Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Getting Fresh in Laos

I was not going to let some unnatural catfish the size of blimps and deep-fried frog intimidate me. So what if we experienced that one country south!? This was Laos! Green, quiet, friendly, emerging Laos. And I was ready to demystify its cuisine through trial and taste, to get my hands dirty with whatever local ingredients make-up the repertoire of this jungle-river-rice land. Cooking classes were on the map again in Laos, and I was optimistic -- and Andy a fantastic sport -- so we signed up for one in Ventiane.

Our class started with a trip to a local talat, or market, to learn about ingredients in the ripe flesh. Lao markets, like Cambodia, India and Thailand, are nothing like Safeway or Whole Foods. Perhaps you've visited an Asian market in the States...but that's only tame foreshadowing of the real markets of Asia! Here, the markets where citizens do their daily shopping squeeze into open-air buildings roped off into tiny stalls and burst onto the streets, with fruits and vegetables spilling out on display like colored confetti. The markets have cement floors that are wet with constant draining from hoses and God knows what else, no health deparment codes or plastic packaging revealing freshness or fat, and there are a bizillion products giving off sharp smells that range from shrimp paste to sugar cane, incense to intestines, cooking oil to coffee.

Dai, our teacher and head cook at Thongbay Guesthouse which offered the class, chaperoned us at the market and she moved about the body-width aisles of chaos like a pro, her long black hair swinging with purpose and coffee-dark eyes intent on destination.~> read more (with photos)

 First, to her dry goods vendor, where she picked up cooking oil, palm sugar, mayonnaise and fish sauce. (they have fresh fish sauce in laos, but foreigners can't eat it without risking a bout of parasites. if you saw it, you'd understand.) Then, to her rice vendor who had brown woven baskets heaped high with white rice, sticky rice, purple rice, yellow rice, jasmine rice and, frankly, more kinds of rice than Andy or I ever knew existed. Dai ran her slender fingers through the grains of specific baskets, barked out an amount, then placed her Lao kips directly on the white rice in payment as the vendor weighed it on primitive scales. For some reason, the bills of kip never touched hand-to-hand in the market, only on top of the food from buyer to seller. Very strange! All the more reason to be dousing our hands in Purel whenever possible!!!

Andy and I tagged along like kids in any grocery store, asking lots of questions and accidentally getting lost because we looked at some strange thing too long, though we managed not to beg Dai for any unnecessary treats like Oreos or Captain Crunch. Ha! If they'd only had that...sigh. The produce of Lao is varied, abundant and fresh, and it looks beautiful clustered in rattan baskets, piled to heaping as if there was such a bumper crop they had to squeeze it all in to sell at the market. I saw at least 12 different shapes of eggplant, mysterious root vegetables and rhizomes, and pumpkins that range from soft green to solid orange. I was also stunned by the chromatic jungle of fresh greens in the market: cabbages, lettuces, river weeds, herbs, vine plants, algae and more. Not always for the faint of heart, but better than the meat section. Enough said on the topic -- you can view the photos.

And there were surprises to uncover...like dill! Who would have thought dill was alive and flourishing in Laos, and used to season omelettes and stir frys? And twelve kinds of basil? Dai let me taste a few leaves and they spanned from spicy to sweet to licorice to peppery. Myriad varieties of mushrooms made another section of the market look like the moon, all gray-brown-white with bumpy and porous textures. I'm not sure if they're a legacy of the French or not, but over 13 varieties grow in the rice paddies that carpet the country and make awesome additions in Lao soup, spring rolls, stir frys and more.

Laden with bursting plastic bags of fresh ingredients, we piled back in the tuk-tuk with Dai and returned to her garden to learn the secrets of Lao cooking. Our backyard cooking school was unexpected and quite the fairy tale atmosphere for crushing ginger, dicing chili, slicing green papaya and smashing a citrus rainbow of ingredients into salad with a mortar and pestle! Andy and I, ever savants of the spring roll, chose that as our first dish and were startled by the flaky-crispy-crunchy cyclinders of deliciousness that emerged from our hands...with Dai's help, of course. Filled with basic Asian vegetables like carrots, mushrooms and onion and yet more, we think these rocked the house because there was no cabbage (can overwhelm other vegetables), there was potato for increased mashy-smooth texture and taste, and a fresh egg mixed in gently before we rolled them in rice paper that made for an extra custardy inside. Dai also had us chopping away with special Lao tools that put a ruffled edge on vegetables, kind of like crinkle-cut french fries, and we loved their decorative but sharp touch. Later that day, we went back to the market and bought two so we can, hopefully, replicate the fancy chopping and fine food at home.

The Lao kitchen is not only all about fresh ingredients -- it's about the fresh, open fire as well. Everything of importance is cooked over a charcoal flame, not birquettes either so I don't want to think about the pretty forests here, and deep frying our spring rolls was no exception. Dai fired up the coals, fanned them with an electric fan plugged in from the house kitchen with an extension cord that ran across the leafy garden, and they sizzled away in palm oil. (don't say it! my heart has already chided me. but when in rome...) After copious draining, Andy and I enjoyed the springy, fried loveliness with an easy, fresh sauce of lime juice, palm sugar, crushed peanut and white vinegar. Mmmmmmm...Heaven!!! Or should that be Nirvana??? Whatever. They were awesome...and we have the recipe!

Please view a short gallery here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/VientianeCC


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't wait to come to your house for dinner and those yummy spring rolls! I can't believe how much you are learning about all the food that you love! Love, Wendy

3:59 PM  

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