takes 30 seconds. So simple. Louen rinses the mortar with river water and tosses all that extra essence of the pounded ingredients into a wok atop the fire. Then she adds that cooked water into the jaeow, and we have our mealtime companion.
Garlic, chiles, salt and MSG–four ingredients, yet the flavor is so much more dynamic than that. The secret is a combination of smoky chile and fresh, young local garlic (as opposed to big cloves from China, which are popping up all over the region, particularly in Thailand—but not here… another story, another day).
In Laos, there is a name for every type of chile paste. I’ve decided to call this one Yum! jaeow.