Luang Prabang is an enchanting little city in northern Laos located in a valley at the confluence of two rivers- the Mekong and the Nam Khan.
Partly because of its isolation it has retained its centuries old culture and strong Buddhist spirituality. Visitors flock there to visit the temples ( thirty four still survive) and meander through the French colonial streets or take a leisurely boat trip along the Mekong stopping off here and there to visit little fishing villages where they supplement their income gathering and drying a nutritious river weed or spinning, dying and hand weaving beautiful Lao textiles.
Another village is famous for Lao Lao, a lethal home brewed rice whiskey and if you fancy you can buy a snake preserved in whiskey as a souvenir!
Luang Prabang also has possibly the most tranquil Night Market in Asia. Hundreds of people from local villages sell handcrafts, Hmong appliqued blankets, bamboo lamps, silver jewellery, handmade paper, embroidered bags and lots more but for the purpose of this article I’m going to concentrate on the food.
Lao food is unique, a wonderfully diverse cuisine that incorporates the Lao taste for sweet, sour, bitter and salty.
It’s very rare to see someone eating alone in Laos, eating always seems to be a very convivial affair with everyone gathered around the table to enjoy the meal however simple, together, Low woven bamboo tables are still popular, family and friends sit on the ground and squeeze up so everyone fits and can reach and dip into the selection of dishes on the table.
This will always include lots of sticky rice, (known in the West as glutinous rice) noodles and a soup usually based on chicken, fish and pork, a variety of vegetables and fresh herbs. The concept of starter, main course and dessert doesn’t exist.
Laos is a very poor country so in order to get enough protein into their diet, people have had to eat anything that walks, slithers, flies or swims. The protein supply often comes from river fish though in the mountainous north they have had to adapt to eating such ‘delicacies’ as rats, moles, bats and frogs. Even the larvae of wasps and flying and crawling insects, bugs, ants, and ant eggs don’t escape the wok. Absolutely, no part of any animal killed for food is wasted, every single scrap of pig, chicken and fish is used and the head of a chicken or a fish is considered to be a great delicacy in a soup.
The offal is used in all sorts of inventive ways, often in noodle soups or barbecued over charcoal in the little clay outdoor cooking stoves that are still widely used.
The dishes are all shared and everybody dips in with their spoons, forks or hands.
Chopsticks are only used for noodle soups and dishes.
Several uniquely Lao flavours are a bit of an acquired taste, a Luang Prabang speciality called Jeo bong is a very popular chilli dip where the recipe calls for 50 dried red chillies to start with!
The locals love to dip everything from barbecued vegetables to dried buffalo skin in this perky paste.
Pa Dak is another distinctive flavour, it’s made from rotting fish and anchovies with salt and water added, most households would have had an earthenware jar with this pungent mixture rotting away by their front door-step but nowadays many people just buy it or shrimp paste from the Pa Dak ladies in the Market, just follow your nose to find them!
Pa Dak is not only a brilliant flavour enhancer but also another vital source of inexpensive protein.
Wild foods like bamboo shoots, fern fronds, fungi and wild honey, foraged from the hills and forests are also incorporated into the menu in season and then there are the delicious fruits, mangoes, papaya, pineapple, ramboutan jackfruit, bananas…
There are several cooking school options in Luang Prabang, The highly recommended Tamarind was full so I booked into the Tamnak Lao Cooking school for a day course .We started at 10am with a fascinating tour of the Market to learn about Lao ingredients. On our return to the timber and rattan cooking school, our teachers Leng Lee and Phia Yang taught us two dishes, Luang Prabang Salad and Feu Khua, sticky rice noodles with chicken and vegetables which we then cooked ourselves and ate for lunch, both were delicious and easy to reproduce at home.
At the beginning of the afternoon session, Leng and Phia demonstrated five dishes for us plus how to cook sticky rice in the traditional bamboo steamer. We could choose three each to cook for dinner, I had never made banana leaf salad before so I chose to make that plus the fried aubergine and pork dish with the unpronounceable name – do try it, it’s totally delicious and the chicken and chilli casserole which is really more like a casserole than a soup, We had a terrific day and I was delighted to learn a variety of Lao dishes that I can easily reproduce to make a little Lao feast at home…
Those of us who haven’t got a banana tree in our garden can substitute chicory instead, it works surprisingly well.
Luang Prabang Salad
This salad is always served at all special occasions. Learn how to make delicious but very easy mayonnaise that never curdles.
This recipe serves one or two people if eaten alone. If eaten with other dishes, the salad would be enough for three or four people.
a mixture of Salad Leaves
fresh Watercress sprigs
1 sliced tomato
1 sliced medium cucumber
1 tablespoon crushed unsalted peanuts
1 tablespoon mince pork (optional)
2 hardboiled eggs
1 sliced hardboiled egg (if unable to slice, quarter the egg)
2 tablespoons olive or sunflower oil
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon white pepper – finely ground black pepper can also be used ¼ teaspoon salt coriander for garnish (cilantro)
First, prepare the mayonnaise. Take two of the hardboiled egg yolks and place in a food processor, blender or pestle and mortar Add the oil, vinegar, sugar, pepper and salt slowly Blend until smooth.
Make the Salad
Spoon half the mayonnaise onto the salad leaves and watercress and mix well. Place the salad leaves/watercress on a plate or in a bowl in a pyramid shape. Place the sliced cucumber around the bottom and the sliced tomato above it. Place the sliced egg on top of the cucumber and tomato. If the egg has been cut in quarters, place them around the bottom of the salad. Use any left-over egg white to garnish the salad.
Sprinkle the crushed peanuts and some of the coriander on the top of the salad.
If using the pork, fry it in a little oil and when cooked place it over the top of the salad
TIP: if you like the flavour of mint you can add it to this salad, we did and it was delicious.
Feu Khua – Fried Sticky Rice Noodles with Chicken and Vegetables
A great tasting dish to learn how to cook with rice noodles which are so popular throughout Asia.
This recipe serves one person.
100g (3½oz) chicken breast cut into pieces*
150g (5oz) rice noodles**
2 cherry tomatoes
Or 1 large tomato***
¼ onion quartered and sliced thinly
2 cloves garlic (crushed in a mortar or use a garlic crusher)
120g (4 ¼ oz) Asian green vegetables ****
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 ½ tablespoons oil
½ cup (4 fl ozs) water
1 teaspoon corn flour mixed with enough water to make a thin paste ½ teaspoon soy sauce
1 lime or lemon
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
Place the rice noodles in a bowl with cold water for 30 minutes or for 4-5 minutes in hot water. Swirl with a spoon so they separate. Drain well. Place the 2 tablespoons of oil in a wok, and heat. Put the noodles in the wok and stir for several minutes until the noodles are well cooked (beginning to turn golden) Break the egg onto the noodles and spread all over the top, until the noodles are coated with egg. Turn and continue to cook until crisp on both sides. Place the noodle/egg mixture onto a plate, cut into pieces. Place the remaining oil into the wok with the crushed garlic and stir until the garlic begins to change colour. Add the chicken and stir fry until cooked through. Add the green vegetables and ¼ to ½ cup of water (this helps cook the vegetables) keep stir frying until the water begins to reduce.
Add corn flour, a little water, oyster sauce, soy sauce, tomatoes, salt pepper, sugar and mix well. Add the onion – shouldn’t be overcooked
Keep stir frying quickly and when the onion is cooked and the ingredients are well mixed, add the rice noodle/egg mixture and stir fry well together. Place on a plate to serve.
As side dishes, quarter the lime or lemon and slice a chilli thinly.
Put both in a small dish. You can also put a tablespoon of soy sauce in a small dish with quarter sliced chilli added.
*Chicken, pork or beef can be used
**If fresh rice noodles are not available, use any other type of noodle as long as they are not too thin. If using dried noodles, before use, soak them until they soften.
*** If using cherry tomatoes, cut them in quarters. If using large tomatoes, cut into six pieces.
**** Use any Asian green vegetables or other available green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, rocket (arugula) and carrots – a great way to use up those vegetables that sit in the fridge.
TIP: Use more or less garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, salt, pepper and chilli to your taste.
Hicken Larp (Chicken Salad)
Very delicious traditional Lao cold salad – the same recipe can also be made from fish, tofu or pork
This recipe serves one person or three or four if served with other dishes.
200g (7oz) chicken mince – no fat (1 large chicken breast with skin removed)
1 chicken/pork cube or ¼ teaspoon powdered stock, mixed with 2 tablespoons of hot water
1 medium lime/lemon – juiced
2 tablespoons hot water
2 tablespoons banana flower finely sliced, rinsed well in water and drained (optional)*
2 kaffir lime leaves – sliced thinly
1 spring onion (long green onion) – sliced thinly
2 shallots (or quarter of a purple Spanish onion) – sliced thinly
2 garlic cloves – finely sliced
1 bunch of coriander cut up finely – green part only (ciltrano)
2 stalks of lemon grass thinly sliced – white part only
6 saw tooth leaves or large rocket (arugula) leaves – thinly sliced ¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon rice powder**
1 teaspoon chilli powder or fresh chillies to taste if you like it hot ¼ teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon fried garlic
1 tablespoon fried shallots
Put the chicken stock or pork stock, chicken mince, half the lime juice and water in a wok.
Place over a low heat and keep stirring until the mince is cooked through and the liquid has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and place in a bowl. Add the banana flower. Mix well.
Add the kaffir lime leaves, spring onion, shallot, garlic, coriander, lemon grass and rocket leaves. Mix well. Add salt, rice powder, chilli powder, fish sauce, fried garlic and fried shallot. Mix thoroughly. Finally when the salad is thoroughly mixed, pour the remainder of the lime/lemon juice over the salad, give it a quick stir through and serve with a garnish of coriander leaves.
*If you cannot buy banana flower, you can replace it by using burghul (Middle Eastern cracked wheat) – or you can leave it out altogether and just add a bit more chicken. Keep in mind that most Lao who live overseas make larp without the banana flower and it tastes the same.
Banana flower only adds texture not flavour, Just add a bit more chicken, pork, etc. to the dish while cooking.
**Rice powder can be purchased in any good Asian supermarket and comes in small cellophane bags. If you cannot buy rice powder, it can be made by dry-frying raw sticky rice or long grain rice until it begins to turn golden – approximately 10 minutes – Then whizz it in a kitchen blender or pound in a mortar until a fine powder forms. Store in an airtight glass jar.
***You can usually buy deep fried onion and garlic in Asian supermarkets, but you can make your own by slicing Asian shallots (small brown or purple onions) and garlic very finely and deep frying them in a wok until they turn golden in colour. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
Khua Maak Kheua Gap Moo – Fried Eggplant with Pork
Very easy dish to make and very delicious too.
This recipe serves one person.
3 large onions (if small use three extra)
1 Asian eggplant – long eggplant*
2-3 garlic cloves – depends on your taste
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
2 ½ tablespoons oil
Cut the spring onions into 2cm lengths. If the white part is large, also cut in half lengthways. Cut the eggplant into 3cm lengths, then cut each piece in half lengthwise. (if using European eggplant cut into cubes) Crush the garlic in a mortar or use a garlic press.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a wok, add the eggplant and stir fry until it begins to soften and turn a golden colour. Do not overcook and make the eggplant too soft. Note if you want to use less oil, use 1 tablespoon oil and add extra water so the eggplant softens and is highly golden in colour. Place the cooked eggplant in a dish, sieve and set aside. Place the remaining oil into the wok with the crushed garlic and stir until the garlic begins to change colour. Add the pork and stir frying until cooked. Add the salt and sugar.
Keep stir frying and add the oyster sauce, onion and cooked eggplant.
Keep stir frying until the onions begin to soften – it must be cooked but still firm. Taste and add more salt if required.
*Asian eggplants have many names, such as Chinese or Japanese eggplants. Asian eggplants do not need to be salted before cooking. If you get one with lots of black seeds, throw it out as it cannot be made edible.
The Asian eggplant can be replaced with 1 medium European eggplant (aubergine). If you are using a European eggplant and it is full of black seeds, salt it before use. To salt sprinkle the cut eggplant with salt and leave for 20 minutes until the moisture is drawn out of the eggplant then wash, dry and use per recipe. You can now buy aubergine (eggplant) without black seeds which does not require salting.
Freedom From Hunger
Soup for Life – Gorta’s annual fundraising campaign was launched at Ballymaloe Cookery School on Friday 13th February. Food entrepreneurs Cully and Sully are supporting ‘Soup for Life’ for the second year in a row; they have pledged to donate 5c per carton of soup during National Soup Week from Monday 5th to Sunday 11th March, 2011. Across Ireland 250 restaurant will donate €1 for each bowl of soup sold see www.soupforlife for list of participating restaurants.
If you want to get involved why not make a delicious pot of soup and invite some friends around, ask your guests to make a small donation to Gorta – for details of how to do this email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 1850 80 80 80
Mary Jo Mc Millin’s name may not be familiar to many but her restaurant and catering business in Oxford, OH, USA had a cult following and those who attended her classes gained a repertoire of delicious dishes and recipes that really worked. She in turn loves Ireland and has been visiting for over 30 years. Mary Jo was particularly famous for her braises and slow cooked dishes and of course her baking. She will be teaching a one day cookery course at Ballymaloe Cookery School next Saturday 10th March. Learn two fool-proof menus and the secrets of several of Mary Jo’s sought after cakes and pastries and French bread. Phone 021 4646785 to book or online www.cookingisfun.ie